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.

“The Mind Is Mainly Drawn to the Future”

“The mind is mainly drawn to the future.” So write Martin Seligman and John Tierney in “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment” in the New York Times on May 21, 2017. The article is based on the book Homo Prospectus of which Seligman is an author.

Well, is this a new idea about the mind? We know that when we are feeling anxious or overloaded, our mind is scrambling to avoid a danger or find a way out. I know that even in calm hours, my head streams possible conversations in which I come out ahead, drafts blog posts, and edits memories so they’ll look a little better the next time I replay them.

In the Buddhist tradition, in contrast, such future-fussing is mainly about cultivating the illusion of the self. We tangle ourselves up in the false realities of ego, time, words. Better to explore the moment, leave the worries aside. Meditation cultivates a sharper awareness of the present and of our shining mind. The future may seem to be out there, but it is the mindful moment that is real.

mind future (ideamappingsuccess.com)

(ideamappingsuccess.com)

Seligman and Tierney don’t criticize such Buddhist values directly, though the focus on the future-oriented brain contrasts sharply with them. Instead, they take exception to the emphasis in psychology on studying the brain in terms mostly of the past (memory, repetitive learning) and the present (perception). They assert that “Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain….” We plan for tomorrow, we rehearse conversations, “We learn not by storing static records but by continually retouching memories and imagining future possibilities.” “Therapists are exploring new ways to treat depression now that they see it as primarily not because of past traumas and present stresses but because of skewed visions of what lies ahead.” And “Our brain sees the world not by processing every pixel in a scene but by focusing on the unexpected,” because what is unexpected might be a clue to what happens next.

This idea that we often understate the brain’s complex preparations for our future makes sense to me. No matter what other qualities of our mind we cherish, the brain’s critical function of scanning for danger and for biological necessities proceeds 24/7. As Darwin spelled it out,  we, like all organisms, are first about reproducing and surviving, and those are certainly future-oriented activities.

Thinking about the perpetually restless brain reminds me of taking our family’s young retriever Ginger for walks, years ago. My wife and I envisioned strolling around the neighborhood with Ginger calmly strolling with us. But what we got instead for the first year or three was a beast straining nonstop to charge ahead and away and pulling our arms practically out of the sockets. Eventually training and maturity sunk in a little and she walked more or less at our pace. But walking itself is a going into the future and Ginger was, like our ancient mind, never far from leaping into it.