I want to propose an idea that can make us contented (happy), imaginative, and progressive.
Some may say contentment with what we have, and imaginative progress, are not contradictory. But how could we possibly be happy with what we have and still want to imagine and create a better future?
I believe we can solve this contradiction by harnessing time and distance. We should let the day-to-day small desires and fears wash over, us but use our thoughtful long-term desires and values drive our imagination and invention. Values like; love, justice, safety, and harmony should help us create a more peaceful, secure and insightful world. Creation, based upon higher values and thoughtful desires, will create an environment conducive to happiness; a life of meaning, and an inner life capable of accepting, but not acting upon, the insignificant.
Subjective and Objective
The last sentence I wrote was just a collection of subjective adjectives about happiness. We are modern people, that consider our own happiness to be subjective, and something we determine. Go back a few hundred years and all things like beauty, happiness, and goodness were objective. They were defined by absolutes, which the mere mortal could strive to become. Venus was beauty, Jesus was good, and life wasn’t meant to be happy, because one achieved happiness from an afterlife by doing good deeds to achieve the objective perfection.
But we are not so naïve now, so you’ll have to put up with a bunch of subjective terms throughout this article like; wellbeing, goodness, happiness, contentment, fulfillment, meaning, insignificant, worthy… None of which I will really explain in this article -but don’t let that put you off.
The Problem with Happiness
I came across the problem whilst reading Sapiens by Yuval Harari. He surmises the problem with happiness quite succinctly. He states, happiness is caused by meaning, chemicals, or genes (inheritance). I would also add environment, because the subjective studies also show that people’s baseline happiness can move quite drastically over time and environment. If you are put in prison then you are unhappier than you are outside of prison, but you still have fluctuations around this new baseline. Harari has problems with all of these, as do I, and settles with the Buddhist idea of contentment through the absence of desire and fear as the key to long lasting happiness.
When we have a higher goal we can endure any pain. As a religious fanatic blowing themselves up, or a capitalist working 14-hour days on the markets, we can endure any small pains and feel happy when working towards a higher purpose. If the meaning we give our lives matches the wider meanings of society, whether they are aesthetic beauty, God(s) wealth creation, or freedom, we can be content.
The problem is that all these ideologies are human creations; they are delusions, and it feels quite sick to expect contentment through communal self-delusion.
The stuff that really causes happy feelings is the interaction of chemicals with our biology, in particular our brain. When we receive serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine, we feel happy. We are now are so smart we can artificially make these substances, or substances (that will force our bodies to release them), so we can dope ourselves to happiness.
Like the soma doped Proles in Brave New World, we can be happy with any environment, and a life, without meaning if we just take our daily happy pills.
Fortunately, this is really unappealing to most people, mainly because a good life isn’t all about happiness, or at least a narrow form of happiness, that does not include fulfillment. Joy often comes from change and variation;- some sadness is needed for true joy.
It is currently believed that we have a base line of happiness, which we will revert to after any tragedy or good fortune has passed. Studies have shown that after the original shock of an accident or lottery win we revert to our previous happiness level. We are all born with different happiness levels, therefore the sad will always be sad and the happy will be happy.
There are some problems with these studies, as subjective happiness maybe relative to what you expect your happiness to be in relation to others, and the current environment. For instance, if everyone around you is more miserable than you then you may think yourself very happy, but if you were to be surrounded by people who are much happier then you may think yourself quite unhappy, although you are no different.
The environment you are surrounded by will change this baseline. If in prison, your baseline will go down, and if you are at liberty and loved by many, your happiness baseline will go up. A traumatic event, like war or assault, can have a similar effect lowering the baseline.
So, as established, your environment does matter. Being subjected to an environment that is harsh and painful for prolonged periods will change your subjective happiness. Also, having a supportive and interesting environment – one full of novelty – will decrease stress levels, which can encourage neurogenesis and general increases in wellbeing.
Happy world = happy girl.
Absence of Desires and Fear
A Buddhist would say it is our desire to scratch the itch that causes us suffering, not the rash creating the itch itself. All desire is suffering therefore to find contentment we should abandon all desire. From this true understanding will spring forth bringing an indescribable joy, far better than any lottery win, or even orgasm.
Through meditation and peaceful contemplation we can accept our desires and fears, as part of our body, but not our true selves. Acknowledged but non-controlling, we can embrace everything as one
This sounds good, but don’t we lose some good things about desire along the way, like how they motivate us to create, how creation can give us meaning, and how meaning can lead to contentment and joy?
Also, without the desire for sex won’t the human species die out? Most Buddhist monks are celibate! Some might say this is a good thing for the planet, but I don’t.
Why Imagination and Progress are Important
I asked myself how would I explain to the Dali Lama that imagination and progress are important. I said, in my mind, “if we weren’t competing with the USSR, and we didn’t feel belittled by Sputnik, and we didn’t desire adventure, that we would never have gone to the moon. Once we got to the moon we could look back and see our Earth, our home, as a small fragile planet floating in a black, empty and hostile sea of space, and this profoundly changed our view of ourselves, and our planet. We gained deep insight, and new meaning, from our desire for adventure and competition.” He could respond that through contemplation a Buddhist could garner such an insight, without competition, or desire for adventure. And then I thought that Gautama, the first Buddha, made his discovery of Nirvana from discontent with the cycle of suffering that is Samsara.
Higher values can drive discovery, and this discovery can give meaning to an otherwise meaningless life. From this, contentment and fulfillment grow. But, our day-to-day desires and fears can prevent us from attaining both adventure and meaning, and therefore lasting happiness.
How to have Both
I’m inspired by a theory I have used before when writing about moral decision making. Construal level theory says, and has been empirically tested to show, that when we are forced by our environment to make decisions quickly, and in reaction to immediate needs and desires, we refer to base, or lower values like popularity, comfort, fitting in, craving, and phobias. However, when given time and space to contemplate decisions, when we are free from immediate needs, desires and fears, we make our decisions on higher values of justice, love, peace and fairness
These higher values are the ones that drive good art, beneficial invention, and a good society. They drive the creation of a good environment and happy exploration. It is love, rather than a desire for attention, that creates contented happiness.
We create this by not only being all Buddhist and letting the immediate desires and fears wash over us and pass, but also by creating an environment which allows leisure and security: security from fears, the judgment of others, and bodily needs.
We also need meaning, but meaning does not need to come from delusion into the memes of others, but can be found through the exploration and wonder of our inner selves and outer world. Again, we need peace and security to find this.
We can embrace and follow the desires, and react to the fears that we have had time to contemplate. We do not react to minor things, but if persistent, we should make changes to our environment that eliminate such fears and desires. We must have the time to compare the small pulls on us with our higher purpose – one that can only be found through exploration and peace, and from this lasting contentment will come.
David J Campbell
First published on uncorkedwords