Happy Hawaii

I’m currently on vacation in Hawaii with my family. This morning we went to a lava-filled park where petroglyphs had been carved into the hardened stone centuries ago. From there it was a quick walk to a ‘beach’ made of lava and dead coral pieces. In the tide pools I saw things that I had never seen in the wild anywhere else: sea urchins, a small eel (well, maybe a long skinny fish?), multiple sea cucumbers, and 3 large sea turtles that were grazing on the plant-covered rocks. So I’m happy, right?

Actually, I’ve been dreading this trip for the past 3 months, and never mind the unpleasantness of flying. Once we arrived we stepped off the plane into the type of heat (the temperature wanders down to the low 70’s late at night, and then shoots back up to 85-90 for the rest of the day) and off-the-charts humidity that I associate with my graduate school days in Wisconsin. Yuck.

To make things even dicier, I’m hobbling on a tender ankle dating back to an injury in mid-January, and every trip outside begins with what looks like a lose-lose choice: slather sunscreen or slather mosquito repellent onto my sweat-covered skin? And if all that wasn’t enough, just before we left for the beach, one of my children who had gone on ahead called to say she was returning because she had accidentally stepped on a sea urchin, and some spines had broken off in her toe. And that was that for the afternoon beach trip.

All of this background is just a frame for a fundamental question: What is happiness? All kinds of people have been reassuring me for the past 3 months that I will have a “good time in Hawaii.” The trip isn’t over yet so I just might, but I’ll probably be happy for sure when I return to Portland next week.

In the meantime, here are links to two science stories from the latest Nautilus magazine that discuss possible connections between happiness and brain function. Enjoy. Be happy!

Why Happiness is Hard to Find – In the Brain by Dean Burnett (Nautilus, 3 May 2018). The author describes his two-beer meeting with a brain scientist, Prof. Chris Chambers. The author has approached the scientist with a simple request, “Can I use one of your MRI scanners to scan my own brain while I’m happy, to see where happiness comes from in the brain?” The professor says flat out, “no”, which disappoints the author considerably, but there’s a silver lining. We get to learn about the overselling of fMRI results (aka “blobology”) and contemplate the connections between happiness and cravings.

Can You Overdose on Happiness? by Lone Frank (Nautilus, 3 May 2018). Spoiler alert: the answer seems to be “yes”, at least in certain situations. Frank describes several patients who have experienced unstained happiness by having electrical current delivered to a particular spot deep inside their brains, and their quest for more. (An aside: the fact that you can stimulate happiness at a particular spot in the brain doesn’t mean that happiness is located there.) The article includes a bit of brain imaging, ideas on what causes depression and happiness, and a lot of thoughtful material on the responsibilities of doctors and patients when it comes to dealing with the verities of human existence.

As for me, is there a solution to my “Hawaii problem”? Of course. Equanimity.