Emory Report
September 6, 2005
Volume 58, Number 2


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September 6 , 2005
Berns: Secret to human Satisfaction is a novel one

BY michael Terrazas

Human beings—Americans, especially—say they want to be happy. Indeed, the sacred “pursuit of happiness” has been encoded into this nation’s cultural consciousness since the Declaration of Independence. But Gregory Berns is not sure that happiness is all it’s cracked up to be.

“I don’t even like the word ‘happiness,’” said Berns, an associate professor who holds a joint appointment in psychiatry and biomedical engineering. “I think happiness is a passive emotion, mostly driven by luck and things that happen to you, like winning the lottery or having good genes. If you look at it that way, the ‘pursuit of happiness’ almost becomes a silly endeavor.”

A better word to describe human fulfillment might be “satisfaction”—which just so happens to be the title of Berns’ new book, Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment (Henry Holt, 2005). Comfortably situated in the relatively new field of neuroeconomics, the book takes a fresh look at what best stimulates the human brain’s reward system, and the answer is pretty simple: novelty.

Berns’ basic premise is that natural selection has constructed the human brain to strive for the greatest possible degree of predictability about the world around it—those creatures best able to predict events will naturally be best prepared to adapt—and novelty feeds this evolutionary jones by providing new information about the world.

“The world is never stable, never unsurprising,” Berns said. “Novelty allows you to build richer models of how everything works.”

Satisfaction is built on work by neuroscientists such as Philip Brickman, the Northwestern University social psychologist who studied lottery winners in the 1970s to determine whether their sudden windfalls actually made them happier people. Brickman coined the term “hedonic treadmill” to describe how people—following both positive experiences, such as winning $1 million, and negative ones like being left quadriplegic by a car accident—tend to adapt to their new circumstances (usually within a year) and return to the same baseline of happiness they had before.

But the shortcoming with research like Brickman’s, Berns points out, is that any self-reporting of “happiness” is by definition a subjective account; people may claim they’re happier than they are, or their report may be influenced by that day’s mood. So, in addition to performing some interesting qualitative research (more on that later), Berns and his colleagues also measured happiness and satisfaction using brain imaging technology like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

For example, the brain structure that appears principally involved in motivation and reward is the striatum, located on either side of the brain stem. Berns designed an experiment whereby volunteers were placed in an fMRI machine and given squirts of either water or Kool-Aid through a tube. The machine measured activity in their striatum, and Berns found that the most striatal activity (after squirts of both water and Kool-Aid) occurred under two circumstances: when it was unexpected, and when the volunteers had to “work” for it.

“Satisfying experiences are difficult,” Berns said. “Just compare how you feel after an hour of watching televsion, which requires no more effort than choosing which channel to watch, with how you feel after an hour of exercise. Or look at hobbies, which may be complicated and difficult but which give great amounts of satisfaction. These are trival examples next to the difficulties of work and life.”

Of course, the gap between measuring brain activity after a squirt of Kool-Aid and determining how humans find fulfillment is significant. To help traverse it, Berns also ventured into the field, studying people as diverse as crossword puzzle afficionados, world-renowned chefs (what, after all, is more satisfying than a truly exceptional meal?), ultra marathon runners and even visitors to S&M clubs.

“The satisfaction of these pursuits appeared to derive from doing something novel and tapped directly into the motivation centers of the brain,” Berns said. “In researching the myriad ways people find satisfaction, the book became a journey—literally across the world, but also inward to our deepest needs.”

Indeed, though Berns blanched at the “self-help” label, Satisfaction does provide the opportunity for people to better understand the neurological mechanisms that could underlie the “happiness” they’re likely searching for. Armed with that understanding, they could be better prepared to find it.

“Part of the reason I wrote it is to help people, to perhaps help them build a philosophy of what they want out of life,” Berns said. “With happiness, it’s not like there’s an end point—you’ll always adapt. So the key, I think, is to keep trying new things.”