Consciousness & happiness

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Happiness: the way out

So happiness, again. Take a look at the origin of the word...

Happenstance, haphazard, hapless, luck, the blessing of the gods. That’s what the Greeks thought way back when, before neurology, before we started thinking about free will. Ties right in with Julian Jaynes notion that prior to say 1000 B.C., humans weren’t self-conscious, they heard voices in their heads (one hemisphere informing the other) which they interpreted as the gods telling them what to do. If you were lucky, and the gods weren’t jacking you around, you got good advice, resulting in happiness. Nothing to do with any effort you put in. Your happiness was out of your hands.

These days, it seems to me that we’re pretty well addicted to the notions that (1) happiness is our birthright and (2) claiming that birthright is entirely up to the individual. I say this by simply noting what sells--most of the non-fiction bestsellers are self-help how-to-be-happy books. (“Non-fiction” is, of course, a relative term!)

So which way lies happiness, the gods or ourselves?
There are so many reasons why almost all our efforts to be happy fail.

1. The very yearning for happiness brings unhappiness, for it reminds us that we’re dissatisfied with what we’ve got.

2. Even if we set up our lives by optimising our actions to bring future happiness, it ain’t gonna happen. We’re different people in the future, and what we thought would bring them happiness may not work anymore.

3. Happiness is self-limiting. The very awareness of being happy leads to a variety of messages, all of which take the edge off it. For example, “Yeah I’m happy, but I think I should be happier;” “The first time I did this, I was a lot happier than I am now;” “I’m happy now, but for how long?”; “I wish I’d done this sooner;” and on and on. I don’t think it possible to be aware of happiness and stay neutral to it, without commentary and judgement.

All this can be explained by evolutionary theory (see Skip the Car). In a nutshell, unhappiness and dissatisfaction promoted survival and reproduction. A gene that emphasized satisfaction wouldn’t get very far down the evolutionary path.

So if being dissatisfied with the status quo is built into our genes, what’s to be done?

The only way out I see is to do stuff for no other reason than novelty, that is, doing things for which we can’t really figure out the outcome.

It’s called “adventure.”


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