Are you happy?: Oliver Hulme, neuroscientist

Because everyone uses it as a word, happiness is a meaningful concept. It must be related to reward and punishment, some balance between the two. Our brain has evolved to find that the things that are good for us reward us and put us in a state of joy. These rewards and punishments happen on a short timescale. Happiness is more long-term.

We're such complicated creatures with our episodic and prospective memories - in other words, the ability to look forward and back. If we're being sent to jail, our prospective memory gives us the ability to imagine how it will affect our happiness. It's kind of like an ecosystem of reward and punishment.

Studying consciousness seemed the coolest, hardest concept to do. I get distracted sometimes, so I stick on those ear defenders that builders wear. For me the pleasure comes from focused thinking. When it happens, it's amazing. People call it flow. You lose yourself.

Measuring happiness also depends on how the question is asked. There was a study that asked college students if they'd been on a date in a month. Then they were asked if they were happy. The state of their love life naturally had a strong influence on their answer. Mine is going well. My girlfriend's a computational neuroscientist and we often meet in the day to discuss ideas. So am I happy? Yeah. If you put it that way.

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