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The Science of Happiness 

Physics professor Kunal K. Das explains how our everyday emotions directly relate to quantum states.

The pursuit of happiness is something we can all relate to. But did you know that your emotional state of being can be explained through physics? 

It’s easy to be in a stationary state of contentment, but most people seek more than that. However, reaching an agreeable level of happiness requires changes that we’re sometimes hesitant to make. Theoretical physicist Kunal K. Das breaks down the science of being happy in his book The Quantum Rules: How the Laws of Physics Explain Love, Success, and Everyday Life. 

Read on for an excerpt of The Quantum Rules, then download the book. 



The Quantum Rules

By Kunal K. Das

Quantization happens when a physical system is restricted by boundary conditions, to exist in only certain very specific states. Likewise, our mental states, as in how we feel, depend on the boundary conditions in our lives, meaning all the bonds and constraints that keep us where we are, with whom we are, and doing what we do. The mechanisms that can alter quantum states suggest ways to reach happier states in life.

“Money cannot buy you happiness”—an ancient bit of wisdom, often quoted, but seldom believed. You must have heard it often enough and perhaps even mutter it yourself occasionally. But if you do not feel wealthy, I bet you always had a lurking suspicion that this can’t be right—surely you would be a lot happier if you had more money! Rich folks do seem to be generally happier, and wealth certainly opens up a lot of attractive possibilities. So it is only natural to doubt and wonder, particularly in the ultra-materialistic world we live in today where we have become absolutely dependent on our possessions. We often tend to feel that the more we possess, the better we would feel, and the happier our lives would be. Shopping has indeed become a wistful antidote for feeling down and low.

Life does not come with a guarantee of happiness. But that has never prevented anyone from feeling entitled to it, and we stay in hard pursuit of it all our lives. Ironically, by trying so hard, we often make it even more elusive. In fact, we can’t even agree upon what happiness really means. Ask around: You will simply get personalized descriptions of everything happiness is not—laundry lists of all those things missing in people’s lives that they think are keeping them from being happy. Each list would be a bit different, indicating a different definition of happiness for everyone.

quantum rules
  • A cat's definition of happiness.

Photo: Andy L / Flickr [CC]

So, with no universal definition or prescription on how to find it, our collective quest for happiness continues to be an essentially blind quest, and like any blind quest, the failure rate is quite high. Wouldn’t it be nice to get an objective perspective on what happiness is all about—to be able to establish a few concrete facts that could guide us in this universal quest for happiness? With some almost poetic parallels, the character of quantum states can help us do just that.

Let us start with the one thing we can be sure of: Happiness is a state of mind. Although a bit of a cliché, this never fails to impress anyone stumbling upon it for the first time as a profound bit of insight. And it is essentially true; whether we feel happy or sad, it’s all just a state of mind. But it does not tell us much that is of any practical use, such as how we might be able to influence and change our mental states.

This is where quantum mechanics comes in handy because quantum mechanics is all about “states”: eigenstates, position states, momentum states, closed states, open states, bound states, entangled states, stationary states—even the whole universe is speculated to be in a quantum state. In quantum mechanics, the state of a system is simply the status of all the characteristics that describe it. Rather like how you might describe your own “state” right now—as a list of all the relevant variables in your life as they happen to be playing out currently. A subset of those variables that influence how you feel right now defines your current mental “state.” Quantum mechanics has been rigorously dealing with all kinds of states for a whole lot of complicated things, so it can certainly give us a few pointers about the states of the mind as well. After all, each human being, and therefore the human mind, is defined by some sort of quantum state as well, albeit a very complex one. In recent years, there actually have been some serious attempts by respected scientists to explain consciousness with quantum theory.

The most important class of states in quantum mechanics are the stationary states, because they really got the whole field started. And the name says it all—once a system is in a stationary state it will remain there, stationary and unchanging, unless disturbed. Such states have some remarkable properties, as we will see. Introduced by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr in 1915, the concept of stationary states was the real birth of quantum mechanics, establishing it as a completely different view of nature, distinct from classical Newtonian physics.

It is particularly appropriate to begin our quest for happiness with stationary states, because in real-life terms, the stability of an unchanging stationary situation usually marks the first step toward happiness, implying that at least things are not getting any worse! Indeed, we all seek some level of stability in life to give us a sense of security. We have a name for the desirable stationary states in life: states of contentment. If you can manage to be content most of the time with what you have, then you can be reasonably assured that your life has been a success. As with quantum states, numerous stationary states are possible for every individual—each of those states corresponding to a different combination of situations with which someone could be content. Despite popular beliefs to the contrary, we don’t all need to be rich and famous to be content. For example, you could be content with a stable desk job with a caring family to return to every evening in a middle-class suburb; or you could be enjoying the single life as a millionaire actor in a successful sitcom with a mansion by the beach and a Ferrari in your garage; or you could even achieve a high level of contentment working the night shift in the local four-year college where your kids can attend for free, and you enjoy your local community activities and the bowling league. We can keep adding to the list and could potentially find stability and contentment in any one of a wide variety of life situations. Yet, as we all know, lasting contentment is not easy to find, and that is because there is something very particular about stationary states—in life, as well as in quantum mechanics.

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quantum rules
  • Figure 1.1 (a) Electron orbits around the nucleus of an atom are shown as concentric circles. The orbits are quantized, meaning only orbits with specific radii (distance from the center) are allowed. (b) This is analogous to the location of people living inside a multistoried building. People (like the electrons) can “only be at specific elevations (like orbital radii) corresponding to the existing floors (except when they are in transit on the stairs).”

After all, if stability were all there was to stationary states, Bohr would hardly have had to start a whole quantum revolution on account of them. You see, the most interesting thing about stationary states is that stationary states are very specific; we can’t just pick any available state of the system and call it a stationary state. And the reason goes straight to the heart of what is quantum about quantum mechanics.

Although pretty much any quantum system can have stationary states, the clearest way to understand them is in terms of the states of an electron inside an atom. We all learn in school that every atom is like a little solar system, with a tiny compact nucleus made of protons (with positive electric charge) and neutrons (with no electric charge), with even tinier particles called electrons (with negative electric charge) in orbit around the nucleus just like the planets around the sun. However, there is a fundamental difference: In the solar system, the planets could in principle revolve around the sun at any radius or distance from the sun, so the earth could have been arbitrarily closer or farther than where it is now relative to the sun, and it could still have a perfectly stable orbit around the sun. But that is not the case with electrons. If we draw an atom as shown in Figure 1.1 with a nucleus at the center and a bunch of circles around it to represent electron orbits, then according to quantum theory, those circles could not be of just any radius; the electron orbits can have only certain fixed allowed radii. This means that in the figure, if the circles drawn correspond to the smallest three allowed orbits, then we cannot draw some other circles in between them to create some intermediate orbits. The situation is just like that for the floors in a multi-storied building. Suppose each floor is ten feet high, then people can occupy rooms at ten, twenty, or thirty feet of elevation from the ground (assuming the ground floor is a garage), as shown in Figure 1.1, but nobody can be in a room fifteen feet above the ground, because there is no such floor. It is likewise with electrons in their orbits. Electrons in the allowed orbits are in their stationary states, and they would remain there forever, unless disturbed. This striking phenomenon where only specific orbits are allowed is called the quantization of electronic orbits, because the orbital radii can only take discrete or quantized values. The reason this quantization happens is rather surprising, as we will see at the end of this chapter.

This finicky nature of stationary states gives a quantum perspective on the elusive nature of long-lasting personal states of contentment. In our lives, even more so than with the relatively simple electrons, a lot of things have to be just right to achieve a stable and lasting situation that would make us content. Even the least demanding among us is unlikely to be in a perpetual state of contented bliss, under just any arbitrary set of circumstances. Things would be a lot easier if we were all that easy to please! Getting all the conditions just right almost never happens! But when it does so once in a while, some lucky ones can hold on to a stationary state of contentment for a long time—we see people like that occasionally and might envy them.

But the real trouble for most of us is that even contentment is not enough: If you are fine with being content, very good for you—most people unfortunately are not! The truth of the matter is we crave happiness, not contentment. People don’t write books about “pursuit of contentment”; Hollywood would not make movies about that. Contentment lies on the path to happiness, but usually is not the same as being happy.

Happiness or sadness is really all about changes. This might come as a surprise after all this talk about stationary states. Nevertheless, it is true, because it is only when things change that we register any feelings at all. If you feel a bit skeptical about that, that’s probably because when most of us think of “change,” we envision only major changes in life. But, by change, I mean any change, because every little incident that happens in life has the potential for making us happier or sadder. When a change is positive, leading us to a better situation than we are currently in, we are happy, and when it is negative and things get worse, we end up being sadder and unhappy—and how happy or unhappy depends on just how big the change is.

The Quantum Rules

By Kunal K. Das

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Published on 09 Jun 2017

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