November 12, 2013

Cornell Professor Says Secret to Finding Happiness Is ‘Self-Knowledge’

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From self-help gurus to television personalities, many people have an opinion on how to find happiness. Prof. Shimon Edelman, psychology, has been exploring a more scientific approach to the subject — and says he believes people can only attain lasting happiness through “self-knowledge.”

In a book published last year, The Happiness of Pursuit: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About the Good Life, Edelman applied the idea that the brain operates like a computer — a concept termed “cognition is computation” — to study how people find fulfillment in their daily lives.

“The book is very much about self-knowledge, which is a prerequisite for anything you want to plan for yourself in life,” Edelman said. “We all drive cars without knowing very much about what’s going on under the hood. But, if you want the car to run better, you need to tune the motor and understand how it works.”

Edelman joins some of his fellow psychologists in advocating the idea that both the universe and individual minds operate like complex computers. He said he incorporates that line of logic in all areas of his research, including his studies on what comprises happiness.

“The universe is a giant computer computing its state from moment to moment, and that’s what makes the world go round,” Edelman said. “Cognition is computation which is done in particular ways that involve representing some part of the world by another part of it. It computes visual-auditory variables we are unconscious of.”

Happiness as a field of study has come to the forefront in the last two decades, according to Prof. James Cutting, psychology, chair of the psychology department. The growing popularity of research on happiness has helped spark growth in the self-help industry, Cutting said. But he and Edelman agreed that many publications pertaining to the topic do not have psychological grounds.

“Much of it is snake oil,” Edelman said. “And snake oil salesman have historically always done very well for themselves. Only some of it is grounded in psychological findings.”

Edelman — a Russian emigrant who completed his undergraduate, master’s and Ph.D. in Israel — has spent the majority of his long career researching other areas of study not pertaining to happiness. He has published dozens of essays in the field of psychology pertaining to topics ranging from vision to consciousness.

“Even though this is not my main area of research, I wrote the book because I thought I could offer a concise overview of claims about self-knowledge,” Edelman said.

With a book that stands at just more than 100 pages in length, Edelman has drawn attention from a variety of sources for his happiness research, having been featured in a Huffington Post article and in Cornell’s summer lecture series.

“It’s always good when professors in the department get this kind of attention for their research,” Cutting said. “There’s a lot more coverage now with new forms of media, and one of those things getting more coverage is psychology.”

Though Edelman has explored different areas of research since the publication of his book, he continues to stress the importance of studying happiness.

“We are getting to the truth of the matter,” Edelman said in a lecture given July 31 at Cornell’s summer sessions. “But the truth of the matter will not be simple. Minds are not simple.”

In the lecture, Edelman discussed the overlap between his research and theories laid out in the classics, citing figures from Aristotle to ancient Indian thinkers.