Biology

Happiness and satisfaction

What we talk about as “happiness” is actually a set of biochemical reactions that happen inside our brains. About half of those are determined by our genetics, but the other half can be trained and improved.

There are many ways to train your happiness, but I find two especially important:

  • Noticing good things around you
  • Being content without them

Noticing good things

Much of “happiness” comes from noticing (consciously or unconsciously) the good things around you. Practicing happiness means focusing your attention on things you find beautiful, pleasing, delicious, fulfilling. Many people find gratitude journaling a good way to do this. Mindfulness meditation builds the ability to do this throughout your life.

Noticing good things can be easier when circumstances are good; however Victor Frankl highlights in Man’s Search for Meaning a moment when joy came from noticing a beautiful sunset even while headed to a prison camp:

If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty. Despite that factor–or maybe because of it–we were carried away from nature’s beauty, which we had missed for so long.”

Even those moments of noticing required a brief respite from pain, so a precursor to noticing good things is managing painful emotions. Fortunately the same practices of mindfulness and gratitude can help with processing and dealing with pain.

Being content

The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his own room – Blaise Pascal

In the modern world, we’re surrounded by physical and mental stimuli at all times. When those are removed, the emotional reaction can be so intense that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than experience the boredom of silence.

This dependence on external stimuli means our happiness is subject to our circumstances. If we can learn to be without those influences, our happiness will be more resilient. Taken to an extreme, if we were able to fully entertain ourselves with just the act of breathing, we wouldn’t need anything external to be perfectly happy.

Again, mindfulness meditation can train this ability, as can fasting–from food, entertainment or social media–and practices like keeping the Sabbath. Intentionally restricting what we consume builds our ability to be content without those things.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. – Paul, Philippians 4:11-13

Teaching corn to save the world

Agriculture is one of the major causes of our climate crisis (livestock emissions, clearcutting of forests), but a group of biologists at the Salk Institute are trying to breed crops that gobble up carbon from the air, while simultaneously strengthening their root systems.

The secret is in teaching them to build more suberin (aka cork) in their roots:

By understanding and improving just a few genetic pathways in plants, Salk’s plant biologists believe they can help plants grow bigger, more robust root systems that absorb larger amounts of carbon, burying it in the ground in the form of suberin…

Once the Salk team has developed ways to increase suberin in model plants, they will transfer these genetic traits to six prevalent crops: corn, soybean, rice, wheat, cotton/cottonseed and rapeseed/canola.

In addition to mitigating climate change, the enhanced root systems will help protect plants from stresses caused by climate changes and the additional carbon in the soil will make the soil richer, promoting better crop yields and more food for a growing global population.

This kind of piggy-backing on existing societal practices feels very promising…not quite turning a vice into a virtue, but hopefully making it less harmful.

Play and parent brains

A new study wired up parents and kids to watch their brains while they played together. Perhaps not surprisingly, things went better when the parents payed attention:

Parents are neurally responsive to their infants during social play, and that, when the parent is more neurally responsive, the infant is more attentive.
Or as it’s known in our house, “Dad, put down your phone!”

Cows vs. geeks

“Unlike the cow, we get better at making meat every single day” – Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown

Launched at a tech conference, naturally.

Humanity and hegemony

I’ve always been shocked by humanity’s outsized impact on the earth. After all, we’re recent arrivals on the scene and there are far fewer of us than most animals and insects. We shouldn’t have affected big things like ecosystems yet, right?

Yet a new study found that humans have destroyed 83% of all wild mammals and half of plants since civilization began. And today, 70% of all birds are farmed poultry, and 60% of mammals are livestock. As the article says, we are “simultaneously insignificant and utterly dominant in the grand scheme of life on Earth”.

One of the study’s authors wrote:

When I do a puzzle with my daughters, there is usually an elephant next to a giraffe next to a rhino. But if I was trying to give them a more realistic sense of the world, it would be a cow next to a cow next to a cow and then a chicken. – Professor Ron Milo

Another way to look at it:

How Fungi Saved the World

For all that we humans worry about saving the world, it was mushrooms that rescued an Earth that had drowned in wood for 40 million years, and even gave us the coal to jumpstart modern civilization:

Here is the crux of our problem: lignin made the lycopod trees a little too successful. Because their leaves were lofted above many herbivores and their trunks were made inedible by lignin, lycopods were virtually impervious to harm. They grew and died in vast quantities, and their trunks piled up in swamps, eventually becoming submerged and locking huge quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for good in the form of coal. Without any decomposition to recycle this carbon, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels crashed, leading to global cooling and making it much harder for plants to grow. Atmospheric oxygen concentration, in turn, soared to an estimated 35%, much higher than the 20% of modern times.

Consciousness as story

Our consciousness may be primarily the continuous story we tell ourselves, from moment to moment, about what we did and why we did it. It is a thin, often inaccurate veneer rationalizing a mountain of unconscious processing…

On the one hand, our consciousness may be an evolutionary fluke, telling an unreliable story in a far-fetched interpretation of a pattern of tiny salty squirts. On the other, our consciousness is the only reason for thinking we exist (or for thinking we think). Without it there are no beliefs, no sensations, no experience of being, no universe. – Hans Moravec

Ways to stop climate change, ranked

A fascinating list of ways to reduce global warming, ranked by effectiveness and cost, with some surprising findings.

Refrigerant management–basically what happens when you discard an air conditioner–is the top opportunity, above anything energy-related. After that comes onshore wind farms, then two food-related items: reducing waste and eating more plants.

Pragmatic and encouraging! The authors have edited a book around all of the opportunities, Drawdown.

Why Elon Musk is working on brain interfaces

Because any other way of evolving humans isn’t fast enough:

Genetics is just too slow, that’s the problem. For a human to become an adult takes twenty years. We just don’t have that amount of time. – Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future – Wait But Why

What computers can teach us about the world

By thinking differently than humans do:

Our machines now are letting us see that even if the rules the universe plays by are not all that much more complicated than Go’s, the interplay of everything all at once makes the place more contingent than Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, or even some Chaos theorists thought. It only looked orderly because our instruments were gross, because our conception of knowledge imposes order by simplifying matters until we find it, and because our needs were satisfied with approximations…

The nature of the world is closer to the way our network of computers and sensors represent it than how the human mind perceives it. Now that machines are acting independently, we are losing the illusion that the world just happens to be simple enough for us wee creatures to comprehend.