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Archive for October 26th, 2007

Recent neuroscience research has unlocked some of the mysteries surrounding how the brain handles positive emotion. For example, on its website the Society of Neuroscience points towards research projects that looked at the differences in the brain between pleasant and unpleasant emotions.

In one study of brain-damaged individuals, for example, researchers found that patients who were prone to pathological laughing or bursts of euphoria tended to have damage on the right side of the brain. In contrast, patients who were prone to pathological crying or depression tended to have damage on the left side of the brain.

Another study which measured brain activity indicated that pleasant film clips, pleasant tastes and cash incentives increase left-side brain activity near the forehead. Unpleasant film clips, unpleasant tastes and a threat of cash loss raise right-side brain activity near the forehead.

Even infants apparently show these differences. Babies who tend to cry when separated from their mothers also tend to have lower left and higher right-sided prefrontal activity compared with non-wailers.

What does this mean for the rest of us? It strongly implies that there are biological (and even genetic) differences that account for our “sunny” or “sour” dispositions. Thus, while there is much about satisfaction and happiness we can control, there are some parts of both that we cannot.

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Do people need goals to be satisfied or happy? It’s an important question since so much emphasis is placed in modern societies on the development, pursuit and achievement of goals. Get your degree. Work towards a promotion. Run a marathon. Learn a new skill. Without question, goals are the lifeblood of our daily lives.

But do we need them? Do we need them to be happy? Can a person be perfectly satisfied or happy with few, if any, goals or is that humanly impossible? Are humans hard-wired to accomplish things?

There appear to be no easy answers.

On the one hand, we disparage people we perceive as being without goals, calling them “slackers” or “deadbeats.” At the other extreme, however, we also question the behavior of super over-achievers — those people hell bent on squeezing one accomplishment after another in every day, every month, every year — sometimes every hour!

Meanwhile, we admire people who can “enjoy the moment” without a goal — people, for example, who drop what they’re doing and run outside to witness a fleeting double rainbow after a rainstorm. But we often applaud stories in the news about people who overcome tremendous personal or physical odds to accomplish amazing feats through an elaborate set of goals. In short, we are conflicted. We don’t really know what to make of goals. We assume they’re good for us, but how much and for what purpose?

Perhaps the simple answer to the question as to whether or not we need them is — “most likely, but not necessarily.” For most of us goals are an important part of our satisfaction “system.” They can contribute greatly to our overall satisfaction and happiness and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence (perhaps even research) to suggest that the pursuit of goals themselves is just as satisfying, if not more so, than the end result.

But they may not be the end-all-to-be-all as some people would lead us to believe. A life without some or many goals may not be a bad thing. If the Eastern religions have taught us anything it’s that we can live in the present and that in itself is satisfying .

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