Science, Literature, and the Nature of Happiness


Here’s a question for you Terry readers: What makes us happy?


Maybe it’s obvious to you. But I think it’s not always as easy as we like to think. Sometimes unusual patterns emerge. Sometimes it’s not the things we’d expect.

Speaking personally, I would say well-crafted language, the power gained by expression through writing, the study of people’s stories-real and imagined-those things make up part of my happiness mosaic.

What I find funny is how often I’ve found myself compelled to justify or rationalize my desire to persist in studying literature despite its distance (and not just figuratively–Buchanan is a long way from LSC!) from my degree. Maybe it’s a symptom of the emphasis we place on science, business, law, on “useful” degrees in our culture. Or the fact that we are willing to categorize knowledge as “useful” or not in the first place and where we chose to draw our lines.

I was talking with a friend  the other day who had spent a year studying in Paris. He told me that at the school he had attended, which sounded sort of like the French equivalent of Harvard business school or a finishing school for politicians and diplomats, people took classes in the humanities (i.e. history, literature, art, classics etc.) in order to gain that veneer of culture that presumably gives successful politicians that air of  je ne sais quoi.

In other words, the humanities were approached in a very utilitarian way.

He said he found the experience different from UBC, where, in his mind, the humanities are accepted–both by those in them and those in other areas–as rather esoteric or removed from direct practical application. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

Our discussion got me thinking. There are several ways I’ve found myself addressing the question of whether paying the extra money and taking the extra time to study literature is really “worth it”.

First is to question the assumption that all knowledge has to be directly “useful”, in the way that engineering or medical knowledge is. Bertrand Russell apparently once said that

there is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge

Whether or not that is case (I was unable to find the reference in a cursory look through my Russell books), he did write a rather fantastic essay entitled “Useless Knowledge”, in which he extolls the virtues therein. (I was only able to find a partial version on google books, but I highly recommend it). To quote:

Curious learning not only makes unpleasant things less pleasant, but also makes pleasant things more pleasant. I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of the Han dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kanisaka introduced them into India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era; that the word “apricot” is derived from the same Latin source as the word “precocious” because the apricot ripens early; and that the A as the beginning was added by mistake , owing to a false etymology. All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.

Not the best quote of the piece, but you get the idea.

All well and good, but I think there are some perhaps, both in and outside the field of English literature, who would object to the classification of such knowledge as useless in the first place. Not to mention, the parents who are helping put me through college wanted a bit more of a justification for extending my degree than “because it helps me enjoy apricots”.

Which brings me to argument number two, which I like to call “What Humanities offer the Sciences”.

In a nutshell, creativity. The keystone to good science.

Because I gave up the struggle to appear cool sometime in the middle of pursuing my degree, I’ll go ahead and admit to the world that the gift and value of scientific creativity is embodied by my new scientific crush, V.D. Ramachandran (bumping Bill Nye and Robert Oppenheimer down a couple notches on my top-ten list). Ramachandran, who was featured in the New Yorker this summer, has made some remarkable leaps forward in the field of neuroscience…using only his imagination and a couple of ten dollar mirrors. I admire him because he is living proof that true scientific advances are made by genuine curiosity, insight into some phenomenon  and elegant ideas, not by the expensive equipment in one’s lab.

Ramachandran has written a book about his work entitled Phantoms in the Brain, although it’s as much a book on the scientific process as anything else. What strikes me the most is how rooted in the humanities it seems. Which makes sense, really, since neuroscience is largely the study of what makes us human. And I don’t mean just the quotations Ramachandran has pulled from Sherlock Holmes or the ancient Indian Vedas, although they hint at a man who carries the collective literature of our species in him (as do we all to some degree although we don’t often notice or think about it).

In a more practical sense, his research seems to often stem from old case studies and stories of the people who somehow deviate from the norm. Unlike some of his colleagues, who saw no scientific value in the early 19th century reports of unusual men and women,  Ramachandran pours through all the smoke and finds at the root, a genuine neurological puzzle to solve.

I like to think his Vedic references and neurological insight stem from the same source. I’d like to picture him going to school in India as a child and learning the importance of the one so that later, as a scientist, he could recognize the importance of the other. I’d like to think.

I’ve heard that Oppenheimer was a fan of the Indian Bhagavad Gita. And an amateur poet.

Some psychologists who study the basis of creativity and how one defines creativity, have proposed that there are two modes of thought between which our minds alternate: associative and analytical. When you are trying to put together a Rubik’s cube, your brain switches into analytical. When you are painting a picture of a pretty sunset or composing a piece of music, your brain is working in associative mode. They are proposed to be mutually exclusive, by which I mean that it is not possible to think using both modes at exactly the same time. Though I can’t prove this is the case, it seems logical to me that, like anything, without practice you might become less efficient at a particular mode. That being the case, it seems largely advantageous to give your brain time in both areas (reading this blog is probably a good start!)

Another example:

Over the summer, the Atlantic ran a wonderful story on a long-term study of almost mythical proportions carried out at Harvard. Spanning more than fifty years, the Grant study (named for its original director) followed the lives of two hundred some male students in the attempt to determine what factors and elements of personality and environment make people “normal” or “well-adjusted”.

You can imagine the volume of data collected.

Initially, the study appeared to be a failure. The original investigator was, in a sense, too much of a “scientist”. It took someone with a more literary bend–the psychiatrist George Valliant–to uncover the value in that data. To quote:

The study began in the spirit of laying lives out on a microscope slide. But it turned out that the lives were too big, too weird, too full of subtleties and contradictions to fit any easy conception of “successful living.” Arlie Bock had gone looking for binary conclusions—yeses and nos, dos and don’ts. But the enduring lessons would be paradoxical, not only on the substance of the men’s lives (the most inspiring triumphs were often studies in hardship) but also with respect to method: if it was to come to life, this cleaver-sharp science project would need the rounding influence of storytelling.

In George Vaillant, the Grant Study found its storyteller, and in the Grant Study, Vaillant found a set of data, and a series of texts, suited to his peculiar gifts. A tall man, with a gravelly voice, steel-gray hair, and eyes that can radiate great joy and deep sadness, Vaillant blends the regal bearing of his old-money ancestors, the emotional directness of his psychiatric colleagues, and a genial absentmindedness. (A colleague recalls one day in the 1980s when Vaillant came to the office in his slippers.)


The range of his training and the complexity of his own character proved to be crucial to his research. After Harvard College (where he wrote for the Lampoon, the humor magazine, and studied history and literature), Harvard Medical School, and a residency at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center, Vaillant studied at the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, which he calls a “temple” to Freud’s ideas. He learned the orthodoxy, which included a literary approach to human lives, bringing theory to bear through deep reading of individual cases. But he also had training in the rigors of data-driven experimental science, including a two-year fellowship at a Skinnerian laboratory, where he studied neurotransmitter levels in pigeons and monkeys. There he learned to use the behaviorist B. F. Skinner’s “cumulative behavioral recorder,” which collapses behaviors across minutes, hours, or days onto a chart to be inspected in a single sitting.

The undertones of psychoanalysis are tragic; Freud dismissed the very idea of “normality” as “an ideal fiction” and famously remarked that he hoped to transform “hysterical misery into common unhappiness.” The spirit of modern social science, by contrast, draws on a brash optimism that the secrets to life can be laid bare. Vaillant is an optimist marinated in tragedy, not just in his life experience, but in his taste. Above his desk hangs a letter from a group of his medical residents to their successors, advising them to prepare for Vaillant’s “obscure literary references” by reading Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, and Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Vaillant loves Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, too, and the cartoons of the dark humorist Charles Addams, like the one where several Christmas carolers sing merrily at the Addams family doorstep, while Morticia, Lurch, and Gomez stand on the roof, ready to tip a vat of hot oil on their heads. When his children were small, Vaillant would read them a poem about a tribe of happy-go-lucky bears, who lived in a kind of Eden until a tribe of mangier, smarter bears came along and enslaved them. “I would weep at this story,” remembers his daughter Anne Vaillant. “Dad thought it was funny, and I think somehow it was helpful to him that I had such feelings about it. There was this sort of, ‘This is the way life is.’”

Like Ramachandran, Vaillant as portrayed by the Atlantic seems saturated in literature. “The storyteller”, the author calls him. And like Ramachandran, this grounding in literature has allowed him to probe one of humanity’s most complex questions: what makes us happy?

What the study found is this: there’s no predicting who will be happiest with their life at the end of the day. Those who seem to have the best shot at happiness don’t always find it. And those who get a bit of a rocky start sometimes come out on the bright side.

Part of the answer seems to be the way in which we chose to approach life and its curve-balls. It is what you make of it, I suppose. And that being the case, why not literature and science?

For anyone who’s made it this far down the post, I’m curious: what inspires you outside your work/area of study?

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Sarah Andersen is both a wave and a particle.