The thousands of self-help books that can be found on the Internet are written by people from a wide range of backgrounds from professional writers who have come across a flourishing niche for making easy bestsellers, to authors with non-specific pseudo-philosophical backgrounds or whose main ideas tend to come from plagiarizing well known religious (mainly Buddhist) traditions.
However, it is extremely rare to find a self-help book written by a highly prestigious biologist. One such book has been authored by Carlos López Otín, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Oviedo (Spain). Considered one of the top ten researchers in Europe in his field, the identification of cancer-associated genes and a description of genetic defects in hereditary diseases such as premature aging are just two of the many important contributions he has made to the scientific body of knowledge. However, what perhaps sets Professor López apart from his peers most is the exceptional change that he underwent in terms of his well-being. From a cheerful person with an astonishing scientific productivity (more than 500 published papers including top journals such as Nature or Cell), his descent into a profound depression was sudden and rapid. It all started when a few colleagues – who claimed to have uncovered irregularities in some of his papers – made uncomplimentary comments which, thanks to the power of the Internet, spread rapidly and began to damage his reputation.
López Otín wrote his book during the subsequent period of depression, therapy and total isolation that he went through. Titled “La vida en cuatro letras” (Life in four letters, though not translated yet into English as far as I am aware), he describes in his book what he considers to be the 5 keys to happiness, Imperfection, Repair, Observation, Introspection and Emotion.
Imperfection, the first key to happiness, involves the need to accept our imperfection sand limitations as human beings. We should not be afraid of making mistakes, become obsessed with achieving perfection, or set ourselves targets which are over ambitious and exceed our natural abilities. His second key to happiness concerns Repair, which can be defined as the capacity and determination to recompose our lives and emotions from whatever has compromised our happiness. As a Japanese proverb says: “nana korobiyaoki” (if you fall down seven times, get up eight). The third key is Observation, which involves being curious and alert to what is happening in the present by opening our senses and mind. In 2010, Killings worth and Gilbert from Harvard University published in the journal Science an article titled “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”. The paper aims to clearly demonstrate in quantitative terms what many philosophical and religious traditions teach: that happiness is to be found by the living moment. A wandering mind means that human beings, unlike other non-rational animals, spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all. While it may be a remarkable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason and plan, unfortunately this “ability to think about what is not happening” or “mind-wandering” has a heavy emotional cost.
The fourth key to happiness revolves around Introspection. It is very helpful to spend a few minutes every day, in silence, thinking about our purpose in life (each one of us may have different purposes). The practice of meditation can help to achieve this goal and seems to benefit our emotional wellness. As a result of intensive clinical tests at the University of Wisconsin, Matthieu Ricard, a French biochemist who abandoned his scientific career and became a Buddhist monk practicing meditation, is frequently described as the happiest man in the world. Researchers at the university who measured the neurological activity of a group of volunteers using state-of-the-art technology found that, when meditating, Ricard achieved unprecedented brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions, demonstrating a minimal tendency to emotional pessimism (Lutz).
Finally, the last but by no means the least important key to happiness centers on Emotion. Scientifically speaking, emotions surfaced for the first time some 600 million years ago with the appearance of the first specialized nerve cells and primitive nervous systems. Studies show that positive emotions contribute to improved health and can offset the biological damage caused by the adversities inherent to life. We need to place our emotions at the center of our lives, living everything with intensity whatever the source of these emotions (Fredrickson), and striving to attain Lagom, the Swedish recipe for happiness, or Hygge, the Danish ideal of the Danish concept of comfort and well-being.
I hope that these 5 keys to happiness inspire you as much as they have inspired me, and that I have sufficiently aroused your curiosity to read this book, especially as it is written by a person from a scientific background who experienced the sudden disappearance of happiness from his life due to circumstances that could happen to any of us at any time.
LópezOtín C. La vidaencuatroletras. Paidós, 3rd edition, 2019
Killingsworth MA and Gilbert DT. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science 2010; 330: 932.
Lutz et al. Long term meditators self-induce high amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. PNAS 2004; 101: 16369.
Fredrickson et al. A functional genomic perspective on human well-being. PNAS 2013; 110: 13684-9.
Akerstrom K. Lagom: the Swedish secret of living well. 2017