Ode to the Science of Joy & Happiness

Yesterday, I posted some thoughts on Pascal Bruckner’s essay regarding our “cult of happiness”, a phenomenon Bruckner calls a mirthless enterprise. Indeed.

Eventually, my contemplation on the facets of happiness followed its usual path to Silvan Tomkins‘ work. Most people have never heard of him, though Australia and New Zealand have expanded on his theories. Or rather, they’ve used his theories to build practical applications so as to ameliorate human suffering.

Here in the U.S., Donald Nathanson, Tomkins’ student and explainer, has done good work in making his mentor’s ideas accessible – no easy task. Tomkins, before him, was influenced heavily by Darwin.

Nathanson is a medical doctor – an endocrinologist, I think. Such an orientation makes sense given his position that we’re born with nine innate “affects”.

Affects are feeling-states. Our bodies are wired in such a way that these feeling states (mental constructs) are displayed universally by babies in a set pattern of facial expressions and “body language” (physical manifestations which follow immediately upon our mental constructs). You can train yourself very quickly to recognize these basic patterns as they are displayed by babies, children, and even dogs.

People who want to sell us things use this patterning to influence our thinking, which in turn influences our feelings, and so on down to our behavior, i.e., our “doings”.

Unfortunately for us, there are only three positive states, while the rest are either neutral or negative. For example, fear is a negative feeling state, for sure. But it’s not static: the arousal of fear can give rise to terror if continued long enough, or it can be changed by circumstance or experience into, say, interest. Watch a small child with a dog to see this process in action.

Below is Nathanson’s Affect Pattern Chart, which is widely reproduced on the web. I retrieved this one from my document file which was missing the URL (if you want to follow up further, google is your friend. The search string “Nathanson’s Affect Pattern Chart” (sans the quotes) will give you many resources.

[Yes, I am going somewhere with this. Hang on…]

Notice the first two are the positive affects, and the third can be neutral. In a good-enough caretaking environment, surprise can be quite positive:

Interest_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Excitement
Enjoyment_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Joy
Surprise _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Startle

You can see this is a spectrum of feelings waiting to be translated into facial expressions and then behaviors. Sometimes, but not always.

A toddler, interacting with the family dog, happens (again) upon that interesting hole under the dog’s tail. Her eyes open in surprise…perhaps her curiosity is engaged further (“curiosity” is sometimes substituted for “interest”) and she moves to a feeling state of excitement, which in turn, is manifested by an exaggeration of her original facial expression associated with interest: her eyes open wider, perhaps her heart rate increases, she moves toward that hole. And through all of these fleeting moments, neurons are firing in rapid succession, setting up and wearing further the neural pathways from brain to face.

At this point, the negative affects could come into play. Here are the spectrums for those:

Fear _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Terror
Distress _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Anguish
Anger _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Rage
Shame_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Humiliation

Perhaps she sticks her finger, or the toy she’s holding, into that hole she just found. Perhaps the dog growls, turning on her threateningly. Now we move from Interest –> Excitement–> Fear. Her expression reflects this new and now negative affect; she runs for safety to her mother…with an optimum environment, mother soothes and removes her from the danger.

Or perhaps mother is not immediately available. Fear then continues on its spectrum to –> Terror. That’s when the wailing begins, the heart rate rises sharply. If mother enters the environment, Terror subsides slowly but not immediately. It will be a few moments before her heart rate returns to its baseline.

If you look at those negative affects, you’ll notice that it’s possible to move through them all in rapid order: Fear –> Terror –> Distress –> Anguish (where is Mother??) –> Anger and perhaps then –> Rage at being abandoned with this furry danger.

In worst case scenarios, which are the common coin of childhood, if mother returns to fuss at her toddler about the poor dog, then Shame is evoked and with very little effort moves swiftly into the final blow –>Humiliation. The child dissolves or withdraws into a solitary state. She breaks eye contact with those in her environment and remains in isolation until she is able to soothe herself and return.

[The last two affects,

Dissmell _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Disgust _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

don’t have any further evocation. They are simple and straightforward. Either or both could have been evoked had the toddler reached far enough into that poor dog’s anal orifice, but for the sake of exploring the components of happiness, let’s leave them aside. You can imagine easily enough the facial manifestations for both affects.]

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Those nine affects are the limits of our emotional world but we can combine them in an immense variety of ways. What may raise the specter of disgust and dissmell for you – perhaps slimy mollusks lying limply on their bisected shell – may evoke interest and excitement for someone else. The world is endlessly various.

However, given those limits of your emotional world, what if I were to ask you what it is you really, really want? In most cases (let’s pretend you trust me enough to answer the question honestly), you’ll say you really just want to be happy.

Dandy. Now what? Well, the Affect Theorist would follow this question up with another question: what is your real interest? What makes you want to get up every morning?

In the 18th century, men might greet good friends by saying, “I give you joy, Frank”. It’s too bad that once-familiar exchange was replaced with the more neutral, “How are you?” A question which admits of only one response: “Oh, I’m fine, thank you” – even if your panic over your credit card debt is eating a hole in your stomach, it’s still…“Oh, I’m fine thanks”.

We’re too cool for anything more intimate. We can’t honestly say, “I’m dying of boredom and fear. Help!”

But if we are fortunate enough to happen across someone who is really interested, an odd thing often happens: their interest in us helps us rediscover our own interest in ourselves. And guess what? As it turns out, what makes getting out of bed in the morning tolerable is discovering what it was that we got out of bed for when we were very young.

We have only to find that activity which provided us with our earliest experiences of the positive affect cycle: from Interest –> to Excitement and from Enjoyment –> to Joy. It’s that simple: our earliest joys, if we can find them, hold the key to our present Happiness.

Of course there may be obstacles along the way. If we discover that our Interest to Joy cycle consisted of pulling the wings off insects, we’ll have to dig a little deeper to the budding scientist beneath the casual cruelty, hmm?

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There was a “Momma Tiger” story making the rounds of cyberspace recently. This was the saga of an Asian-American mother who decided she’d raise her children the Chinese way: discipline, respect for their elders, and intensive academic work. Her story has been hotly debated – again, Google’s friendly search strings will pop up thousands of hits if you want to explore her story. Let’s just say it may be difficult later on for her two daughters to recover their earliest joy…

But another tale came along today (or rather, I discovered it today) which counters the dogmas regarding parenting held by an anxiety-driven feral mom.

Meet Jonathan (I’d put him above the fold but the new improved Blooger won’t let us run videos above the fold):

Michael Johnson reports on Jonathan’s story in the American Spectator:

Except for a few jealous conductors who hate child prodigies, the music world has leapt aboard the “Jonathan” phenomenon, a precocious boy whose video clip has now passed 5,362,000 views on YouTube.

By way of comparison, the video of Shaquille O’Neal stiffly conducting the Boston Pops last December is barely over a million, and Sarah Silverman’s standup routine on Jews and German cars is in the mere 800,000s.

This is no “dancing baby” animation. This is a three-year-old child who has all the fluid moves, all the tempo changes and all the dynamics down pat in conducting a recording of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony standing on a podium in his parents’ living room. He knows the music.

Indeed he does know the music, and that knowledge fills Jonathan with infectious JOY. There is simply no other word for the effect his experience has on us:


Mr. Johnson says,

Several viewers say they start their day with this video, it conveys such an overwhelming feeling of joy and amazement. “I have to get a fix every day. That’s been going on for weeks now,” says one woman.


Jonathan has a gift rarely seen at any age — that of a joyful, emotional conductor capable of bringing classical music to life. As one viewer wrote, “Now we know where Leonard Bernstein went…

If you want even more joy, read the comments on that page.

Lucky Jonathan. He won’t have the least trouble recovering his joy in later life. In fact, he’ll probably never lose it. Even the kool-school-bullies won’t be able to take away such innate delight.

I’ve watched it three times so far…with a lousy connection. Will we see more of Jonathan? I hope so. But if not…well, infectious joy can spread, right?

His secret? When, in your excitement, you fall off the podium simply proceed to ROTFLYAO. Works like a charm.

3 thoughts on “Ode to the Science of Joy & Happiness

  1. Wow. Such joy. This reminds me of my older son, at two, standing on a stool in wizard’s gown and cap, wand in hand, narrating verbatim Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone.” Okay, not the same as Beethoven, but same emotion, same ability and intellect. He soon went on to deep-sea life, paleontology, geology, herpetology, and many other “ologies and “isms.” He’s in the National Guard now.

    I must take exception to your assertion that Jonathan here will never lose his delight or joy. It was almost extinguished, in my oldest, by school (public and private both), and he still sees his God-given intelligence more as a burden at times, something separating him from the average idiot and society in general, rather than the gift it is.

  2. @…I must take exception to your assertion that Jonathan here will never lose his delight or joy. It was almost extinguished, in my oldest…

    Hmmm…our sons share that quality of the love of “isms” and “ologies”. I’ll bet that from a young age your son would constantly surprise you with the depth of his knowledge of a particular subject…we just recently packed up and sent our son his binoculars since he lives in such a wonderful bird-watching area.

    By the time he was ten he could tell you the nesting habits, # of likely fledgings for a given bird, the color of the eggs, the shape of the nest, the bird’s call, the male vs. female, etc. But whence came this love of ornithology and when exactly did he acquire this knowledge? Who knows?

    His dad is an amateur herpetologist, so I can trace that one back directly, but not the music, or chemistry (he fell in love with the Periodic Table of Elements and had to have a large one for his wall), or enology, or World War I poets, or aviation, or languages…

    Of course you son didn’t thrive in school! It’s a jungle, and some of the private schools are the most overgrown feral places of all.

    I assure you that your son’s joy will return. It has met and will continue to meet many obstacles in this culture. However, with a few years and a bit of luck, he’ll find “a climate that suits his soul”, to parphrase the old song.

    Joy can be resurrected. I’ve seen it happen. Give him enough time to heal…it’s toxic out there.

  3. As I recall, someone said that they finally grew up when they stopped trying to act like an “adult” and just accepted they were slightly larger children.

    And I may have found a joy that I didn’t often indulge as a child. We never really owned any costumes here, but last week, I was out at a convention as Superman. Not a nasty word was said outside the con and I had a fantastic time (and when you see just how well-made some suits are, particularly heroes like Iron Man that are a bit more than just spandex). The only difference betwee doing it as an adult and as a child is that as an adult, you don’t do second best if you truly love it.

    And this might also be why I prefer YA fiction to the more “adult” stuff, considering that the latter seems to require a certain quote of sex and death.

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