“We don’t laugh because we’re happy; we’re happy because we laugh.”William James
My simplified definition of Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure. Lately I have seen study after study that demonstrates whatever people do, if it makes them happy, they can do it better. Most studies show this beneficial effect is long lasting—well beyond the end of the pleasure.
Some of these reports just document the obvious. We all know that singing makes us feel better. It releases endorphins which are the brains natural feel good chemicals. These endorphins hang around for a while and thus have a lasting effect on general well-being. Those people with a sense of general well-being are proven to do better at whatever chore they tackle. Thus they are more successful and enjoying their success the cycle continues.
This same concept has been proven for laughing, dancing and, of course, exercise. Now a recent report from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia claims that reading an enjoyable book produces measurable changes in brain function. They used fMRI scanners during and after reading to find that changes in the brain linger for several days. Emory’s Professor Berns said: ‘It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last.’
UK researchers found the obvious: “living near green, open spaces affects our mental health in a positive way”. But they then go on to demonstrate it is not just a mood boost but carries a sustained positive effect into many factors of life. In a more extreme example another study found that if a person’s brain was artificially shocked in certain places, their math skills were substantially improved for up to six months. I can see students lining up for a jolt of electricity instead of caffeine before big exams.
Along that same line, in an attempt to boost the school performance of children from low-income families the US government is now spending beaucoup bucks to get parents to spend more time talking with their infants. They have found that children as young as 18 months develop word capacity by being spoken to in sentences so as to build word associations. Further, those children who have higher word capacity do better in all aspects of school.
Avoid the negative:
Briefly, on the other side of the coin, science has also proven that negative events and thoughts produce unwanted results. They cause our brain to prepare for fight or flight rather than to think. Stress, anxiety, anger and fear diminish cognitive abilities and cause a self-centered focus on limited solutions. In contrast Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships maintains that positive emotions heightens activity in the prefrontal area of our brains which is associated with “creative thinking, cognitive flexibility, and the processing of information.”
To bring us back to the Hedonism is Healthy theme: Similar brain activity has been documented for chocolate, the universal comfort food and red wine, my favourite health food. That chocolate has caffeine and wine has alcohol doesn’t stop hedonists from improving their lives one pleasure at a time. I suggest you chose your own quote or platitude as a personal guideline. “Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative.”, “Maximize pleasure; minimize pain.”, “Life is too short for this sh*t!” And for those who think the pursuit of pleasure to advance one’s success is too selfish I refer you to
Dalai Lama XIV
“Only the development of compassion and understanding for others can bring us the tranquility and happiness we all seek.”
I wrote the above article in 2014 for a newspaper that no longer exists.
More on laughter and humour for ancient Greeks in this post.
For my take on how this ties into longevity read Longevity: The Greek Island Way