This excerpt from Yuval Noah Harari’s wonderful book Sapiens manages to distil a great deal of wisdom and discernment about our quixotic quest for feeling good. I think it also points to the challenges that we face as psychotherapists in working with clients’ assumptions (which are also our own!) about striving for happiness and well-being: highlighting how these assumptions have fundamental cultural and historical foundations which we rarely question, so intrinsic are they to the symbolic worlds in which we live.
Social scientists measure happiness by distributing subjective well-being questionnaires and correlating the results with socio-economic factors such as wealth and political freedom. Biologists use the same questionnaires, but correlate the answers people give them with biochemical and genetic factors. Their findings are shocking.
Biologists hold that our mental and emotional world is governed by biochemical mechanisms shaped by millions of years of evolution. Like all other mental states, our subjective well-being is not determined by external parameters such as salary, social relations or political rights. Rather, it is determined by a complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
Nobody is ever made happy by winning the lottery, buying a house, getting a promotion or even finding true love. People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies. A person who just won the lottery or found new love and jumps from joy is not really reacting to the money or the lover. She is reacting to various hormones coursing through her bloodstream, and to the storm of electric signals flashing between different parts of her brain.
Unfortunately for all hopes of creating heaven on earth, our internal biochemical system seems to be programmed to keep happiness levels relatively constant. There’s no natural selection for happiness as such – a happy hermit’s genetic line will go extinct as the genes of a pair of anxious parents get carried on to the next generation. Happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage or discourage survival and reproduction. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that evolution has moulded us to be neither too miserable nor too happy. It enables us to enjoy a momentary rush of pleasant sensations, but these never last for ever. Sooner or later they subside and give place to unpleasant sensations.
For example, evolution provided pleasant feelings as rewards to males who spread their genes by having sex with fertile females. If sex were not accompanied by such pleasure, few males would bother. At the same time, evolution made sure that these pleasant feelings quickly subsided. If orgasms were to last for ever, the very happy males would die of hunger for lack of interest in food, and would not take the trouble to look for additional fertile females.
Some scholars compare human biochemistry to an air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature constant, come heatwave or snowstorm. Events might momentarily change the temperature, but the air-conditioning system always returns the temperature to the same set point.
Some air-conditioning systems are set at twenty-five degrees Celsius. Others are set at twenty degrees. Human happiness conditioning systems also differ from person to person. On a scale from one to ten, some people are born with a cheerful biochemical system that allows their mood to swing between levels six and ten, stabilising with time at eight. Such a person is quite happy even if she lives in an alienating big city, loses all her money in a stock-exchange crash and is diagnosed with diabetes. Other people are cursed with a gloomy biochemistry that swings between three and seven and stabilises at five. Such an unhappy person remains depressed even if she enjoys the support of a tight-knit community, wins millions in the lottery and is as healthy as an Olympic athlete. Indeed, even if our gloomy friend wins $50,000,000 in the morning, discovers the cure for both AIDS and cancer by noon, makes peace between Israelis and Palestinians that afternoon, and then in the evening reunites with her long-lost child who disappeared years ago – she would still be incapable of experiencing anything beyond level seven happiness. Her brain is simply not built for exhilaration, come what may.
Think for a moment of your family and friends. You know some people who remain relatively joyful, no matter what befalls them. And then there are those who are always disgruntled, no matter what gifts the world lays at their feet. We tend to believe that if we could just change our workplace, get married, finish writing that novel, buy a new car or repay the mortgage, we would be on top of the world. Yet when we get what we desire we don’t seem to be any happier. Buying cars and writing novels do not change our biochemistry. They can startle it for a fleeting moment, but it is soon back to its set point.
How can this be squared with other psychological and sociological findings that, for example, married people are happier on average than singles? First, these findings are correlations – the direction of causation may be the opposite of what some researchers have assumed. It is true that married people are happier than singles and divorcees, but that does not necessarily mean that marriage produces happiness. It could be that happiness causes marriage. Or more correctly, that serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin bring about and maintain a marriage. People who are born with a cheerful biochemistry are generally happy and content. Such people are more attractive spouses, and consequently they have a greater chance of getting married. They are also less likely to divorce, because it is far easier to live with a happy and content spouse than with a depressed and dissatisfied one. Consequently, it’s true that married people are happier on average than singles, but a single woman prone to gloom because of her biochemistry would not necessarily become happier if she were to hook up with a husband.
In addition, most biologists are not fanatics. They maintain that happiness is determined mainly by biochemistry, but they agree that psychological and sociological factors also have their place. Our mental air-conditioning system has some freedom of movement within predetermined borders. It is almost impossible to exceed the upper and lower emotional boundaries, but marriage and divorce can have an impact in the area between the two. Somebody born with an average of level five happiness would never dance wildly in the streets. But a good marriage should enable her to enjoy level seven from time to time, and to avoid the despondency of level three.
If we accept the biological approach to happiness, then history turns out to be of minor importance, since most historical events have had no impact on our biochemistry. History can change the external stimuli that cause serotonin to be secreted, yet it does not change the resulting serotonin levels, and hence it cannot make people happier.
Compare a medieval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker. The peasant lived in an unheated mud hut overlooking the local pigsty, while the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest technological gadgets and a view to the Champs-Elysées. Intuitively, we would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant. However, mud huts, penthouses and the Champs-Elysées don’t really determine our mood. Serotonin does. When the medieval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain neurons secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level X. When in 2014 the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, brain neurons secreted a similar amount of serotonin, bringing it up to a similar level X. It makes no difference to the brain that the penthouse is far more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing that matters is that at present the level of serotonin is X. Consequently the banker would not be one iota happier than his great-great-great-grandfather, the poor medieval peasant.
This is true not only of private lives, but also of great collective events. Take, for example, the French Revolution. The revolutionaries were busy: they executed the king, gave lands to the peasants, declared the rights of man, abolished noble privileges and waged war against the whole of Europe. Yet none of that changed French biochemistry. Consequently, despite all the political, social, ideological and economic upheavals brought about by the revolution, its impact on French happiness was small. Those who won a cheerful biochemistry in the genetic lottery were just as happy before the revolution as after. Those with a gloomy biochemistry complained about Robespierre and Napoleon with the same bitterness with which they earlier complained about Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.
If so, what good was the French Revolution? If people did not become any happier, then what was the point of all that chaos, fear, blood and war? Biologists would never have stormed the Bastille. People think that this political revolution or that social reform will make them happy, but their biochemistry tricks them time and again.
There is only one historical development that has real significance. Today, when we finally realise that the keys to happiness are in the hands of our biochemical system, we can stop wasting our time on politics and social reforms, putsches and ideologies, and focus instead on the only thing that can make us truly happy: manipulating our biochemistry. If we invest billions in understanding our brain chemistry and developing appropriate treatments, we can make people far happier than ever before, without any need of revolutions. Prozac, for example, does not change regimes, but by raising serotonin levels it lifts people out of their depression.
Nothing captures the biological argument better than the famous New Age slogan: ‘Happiness Begins Within.’ Money, social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin.
In Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World, published in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, happiness is the supreme value and psychiatric drugs replace the police and the ballot as the foundation of politics. Each day, each person takes a dose of ‘soma’, a synthetic drug which makes people happy without harming their productivity and efficiency. The World State that governs the entire globe is never threatened by wars, revolutions, strikes or demonstrations, because all people are supremely content with their current conditions, whatever they may be. Huxley’s vision of the future is far more troubling than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Huxley’s world seems monstrous to most readers, but it is hard to explain why. Everybody is happy all the time – what could be wrong with that?
THE MEANING OF LIFE
Huxley’s disconcerting world is based on the biological assumption that happiness equals pleasure. To be happy is no more and no less than experiencing pleasant bodily sensations. Since our biochemistry limits the volume and duration of these sensations, the only way to make people experience a high level of happiness over an extended period of time is to manipulate their biochemical system.
But that definition of happiness is contested by some scholars. In a famous study, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, asked people to recount a typical work day, going through it episode by episode and evaluating how much they enjoyed or disliked each moment. He discovered what seems to be a paradox in most people’s view of their lives. Take the work involved in raising a child. Kahneman found that when counting moments of joy and moments of drudgery, bringing up a child turns out to be a rather unpleasant affair. It consists largely of changing nappies, washing dishes and dealing with temper tantrums, which nobody likes to do. Yet most parents declare that their children are their chief source of happiness. Does it mean that people don’t really know what’s good for them?
That’s one option. Another is that the findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values make all the difference to whether we see ourselves as ‘miserable slaves to a baby dictator’ or as ‘lovingly nurturing a new life’. As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, you can bear almost any how. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is.
Though people in all cultures and eras have felt the same type of pleasures and pains, the meaning they have ascribed to their experiences has probably varied widely. If so, the history of happiness might have been far more turbulent than biologists imagine. It’s a conclusion that does not necessarily favour modernity. Assessing life minute by minute, medieval people certainly had it rough. However, if they believed the promise of everlasting bliss in the afterlife, they may well have viewed their lives as far more meaningful and worthwhile than modern secular people, who in the long term can expect nothing but complete and meaningless oblivion. Asked ‘Are you satisfied with your life as a whole?’, people in the Middle Ages might have scored quite highly in a subjective well-being questionnaire.
So our medieval ancestors were happy because they found meaning to life in collective delusions about the afterlife? Yes. As long as nobody punctured their fantasies, why shouldn’t they? As far as we can tell, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose. Our actions are not part of some divine cosmic plan, and if planet Earth were to blow up tomorrow morning, the universe would probably keep going about its business as usual. As far as we can tell at this point, human subjectivity would not be missed. Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion. The other-worldly meanings medieval people found in their lives were no more deluded than the modern humanist, nationalist and capitalist meanings modern people find. The scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in building a new company are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures, going on a crusade or building a new cathedral.
So perhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.
This is quite a depressing conclusion. Does happiness really depend on self-delusion?
If happiness is based on feeling pleasant sensations, then in order to be happier we need to re-engineer our biochemical system. If happiness is based on feeling that life is meaningful, then in order to be happier we need to delude ourselves more effectively. Is there a third alternative?
Both the above views share the assumption that happiness is some sort of subjective feeling (of either pleasure or meaning), and that in order to judge people’s happiness, all we need to do is ask them how they feel. To many of us, that seems logical because the dominant religion of our age is liberalism. Liberalism sanctifies the subjective feelings of individuals. It views these feelings as the supreme source of authority. What is good and what is bad, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what ought to be and what ought not to be, are all determined by what each one of us feels.
Liberal politics is based on the idea that the voters know best, and there is no need for Big Brother to tell us what is good for us. Liberal economics is based on the idea that the customer is always right. Liberal art declares that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Students in liberal schools and universities are taught to think for themselves. Commercials urge us to ‘Just do it!’ Action films, stage dramas, soap operas, novels and catchy pop songs indoctrinate us constantly: ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘Listen to yourself’, ‘Follow your heart’. Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated this view most classically: ‘What I feel to be good – is good. What I feel to be bad – is bad.’
People who have been raised from infancy on a diet of such slogans are prone to believe that happiness is a subjective feeling and that each individual best knows whether she is happy or miserable. Yet this view is unique to liberalism. Most religions and ideologies throughout history stated that there are objective yardsticks for goodness and beauty, and for how things ought to be. They were suspicious of the feelings and preferences of the ordinary person. At the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, pilgrims were greeted by the inscription: ‘Know thyself!’ The implication was that the average person is ignorant of his true self, and is therefore likely to be ignorant of true happiness. Freud would probably concur.
And so would Christian theologians. St Paul and St Augustine knew perfectly well that if you asked people about it, most of them would prefer to have sex than pray to God. Does that prove that having sex is the key to happiness? Not according to Paul and Augustine. It proves only that humankind is sinful by nature, and that people are easily seduced by Satan. From a Christian viewpoint, the vast majority of people are in more or less the same situation as heroin addicts. Imagine that a psychologist embarks on a study of happiness among drug users. He polls them and finds that they declare, every single one of them, that they are only happy when they shoot up. Would the psychologist publish a paper declaring that heroin is the key to happiness?
The idea that feelings are not to be trusted is not restricted to Christianity. At least when it comes to the value of feelings, even Darwin and Dawkins might find common ground with St Paul and St Augustine. According to the selfish gene theory, natural selection makes people, like other organisms, choose what is good for the reproduction of their genes, even if it is bad for them as individuals. Most males spend their lives toiling, worrying, competing and fighting, instead of enjoying peaceful bliss, because their DNA manipulates them for its own selfish aims. Like Satan, DNA uses fleeting pleasures to tempt people and place them in its power.
Most religions and philosophies have consequently taken a very different approach to happiness than liberalism does. The Buddhist position is particularly interesting. Buddhism has assigned the question of happiness more importance than perhaps any other human creed. For 2,500 years, Buddhists have systematically studied the essence and causes of happiness, which is why there is a growing interest among the scientific community both in their philosophy and their meditation practices.
Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions.
According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel, craving to experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding pain. Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether scratching our leg, fidgeting slightly in the chair, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings.
The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.
What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises? According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.
People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been.
The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!
This idea is so alien to modern liberal culture that when Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into liberal terms, thereby turning them on their head. New Age cults frequently argue: ‘Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside. People should stop pursuing external achievements such as wealth and status, and connect instead with their inner feelings.’ Or more succinctly, ‘Happiness Begins Within.’ This is exactly what biologists argue, but more or less the opposite of what Buddha said.
Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.
To sum up, subjective well-being questionnaires identify our well-being with our subjective feelings, and identify the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of particular emotional states. In contrast, for many traditional philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself – to understand who, or what, you really are. Most people wrongly identify themselves with their feelings, thoughts, likes and dislikes. When they feel anger, they think, ‘I am angry. This is my anger.’ They consequently spend their life avoiding some kinds of feelings and pursuing others. They never realise that they are not their feelings, and that the relentless pursuit of particular feelings just traps them in misery.
If this is so, then our entire understanding of the history of happiness might be misguided. Maybe it isn’t so important whether people’s expectations are fulfilled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves. What evidence do we have that people today understand this truth any better than ancient foragers or medieval peasants?
Scholars began to study the history of happiness only a few years ago, and we are still formulating initial hypotheses and searching for appropriate research methods. It’s much too early to adopt rigid conclusions and end a debate that’s hardly yet begun. What is important is to get to know as many different approaches as possible and to ask the right questions.
From Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind