March 12, 2012

Professor’s Book Studies Happiness

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According to Prof. Shimon Edelman, psychology, it was the pursuit of happiness — and his new book — that brought a crowd of local Ithacans to Buffalo Street Books Thursday night.

Edelman’s new book, The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life, challenges the conventional divisions that exist between science and the humanities through studying the human brain’s decision-making abilities.

Edelman’s work also grapples with the idea of reconciling neuroscience with the everyday pursuit of happiness.

Edelman said that he disagrees with the tendency of some neuroscientists to treat different areas of the brain as distinct from one another in the various functions they perform. He called the approach “fashionable,” but said that this concept is overly technical and disregards what he called “the holistic nature of human social interaction.”

“Our minds do not end at our skulls,” Edelman said, referring to the Buddhist idea of a mental web of cause and effect that extends beyond the individual.

Edelman said in an interview that although he studies many Eastern philosophies, including Buddhism, he does not explicitly follow their teachings.

In fact, Edelman said he was recently faced with criticism from some Buddhists following an interview with Salon magazine in January, in which he disagreed with the Buddhist notion of transcending pleasure and pain. Edelman said he has previously asserted that those who are able to forgo physical pleasure and pain are not human.

Those offended by this assessment said Edelman’s ideas were a criticism of the Dalai Lama and other monks who spend their lives working to achieve transcendence. However, Edelman explained on Thursday that, in fact, he meant to say that the Dalai Lama’s ability to rise above the human condition of suffering and happiness makes him more, rather than less, human.

Edelman said the idea for the book came to him while he was on a sabbatical from teaching at Cornell.

Edelmen said that, while hiking, he found happiness as he enjoyed a particularly beautiful view. However, he felt a “nagging urge” to move on from the spot. That inexplicable urge, he said, is what inspired him to explore the relationship between neuroscience and happiness.

In his talk, Edelman compared the relationship between neuroscience and happiness to “catch-and-release” fishing. When one finds happiness, he said, it is not necessarily the catch that brings the joy, but rather the prospect of another catch in the future. According to Edelman, humans have the tendency to attain happiness but feel the need to let it go — much like his urge to move on from the beautiful view during his hike.

Edelman said he believes that the constant pursuit of happiness is an important factor in encouraging people to continue moving forward.

“Motivation has to be there for everything else to happen,” he said.

An audience member at the talk asked whether one could share happiness that is caught and released with others. Edelman responded that selfishness alone cannot be what motivates people, asserting that individuals cannot create thoughts without the influence of external factors.

Another person asked whether there exists a dark side to happiness.

“Not in my book,” Edelman said.

Original Author: Chris Leavitt