Nautilus

Can You Overdose on Happiness?

It is a good question, but I was a little surprised to see it as the title of a research paper in a medical journal: “How Happy Is Too Happy?”

Yet there it was in a publication from 2012. The article was written by two Germans and an American, and they were grappling with the issue of how we should deal with the possibility of manipulating people’s moods and feeling of happiness through brain stimulation. If you have direct access to the reward system and can turn the feeling of euphoria up or down, who decides what the level should be? The doctors or the person whose brain is on the line?

What happiness looks like: Deep brain stimulation involves the implantation of electrodes in the brain, linked through the scalp (top) to wires (right) leading to a battery implanted below the skin. This sends electrical impulses to specific areas of the brain.Pasieka / Getty Images

The authors were asking this question because of a patient who wanted to decide the matter for himself: a 33-year-old German man who had been suffering for many years from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder and generalized anxiety syndrome. A few years earlier, the doctors had implanted electrodes in a central part of his reward system—namely, the nucleus accumbens. The stimulation had worked rather well on his symptoms, but now it was time to change the stimulator battery. This demanded a small surgical procedure since the stimulator was nestled under the skin just below the clavicle. The bulge in the shape of a small rounded Zippo lighter with the top off had to be opened. The patient went to the emergency room at a hospital in Tübingen to get everything fixed. There, they called in a neurologist named Matthis Synofzik to set the stimulator in a way that optimized its parameters. The two worked keenly on the task, and Synofzik experimented with settings from 1 to 5 volts. At each setting, he asked the patient to describe his feeling of well-being, his anxiety level, and his feeling of inner tension. The patient replied on a scale from 1 to 10.

The two began with a single volt. Not much happened. The patient’s well-being or “happiness level” was around 2, while his anxiety was up at 8. With a single volt more, the happiness level crawled up to 3, and

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus8 min read
Why It Pays to Play Around: Play is so important that nature invented it long before it invented us.
The 19th-century physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared his progress in solving a problem to that of a mountain climber “compelled to retrace his steps because his progress stopped.” A mountain climber, von Helmholtz said, “hits upon traces of a fr
Nautilus3 min readPsychology
Presenting the Scrabble Luck Calculator: Are you as good at Scrabble as you think?
Scrabble is a volatile game. It’s not uncommon for underdogs to make tournament upsets. Why? Luck. It plays a large role in Scrabble, and efforts to remove it, by changing tile values, for instance, have mostly been in vain. Still, Scrabble skills ma
Nautilus14 min read
WeChat Is Watching: Living in China with the app that knows everything about me.
It’s 9 a.m. on a typical morning in Chengdu and I’m awakened by the sound of my phone alarm. The phone is in my study, connected to my bedroom by sliding doors. I turn off the alarm, pick up my phone, and, like millions of people in China, the first