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.

“Comparison Is the Thief of Happiness”

“Comparison is the thief of all happiness*,” says former NFL star Joe Ehrmann in denouncing the pressures on boys to “be a man,” in the film The Mask You Live In. Messages overt and covert from fathers down to video games leave males of all ages struggling with loneliness and fury. Similar pressures, certainly, weigh on females and most other human groups. Comparing ourselves to others haunts and hurts us all.

comparison (fitzvillafuerte.com)

(fitzvillafuerte.com)

But there’s a catch: Comparison brings pleasure as well as pain. In How the Mind Works, psychologist Stephen Pinker concurs with the popular wisdom that “people are happy when they feel better off than their neighbors, unhappy when they feel worse off….You open your paycheck and are delighted to find you have been given a five percent raise—until you learn that your co-workers have been given a ten percent raise.” Happiness often lasts no longer than the tingle of the flattering comparison that brought it on.

So how are we to understand happiness if it is so frail, so dependent on where we stand in relation to others? Many people don’t puzzle over the nature of happiness very much; they view it as a self-evident goal that they can pursue, find, and remain in, as if it were a job or a house. “I just want to be happy.” I remember my surprise decades ago when a friend mentioned off-handedly that perhaps happiness is not the goal of life. The possibility had never occurred to me.

Happiness looks a little clearer quickly when we separate the two broad meanings of the word. One is satisfaction, as in “Overall, I’m happy with my life so far.” The other meaning is the emotional flush of joy or excitement, as in “happy dance.” Another kind of understanding of happiness and how to reach it, one that does not depend on comparison to others, is the practice of mindfulness that many find to be a path towards contentment and joy.

For me, the evolutionary perspective is also enlightening. If unhappiness comes at us in so many shapes while happiness remains so elusive, a reason may be that for any organism, many more things can go dangerously wrong than can go blissfully right. Pinker: “There are twice as many negative emotions (fear, grief, anxiety, and so on) as positive ones, and losses are more keenly felt than equivalent gains….[P]eople’s mood plummets more when imagining a loss in their lives…than it rises when imagining an equivalent gain….[H]appiness 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).

So it’s not that happiness eludes us soley because comparisons steal it or we are incapable of finding it. It’s that we come into life in the first place equipped with alarm bells for all the gritty dangers and with only a selection of pleasures.

 

*Teddy Roosevelt is credited with the original version: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”