Happiness is great. Man, I love it when I’m happy. (My wife and kids like it when I’m happy too!) Psychologically, you could easily say that being happy is my favorite place to be. I’m certainly not alone here. Lots of very wise folks throughout history, such as Aristotle and Augustine have said that happiness is the ultimate goal we all share. Today, I’d like for us to explore three interesting clues that I believe will directly shape the level of happiness you enjoy.
While I’ll only hit the highlights here (I expand on these ideas in the book I’m working on), there are three major clues that neuroscientists have recently discovered in the human brain that are mind-blowing (I had to use that phrase!) in terms of how we are going to find our richest happiness.
The first clue has to do with yes, cells and neurons…our favorite things to learn about. There is cool stuff here though, so I encourage you to read on. :)
Clue #1: Spindle Cells and Mirror Neurons
From my vantage point, the recent discoveries of spindle cells provide us with important insights about God’s priorities (and how we can find our greatest happiness), when he designed us. Drawing from Social Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, we learn that spindle cells and the chemicals they process “play key roles in bonding with others, in our moods good and bad, and in pleasure (location 1250).
The areas where spindle cells concentrate play a large role in triggering empathy, and activate in weighty emotional moments, such as when “we look at a picture of someone we love, find someone attractive, or judge whether we are being treated fairly or being deceived” (location 1257). He goes on to state that some “neuroanatomists suspect that spindle cells are crucial to what makes our species unique. We humans have about a thousand times more of them than do our closest primate cousins, the apes, who have but a few hundred” (location 1251). That’s right, a thousand times more than our nearest relatives. Hmm.
Clue #2 Mirror Neurons
Closely related to spindle cells are mirror neurons. Italian scientists recently discovered mirror neurons when they were doing research on monkeys. Mirror neurons “…sense both the move another person is about to make and their feelings, and instantaneously prepare us to imitate that movement and feel with them” (location 166, Goleman). D. Patnaik, author of Wired to Care, further explains that of “all of the many purposes they serve, mirror neurons’ ability to gather implicit information about the thoughts, feelings, and senses of other people is perhaps the most fascinating.
Mirror neurons are a critical reason that people know how to relate to each other. They help us become friends and enjoy friendships. Moreover, mirror neurons help us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine how they might feel in a given situation. To summarize, mirror neurons are vital to helping us be able to connect with each other emotionally, to feel what someone is feeling, and be with them in ways that bring support, encouragement or comfort. Those are very important things when it comes to being a happy human.
Underscoring our uniqueness once again, Goleman states: “Human mirror neurons are far more flexible and diverse than those in monkeys, reflecting our sophisticated social abilities.”
These first two clues underscore how God clearly uniquely designed us as human to be able to experience great meaning and depth in connecting with each other. It appears no other species even has a shot at experiencing the depths of connection that we can, (particularly when we use the other remarkably unique gift of language well too…an extra clue!). It is because of these unique gifts that Paul can even ask us in Romans 12:14 to “Rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.”
Clue #3 What does our brain think about when it goes on break?
Yes, it is true, our brains do go on break. (Sometimes when we wish they wouldn’t!) Other recent neurological studies have taken the significance of our relationships to our lives to new levels. First, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is actually truly at rest (As cited in “Your Brain at Work” by Adam Waytz and Malia Mason July – August 2013 Harvard Business Review). While that may not be too shocking, Goleman builds on those discoveries by providing some stunning clarifying information. It turns out that of the four neural areas that are always active, like idling engines, three of the four are focused on considerations about people in our lives. Not only that, Goleman also discovered in his research that mulling over our social lives turns out to be one of our most common defaults, or favorite thing to do, without us even knowing about it.
Well, I don’t think it is a huge stretch to say, in light of all the above, that given our amazingly sophisticated neurological abilities, and that we can’t help but think about relationships even when we’re not thinking, our level of happiness has to be intimately tied to the maturity levels of our relationships.
If we stink at building mature, life-enriching relationships, our lives, when deeply looked at, will be shallow and empty. If we can learn to build mature, life-enriching relationships, we are then working with our design to enjoy the richest fullness life can bring. And, yes, this certainly applies to the depth of relationship we have with God.
So, good reader, I encourage you to think and pray about your relationships. More precisely, please ponder how well you come alongside others, things like how well you empathize and affirm, because to the extent you can do that well, I’m confident you’re well on your way greater and greater happiness.