May 28, 2012

The Illusion of Society Defined Happiness

Being happy as defined by today's society is an illusion. The human brain is wired such that it always needs new and more to be happy. It quickly adapts to new situations regardless of how good or bad, such that extreme events of happiness or sadness overtime becomes irrelevant and the norm. To illustrate this point, imagine for a second that you have everything you've ever wanted and dreamed of having: money, health, power, titles, houses, cars, friend, etc. Obviously you imagine feeling extremely happy and excited if you were to make this dream a reality. However; what happens when you've reached your dreams and time continues to elapse? Does your initial excitement and happiness persist over time? Obviously the answer is no for most situations as is evident in Hollywood. Happiness requires that we always outdo our previous experiences, everything from food, sex, wealth, travels and adventures.

The argument I am making as emphasized above is again that achieving society-defined happiness is impossible because the human brain is not wired to achieve such happiness. It has a complex reward and punishment mechanism through releasing and suppressing certain chemicals, influencing our behavior to maximize the survival and spread of our genes. Our brains have evolved over millions of years to serve our genes, not us, by making our survival and finding healthy sexual partners more likely. As Richard Dawkins puts it in his best seller The Selfish Gene:
“We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines..."
That said, our brains, by releasing dopamine, endorphins, opiates, cortisol and other chemicals, influence our behavior for the benefit of our genes. For example, sex is always a big stimulator and excites us because through sex our genes spread and move on to the next generation. When we are having or pursuing sex, our brains are flooded with dopamine and endorphines (feel good chemicals). The same is true for food which we and our genes need to survive. Cortisol or stress hormones are produced in the brain when we feel threatened and scared. It's our brain's way of alerting the whole system to be ready to fight or run away, again to maximize the survival of our bodies and our genes.
Our genes don't care whether we're happy, they care that we replicate, that we pass our genes on. So we have 3 systems that underlie reproduction, because it's so important. There's lust, which is just wanting to have sex. And that's really mediated by the sex hormones. Romantic attraction, that gets into the desire system. And that's dopamine-fed. And that's, "I must have this one person." There's attachment, which is oxytocin, and the opiates, which says, "This is a long-term bond." See the problem is that, as humans, these three can separate. So a person can be in a long term attachment, become romantically infatuated with someone else, and want to have sex with a third person.
-Cognitive researcher Dr. Nancy Etcoff
So what? Should we just be slaves to our genes and ignore our need for happiness and excitment regardless of how it is defined, by society, religion or other ideologies?
We pursue happiness and paradoxically it leads to resentment and then unhappiness, and an explosion of mental illness. We seek freedom, and yet we live in a world more monitored by cameras, [and] which has become dominated by what De Tocqueville called ‘a network of small, complicated rules that cover the surface of life and strangle freedom’. More information; we have it in spades. But we get less able to use it [and] to understand it [and] to be wise. (

to be continued.....

1 comment:

  1. Very nice, Dr. Sevan, philosopher extraordinaire.