Dr. Sanjay Gupta: Rewiring your brain for happiness

the obsession method

CNN  — 

Happiness is an idea that has been woven into the fabric of humanity, going back to ancient civilizations.

Roughly 250 years ago, it made its way into this country’s Declaration of Independence as an unalienable right: “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Although we’ve grappled with it for millennia, the concept of happiness and how to attain it remains pretty elusive. Some might see it as having a sense of general well-being. For others, it might be feeling a spark of unadulterated joy. Yet others might find happiness chasing a dream and reaching it. It might be some combination of these – or something else entirely.

I like to think of myself as a pretty happy guy. I have three wonderful teenage daughters and a wife, Rebecca, with whom I just celebrated a 20th anniversary; I’m close to my parents, my “baby” brother and his family. I have moments of complete contentment and a career that feels meaningful to me as a practicing neurosurgeon and CNN’s chief medical correspondent.

But I also realize it’s not that simple. There are other layers to happiness and a lot of nuance within those layers.

A challenging question is, what are the best ways to pursue happiness? Are we born with a stable, set level, or is it something we can cultivate, increase and strengthen? If it’s the latter, how can we successfully go about it?

Even though “the pursuit of Happiness” is built into the country’s founding, it seems that many Americans are just not that good at it. In the most recent World Happiness Report, the United States dropped to No. 23 (from No. 15 the previous year), marking the first time in the report’s 12-year history that the US was not in the top 20 happiest countries.

A separate Gallup poll, also from 2024, found that less than half (47%) of Americans are “very satisfied” with their personal lives.

It’s not just Americans. As it turns out, humans as a species may not excel at happiness. This may surprise you, but happiness is not necessarily something that we are genetically primed to attain. We have to really work at it.

“If anything, natural selection kind of doesn’t really care about our happiness that much. I mean, natural selection’s job is just to keep us alive and keep us around to reproduce. And I think it does that notby making us feel these moments of contentment but maybe just the opposite,” cognitive scientist Dr. Laurie Santos told me recently.

“It does that by building in a negativity bias. So we’re just a little bit worried that there could be a tiger around the corner, that we could get shunned at work. And we’re kind of constantly on the alert for that,” she said.

Santos, who has a doctorate in psychology, is at Yale University, where she teaches Psychology and the Good Life, the most popular course in the university’s history, and is the host of “The Happiness Lab” podcast.

She is also the first guest on the 10th season of my podcast, “Chasing Life,” which kicked off this week. During this season, I talk to experts across a variety of disciplines about the scientific underpinnings of happiness — defining it, attaining it, maintaining it and increasing it — and its effects on our minds and bodies.

Listen to more of my conversation with Santos here.

The fact that we haven’t evolved to prioritize happiness may be why, despite being a generally happy person, I am also “constructively dissatisfied.” It’s a term I came up with on the fly while talking to Santos.

And here, I’m making a distinction between happiness and satisfaction. I’m still happy overall, but I think if I ever became satisfied, that might erode my happiness. That’s because, in my mind, satisfaction leads to complacency, which leads to stagnation. So, I seemingly have one of those personalities that needs – maybe even thrives on – dissatisfaction; being satisfied or complacent dampens my energy and enthusiasm.

The times when I feel happiest are when my constructive dissatisfaction propels me into motion, contributing to the betterment of a situation, whether it’s removing a brain tumor, finishing a documentary, working in my garden or even making dinner with my family.

Another guest this season of the podcast, health psychologist and author Kelly McGonigal, said the term made perfect sense to her. “Because dissatisfaction often is the soil in which growth and positive change happens,” she explained. “And dissatisfaction doesn’t actually have to be a lack of appreciation or gratitude. If you can envision a better future for yourself or others, it requires feeling a gap between how things are and how things could be.”

The “constructive” modifier before “dissatisfaction” is really important to me because I don’t want to just wallow in dissatisfaction; I want it to be useful. And as long as I don’t let the dissatisfaction grow too much, where it overpowers my emotional well-being, it works for me. But I have to admit, it can sometimes be a source of tension and a regular struggle.

“It strikes me that you’ve kind of gotten something out of the journey, gotten something out of that struggle,” Santos told me.

But she also warned about going overboard. “We can push ourselves and engage in challenges; those can be some of the happiest, most flow-inducing moments of our lives,” she said. “But we need to make sure we’re doing that in balance.”

She said that if we lose sleep, ignore friendships and make ourselves miserable, “maybe think about pushing yourself in a different way.”

Or find a way to mitigate the negative feelings. “The antidote to that would be to think what are ways that I could be on that important, purposeful journey but also bring a few more moments of true happiness into my life,” she said. “You know, maybe I need a little bit more laughter or some breaks, or I need to engage in that purposeful pursuit with a bit more social connection, or something like that.”

Tried and true strategies

It is true, according to Santos, that most of us have a set point of happiness. Mine is probably a little lower than my brother’s, for example; he is more outgoing and outwardly cheerful, even though we have very similar nature and nurture. Winning the lottery may raise your level of happiness for a while, and a tragedy may lower it, but most people will eventually settle back to their baseline after some time. Santos believes, however, that with some diligent and intentional practice, you can start to turn up your thermostat of happiness. It is what she teaches her students, as well.

For example, she not only lectures her students about the behavior and mindset shifts that are known to nudge up happiness, she makes her students practice them as homework. Instead of course requirements, she calls them course rewirements, because performing them on a regular basis actually can rewire you.

Among the low-hanging fruit, Santos recommends making sure you’re paying attention to healthy practices, like getting enough sleep and exercise and eating right. Also on the list: become a bit more “other”-oriented and try to develop an attitude of both gratitude and compassion outside yourself and internally, as well.

But my favorite bit of advice is to cultivate and nurture your social connections. “Every available study of happy people suggests that happy people are more social,” Santos said. And I would gather the opposite is also true: Social people are happier. “So we just need to make time for our friends and family members and loved ones.”

She’s not the only one to preach this. Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist who runs the Harvard Study of Adult Development — the longest study of adult life, running 85-plus years and counting — said the secret of both happiness andhealth boils down to good relationships.

How could that be? According to Waldinger, warm relationships (even just one) generally keep people’s bodies stronger and brains sharper, most likely because they help buffer us against the vicissitudes of life. This reduces our exposure to circulating stress hormones (which, when they are constantly high, wreak havoc on the body and mind) as well as dials down resulting inflammation, thought to be at the root of many chronic modern diseases. So — again, for most of us — the diseases of aging are mitigated, in part, by our happiness.

It doesn’t mean you have to become an extrovert or the life of a party, and it doesn’t mean you have to spend hour upon hour enduring superficial banter. But, Waldinger said, you should put some effort into consistently nurturing your relationships.

To do that, he recommends a few things: Be proactive and reach out to friends; establish routines like a weekly phone call; liven up longstanding relationships by doing new things; make new friends by connecting around shared interests; and get more comfortable striking up conversations with strangers. The recipe is going to vary from person to person and depend on what amount of social interaction feels right for you.

Having meaningful relationships really resonates with me. I know from my own life too that good, strong connections to family and friends are really important. And they are what ultimately make me happiest of all.

Listen to the full episode with happiness professor Laurie Santos here, and join us next week on the podcast when we explore the surprising link between happiness and anxiety. Find out why it’s a misunderstood emotion.


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