The Limits of Happiness?

I recently quoted some of Steven Pinker’s observations in How the Mind Works about an evolutionary perspective on happiness. Those ideas have stayed on my mind. The topic is comparatively new and it is complex: emotions are subjective, their names are approximate, and they don’t leave fossils. But the evolutionary viewpoint might shed added light on the nature of all the positive emotions that we put under the umbrella of happiness.

What I gather from Pinker is that we tend to think, inaccurately,  that the positive emotions such as happiness, pleasure, and contentment are similar to negative feelings such as fear and sadness in that all of them can range in intensity from mild to extreme and all of them, pleasant and painful alike, can range from brief to long-lasting. We know that people can be mildly sad for a couple of days or severely depressed for years. And in a parallel way, we think that people can be cheerfully happy for a few hours after a social event, which we can, or ecstatically happy for years—which, with rare exceptions, we cannot. “Happiness without limits.” Perhaps—my comment, not Pinker’s— our culture’s relentless messages about the “pursuit” and affordability of happiness have fostered an image of  happiness as a goal that we can reach, hold on to, and even get “better” at.  Not so, says Pinker.

happiness limits poster (loesje.org)

loesje.org

For starters, “There are twice as many negative emotions (fear, grief, anxiety, and so on) as positive ones.” This difference is one clue that the positive emotions are not exactly opposites of the negative ones. Another is that “[P]eople’s mood plummets more when imagining a loss in their lives…than it rises when imagining an equivalent gain.” There are not only more negative than positive emotions but the negative ones pack a stronger punch.

The reason, in terms of evolution, is that there are limits to the benefits of happiness that don’t apply to the negative emotions. Pinker: “The psychologist Timothy Ketelaar notes that happiness tracks the effect of resources on biological fitness. As things get better, increases in fitness show diminishing returns: more food is better, but only up to a point. But as things get worse, decreases in fitness can take you out of the game: not enough food, and you’re dead” (392).

In other words, the dangers of of injury, illness, and enemies call for variable levels of pain and emotional distress to signal the seriousness of the threat—emotional smoke alarms that can grow louder and last longer as the threat intensifies. On the other hand, the joys of health, sociability, creativity, and even spirituality don’t call for such an intensification. We would gain no improved fitness for survival from a growing intensity of feeling good to feeing joyful to feeling ecstatic for growing lengths of time. In fact, sustained joy at too high a level might mean letting our guard down; happiness with no limits could increase risks. The wisdom of  “too much of a good thing” seems more deeply rooted in our biology than we imagined.

This is a topic I hope to pursue again. Interesting related readings include a discussion over at Humanistic Paganism on the potential excesses of spiritual experiences. And this 2009 dissertation by Kenneth Lehman on Darwinian Happiness , while specialized, is informative in its opening pages about the definitions and assessment techniques that research psychologists work with in happiness studies.

 

Hindus Seek Detachment. Have Plants and Animals Already Found It?

Here in suburbia, next to a glassy corporate office, sits a Hindu temple, its white, ornate façade surrounded by parking lots. Curious, I removed my shoes and walked into the large room. Instead of chairs or benches I found a marble, white and gold room with altars placed throughout. Worshippers strolled from one garlanded deity to the next, circling them several times or standing before them with hands together, eyes closed, heads lowered.

hindu temple inside (blogs.bootsnall.com

(blogs.bootnall.com)

Along the walls was a frieze of passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the dialogue between the god Krishna and a warrior about to enter battle, Arjuna. I walked beneath Krishna’s words about detachment:

He who hates no creature, who is friendly and compassionate to all, who is free from attachment, balanced in pleasure and pain, and forgiving…is dear to Me.

He by whom the world is not agitated and who cannot be agitated by the world, who is freed from joy, envy, fear, and anxiety—is dear to Me….

He who neither rejoices, nor hates, nor grieves, nor desires, renouncing good and evil, full of devotion, is dear to Me.

He who is the same to foe and friend, and also in honor and dishonor, who is the same in cold and heat and in pleasure and pain, who is free from attachment, to whom censure and praise are equal, who is silent, content with anything, homeless, steady-minded, full of devotion—that man is dear to Me.

I left the temple soothed by the place and by the words, by the invocation of a calm that does not take sides or react or pursue.

In my backyard later, I wondered whether nature sends us the same message of the value of steadfastness that Krishna proclaims. Can the non-theist find in other living things a model of that centeredness that rises above dualities?

(ivillage.com)

(ivillage.com)

I’m not sure. The backyard is a calm place, but even in winter the creatures there are hardly without their “attachments.” Birds search constantly for food and for each other. The trees and bushes and grass, though less agitated, are hardly “content with anything.” They wilt in a drought and burst with life when the environment is kind. They are different in good circumstances and bad, very different. What would Krishna say?

He might observe that plants and animals follow their in-born programs with no distracting superstructure of plans, preferences, or judgments. He would probably say that, except for humans and some animals, other living things may struggle and even kill but they don’t hate, they may shy from danger but they aren’t riven by anxiety, they may react differently to cold and heat but only at the basic physiological level.

So perhaps in the backyard I am looking at an imperfect but good lesson in how beings can do the work of staying alive and yet remain undistracted and unconfused. Can the human non-theist find a model of detachment in other living things? Partly, yes.

A River and a Volleyball

Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?

Paul Robeson singing

Paul Robeson singing “Ol Man River” in the 1936 film of Show Boat
(youtube)

Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jus’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along….

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ rack’d wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

The 1927 sheet music for

The 1927 sheet music for “Ol Man River” 
(Wikipedia)

“Ol’ Man River,” a moving lament of hard labor, racism, and indifference, might read like a Negro spiritual from the days of slavery, but it is not. It is a musical number from Show Boat, written in 1927 and set in the 1920s, about a river boat that offers theatrical productions at towns along the water. “Ol’ Man River” is sung by one of the dock workers, Joe; here is Paul Robeson’s peerless rendition from the 1936 film version. The lyrics were written by Broadway songwriter Oscar Hammerstein.

If it is not an actual Negro spiritual, how might we describe this song? Unlike traditional spirituals, the song includes very few biblical references—only to the judgment day when Joe will find rest and to another river, the Jordan, that he longs to cross to a new life. And Joe’s song is not a prayer, as many spirituals and hymns are; he is singing about the Mississippi, not to it.

But the song is spiritual in other ways. It is a vision of suffering. And it personifies the river as an all-knowing, constant, imperturable companion. Although the river “don’ say nuthin’,” imagining it as a witness helps Joe feel less alone. The river is personified more than it is deified; the spirituality of “Ol’ Man River” is relatively non-theistic. It adapts the language and emotion of a Negro spiritual to create a secular hymn of sorrow. But it reminds us of how long humans have been animating the forces of nature to help them manage their fears or understand what they could not control.

Wilson, Tom Hanks' companion in

Wilson, Tom Hanks’ companion in “Cast Away”
(rogerebert.com)

A personification similar to “ol’ man river” is Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the film Cast Away. After a plane crash, Hanks’ character washes ashore on an uninhabited island along with cargo that includes a Wilson volleyball. Hanks draws its face with his bleeding hand. Over the ensuing years, he chats with Wilson, listens to it, yells at it, and finally weeps when it floats away from the raft that Hanks escapes on.

Like Joe’s all-knowing river, Wilson, in Hanks’ mind, seems wise. Unlike the mute river, though, and appropriately for a man alone on a deserted island, Wilson seems to listen and respond. Both works portray the emergence of a living persona in an object, a process that results from an individual’s suffering and the need for a reliable, wise—but not a notably supernatural or even sympathetic—companion.

Yet Joe’s river is, compared to the volleyball, a grander spiritual vision. The Mississippi is the witness for the exploitation and racism that fill not only Joe’s life but the lives of those around him. The Mississippi of the song is a transcendent presence and perhaps offers Joe the consolation that suffering and injustice are small pieces of a larger entity. Joe understands that the flow of the river, like the flow of time, does not stop for the struggles of anyone.