June 8, 2011

Happiness is…

As a young child, I had a small squarish Peanuts cartoon book entitled “Happiness is…” On each page, it had a captioned drawing of something it proposed to be synonymous with happiness. I believe the first page had a picture captioned “Happiness is a warm puppy.” In the way of a children’s book, it was not a bad effort. Obviously, it was not a very analytical look at happiness, but it was good enough to induce some measure of happiness in any child who could relate to its imagery. It is my intent, here, to do a little better analytically. I will not attempt to actually make anyone happy.

In any non-trivial examination of happiness, one must take it as a given that we are discussing something ultimately reducible to a physical condition of the brain. If one postulates an extra-physical realm for emotion, or any other sort of mental process for that matter, rational discussion ceases. I do not say that we are unfeeling machines, but rather that there is a machinery of feeling. If we discuss emotions without such an understanding, we tend to invent entities rather than describe reality. We can talk about happiness apart from brains, but only in the way we can talk about the aerobatic capabilities of angels or fairies. However, since I am not a neurophysiologist, I will not attempt to examine happiness at the level of synapses and neurotransmitters. Even if I could, I doubt that such an examination would prove fruitful. My purpose in confronting, from the outset, the gross physicality of emotions is simply to shear away the possibility of metaphysical distractions. Feelings are rooted in chemistry, not in spiritual ether.

My second assumption is that matter follows rules that are intrinsic to it, and that at the gross level of complex organisms these material underpinnings still apply. It is not necessary to understand these rules fully, either in detail or in their aggregate, to talk about them meaningfully. We can know that we cannot fly without having a very sophisticated understanding of either gravity or aerodynamics.

Finally, I make the specific claim that natural selection is a gross manifestation of more fundamental natural laws. Evolution is a kind of macro-process of physics, and as such it is as legitimate to interpret our behavior from that perspective as it would be to interpret our physiology in chemical terms. Having stated these assumptions, we may now proceed.

Happiness is a very broad term. It may mean anything from the simplest physical pleasure to the most subtle intellectual satisfaction. I mean to encompass the full range of things that make people “happy” because I believe that all happiness can be reduced to a category of brain states. Different parts of the brain may be involved in different varieties of happiness, but they are all fundamentally physical states. To be a little more specific, all forms of happiness are brain states to which we are attracted. To put this in the form of a working definition:

A state of happiness is any condition which our conscious behavior aims to achieve.

We often behave in ways that ultimately fail to achieve a state of happiness, but I am making a definitional claim that happiness is the goal of every deliberate action that we make. We may fail
because our capacity to foresee the consequences of our actions is imperfect, because our goals are unattainable, or because we sacrifice a future state of happiness for an immediate one, but we strive for happiness nonetheless.

The obvious corollary to our working definition of happiness is:

A state of suffering is any condition which our conscious behavior aims to avoid.

Again, this is a definitional claim. If an individual avoids something, it constitutes a perceived state of suffering for that individual. In this formulation there are no absolute states of either happiness or suffering that are common to everyone. One individual’s delight may be another’s misery. For this reason, I have forsaken the usual formulation that pleasure and pain are the underlying motivations of all sentient beings. These two conditions usually have the connotation of being essentially sensations, which is too limiting of a realm of motivation to account for all behavior. Further, pleasure and pain can motivate certain peculiar individuals in unexpectedly contrary ways, and even normal human beings may be willing to endure certain pains for “pleasures” with no obvious physical manifestations. For example, a person might endure a vaccine injection for the sake of future health, even though that “health” will never be manifest in a particular sensation. Being definitional, my claims about happiness and suffering are less liable to contradiction.

Given that humans evolved to their present state under the same sort of selective pressures that drive evolution in other organisms, it is reasonable to suppose that those things that make us happy – those things to which we are attracted – are typically things that helped us to survive in the past. The enjoyment of things like food and sex are obvious prerequisites to our survival as a species, for example. Finding happiness in problem solving is also straightforwardly advantageous as a survival trait.

Those things that at least some human beings enjoy that are disadvantageous or neutral to the project of survival can be attributed to one of three types of causes. First, it may be that something once advantageous has become disadvantageous under current conditions. Our taste for sweet or fatty foods was beneficial in an environment in which such things were not superabundant. It is now a source of happiness that induces obesity and diabetes. Second, non-advantageous sources of happiness may be the result of natural variation. Some fraction of any population is always going to exhibit anomalous behaviors (motivated by anomalous desires). Evolution, it must be understood, does not make moral judgments. It simply populates the future with the descendents of the successful procreators of the present. Homosexuality, for example, is a human variation that obviously has no reproductive benefits. Nature does not mind if an individual foregoes reproduction, it just puts an end to that individual’s particular genes. Finally, some sources of happiness are clearly the consequences of capabilities that have evolved in association with some other function. It is hard to imagine where an appreciation for art or music came from if not from simply having a brain that acquired a taste for patterns after generations of observation and problem solving. Even today, connoisseurship doesn’t confer enough advantage to conceivably be a driving force in evolution. We appreciate art and music because we can, and because doing so is at least rarely harmful.

Returning to our main line of thought, happiness and suffering are the motive forces of behavior. Or, more precisely, they are the perceived experiences that accompany those motive forces. It is certainly possible to separate the perceived experiences from any functional use, even at the organic level. Give a person certain drugs, and he or she will be happy or miserable in the complete absence of any other circumstantial cause. Under normal circumstances, however, the motive forces of happiness and suffering drive complex behavior in pretty much the same sense that electricity drives a computer. Without such a force, the machinery alone does nothing. Without emotional reinforcement of at least some minimal kind, we would be incapable of either directed action or directed thought.

I do not wish to imply that what makes us happy is entirely predetermined by genetics. I believe it largely is, but brains are works in progress and change in response to the environments in which they are immersed. Music offers a good example of this environmental acculturation. There may be something fundamental about music that practically all humans enjoy, but it would be ridiculous to think that some people have classical music genes, while others might have reggae genes. To a considerable extent, our brains adapt our conditions of happiness to fit our particular circumstances.

Happiness may find its evolutionary origin in some primordial physical pleasure, but it is clear that the brain is capable shifting its goals around to create new behavioral objectives. Most things modern humans do involves pursuing happiness through a tangle of symbols and other human constructs, and we seem to take pleasure in such abstract ventures with or without any tangible gain. What does one achieve by winning a private game of chess or solving a crossword puzzle? If one derives a sense of security from prayer or other worship, where exactly does that sense of security come from? Even a theist has to admit that other people’s gods are probably illusory, but give those people comfort nevertheless. Organisms with complex brains produce constructs that that lead to behavioral variation in a way analogous to the way all organisms produce bodily variation. I suspect, too, that these mental variations, on average, don’t fare any better than their physical counterparts. We do much that only makes our lives more difficult. If those difficulties are severe enough, our survival as individuals and as cultures hangs in the balance.

The sources of happiness are not entirely genetic, and neither are they entirely memetic. This is to say that while we are the products of both physical inheritance and culture, we are also the products of individual accident. I enjoy the music of Erik Satie, for example, even though no one in my family, and no one I know in my particular culture, shares this sentiment. Some resonance with Satie’s music is apparently a characteristic of my particular brain, and I was made aware of that resonance by an accident of circumstance. Similarly, people like or dislike certain foods, either because of some individual sensory response or because certain individual positive or negative events have been associated with those foods. Happiness and suffering are the expression of a unique set of mental preferences that are continuously remolded by one’s interaction with the world.

In an earlier work, I demonstrated that free will, in the sense of being a true originator of causal processes, is an illusion.1 This bears heavily on the notion of happiness, because it is commonly supposed that happiness and freedom are almost inseparable. This is plainly false, at least in terms of my definition of happiness. Consider that definition again:

A state of happiness is any condition which our conscious behavior aims to achieve.

Since freedom, in the sense of being independent of the rigors of external causes, does not even exist it would be ridiculous to talk about it in connection with a behavioral goal. The second sense in which we use the term “freedom,” the sense that freedom is the capacity to carry out our plans without obstruction, bears some relationship to happiness, but the two things are still not inseparable. There are, for example, people who are happiest under what the rest of us might consider very constraining systems. There are many people who thrive in very tight military hierarchies. There are even a few people who find themselves most comfortable in prison. For such people, happiness consists of letting someone else make most of their decisions, and their behaviors tend to seek out such orderly and limiting environments. I think it is fair to say that monastics and others who thrive under severe religious regimens are also examples of this mindset.

A variant of the “happiness is freedom” hypothesis is the belief that the more choices we have, the happier we are. First, I think this is an illusory position on its face. Whether we want to recognize it or not, our decision-making processes are ultimately brain processes too. Until someone can point to something which goes on in the brain that is not subject to the laws of physics and chemistry, the very term “choice” will remain essentially meaningless. One can only speak intelligibly about perceived choices, which is to say sensory, memory, and conceptual entities that the brain has not yet processed into action. Putting this technical objection aside, the assertion that more happiness is synonymous with more choices is still false. Even ignoring the military and religious cases noted above, decision making becomes a burden to even the most free-spirited, ungovernable personalities beyond a certain point.

To give a trivial example of such overload, imagine going into an ice cream parlor and being given a catalog of not 31, but perhaps ten or twenty thousand available flavors. On picking something appetizing on page twenty five, imagine then being made to specify the amount of ice cream you want to the nearest gram, your exact temperature preference to the nearest tenth degree, and then to have to select the shape you want in formed into from yet another large catalog of possibilities. This would certainly be an abundance of choices, but would hardly make most people very happy. It is true that many people seem to delight in ordering their Starbucks coffee to exacting specifications, but they are not exacting without limit. Further, when people place such complex orders, there appear to be other factors involved than a delight in variety. A delight in affected connoisseurship is only the first that leaps to mind.

Evolution has no doubt inclined most of us to find happiness in abundance, for which the perception of choice is probably a mere proxy. An abundance of food, for example, is obviously conducive to survival so long as one doesn’t gorge oneself into an unhealthy state. If one perceives a choice of desirable foods, it implies abundance as a precondition. In the particular case of food, variety is also healthy in itself. I doubt, though, that an ape offered ten bananas, ten oranges, ten apples, and ten melons is going to be any less happy than the same ape offered forty unique varieties of fruit. For most individuals, the pleasures of choice reach a point of saturation pretty quickly.

I believe this analytical examination of happiness is useful, not only because it frees us of metaphysical constructs but because it frees us of the narrow confines of our usual cultural norms. All human beings, indeed all conscious beings, seek happiness in accordance with their own genetic and environmental histories. The sum of what makes us happy or unhappy is the greater part of what defines us as individuals. While my perspective of this is an essentially neutral one, I am not a relativist. Even without saying that some forms of happiness are “better” than others, it is still possible to say that some forms of happiness are more attainable that others, lead to less inevitable suffering, and are more conducive to survival. Deriving happiness from other peoples’ misery always makes more suffering in the world, and often even makes more suffering than happiness for the perpetrator. Deriving most of one’s happiness from the illusory constructs of the imagination is also a losing pursuit. The brain evolved to deal with the things of the physical world, and the physical world still has the power to bite us if we take it for granted.

Each of us is work in progress, a sort of locus of passions, fears, knowledge and misconceptions continuously re-tabulating itself and cranking the results out in the form of behavior. Happiness is the reward we get when we find that we have momentarily gotten where we wanted to go. Suffering is what we feel when we don’t get there, or when we do and discover it is not what we expected.


1 http://cadwaladr.blogspot.com/2010/03/case-against-existence-of-free-will.html