Friday, February 10, 2012

Searching for the algorithm of happiness

Liz Else, associate editor
201202031214.jpgTHIS may be a book's best ever summary of itself: "when fishing for happiness, catch and release".
With a title that inverts one of the inalienable rights established by the American Declaration of Independence, The Happiness of Pursuit is for fans of enquiries into the nature of brain, mind - and happiness itself.
When the author Shimon Edelman was 8, he came upon Christopher Logue's poem Epitaph, which asks: "What is the greatest happiness on earth?" The poem was embedded in a story which turned on the possibility of writing a happiness algorithm.
As a computer scientist and psychology professor, Edelman could not rest until he had made the case for happiness to be given a scientific, perhaps even algorithmic, explanation.
He begins this search with the observation that "the mind is inherently and essentially a bundle of ongoing computations". Over two millennia, he argues, we have come to realise that our notion of self is partly a construct of those computations, and partly a distributed entity that he believes is "best thought of as a network of cause and effect that transcends the boundary between the individual and the environment, which includes society and the material world". It's comforting to think that our experiences can help us achieve the kind of gradual self-change that might promote happiness.
In the end, Edelman does not deliver an algorithm for happiness, but offers a happy addition to the classic recipe of "self-knowledge, self-improvement, and, eventually, selfless conduct" - a coherent notion of the self.

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