I’m reading Stumbling on Happiness for my work as a Happiness Engineer at Automattic, and from it I have finally learned the truth about lobotomy. In books and movies, lobotomies are this scary thing that removes all brain function and turns people into vegetables. One of my favorite novels involves lobotomy, but I won’t name the book because naming it in combination with talking about lobotomy would give away its secret sauce.
Anyway, the topic I pulled from my prompt box today, “half-full,” got me to thinking about happiness, and whether optimism and pessimism (which the “half-full” idea tries to pin down) play a role in happiness. The author has not mentioned optimism and pessimism yet. He has begun the book with the idea of looking to the future like no other species does. And I don’t mean instinctively “plan,” like animals do when storing food for winter, but cognitively plan: via imagination.
We imagine futures for ourselves, and often imagining those scenarios is more pleasurable than actualizing those scenarios. For example: having a crush. It’s fun to fantasize and daydream. But if a relationship with the crush comes to fruition, reality, with all its flaws, is often not as pleasurable as the dream. This makes me hypothesize that setting low expectations is a key to happiness. We will see what the author says.
On the flip side of the daydream is anxiety. Whereas a daydream sets the future in a golden light, anxiety is when we foresee dangerous or frightening events. Like fantasizing good things, imagining bad things is controlled by the area of the brain responsible for imagining the future: the frontal lobe. The portion of the brain removed in lobotomies.
Lobotomies fascinate me. In large part because of that novel I won’t name. I’ve always thought they turn a person into a non-functioning walking coma. But they don’t. Lobotomized patients function normally in every way — except when it comes to thinking about the future. At least according to this book I’m reading.
The frontal lobe of the human brain is the portion of the brain that has grown most rapidly in our species’ recent evolution, and it is the portion that differentiates human brains from those of other animal species. Because it controls our ability to imagine and and plan — and therefore is the portion of the brain that is responsible for anxiety — when removed, anxiety disappears.
And so does the ability to daydream.
Photo credit: “Turning the Mind Inside Out” Saturday Evening Post, 24 May 1941.