The Western Path

The Western Path

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The History of Happiness

On a cold spring afternoon when I was twelve years old, I climbed up onto a large rock on a New Hampshire beach and stared out at the gray Atlantic Ocean. At that moment I realized that happiness is, roughly speaking, a state of mind in which the pleasures are greater than the pains, and that pleasure consists in the satisfaction of what are vaguely called instincts, from avoiding physical injury and staying out of the cold, to satisfying hunger and sexual desire, and so on.

Happiness is the most important thing in human life, perhaps the only important thing, yet there are very few books on the topic that are not mindless trash. In fact, people rarely talk about happiness, even though it is not exactly a taboo subject. Tracing happiness to its roots is a difficult task.

I still believe that my childhood theory was generally correct. Yet other matters seem to be entangled with it, and these other matters can both complement and negate the "instinct theory."

To pick the strangest of all the alternate theories: it is not merely a witty remark to say that our moods depend on the weather. If I go for a walk on a warm and sunny day, with a steady breeze blowing and a few perfect clouds in the sky, I can see that the wild animals seem to be in the same playful mood as myself. It seems rather silly to say that happiness depends on the weather. After all, the topic of weather is one that is chosen only when there is nothing else to talk about. On the other hand, long ago, when people lived as hunters and gatherers, and in the later centuries of Neolithic agriculture, the topic of weather was one of great importance. So who knows? Maybe human brains and nerves are highly respondent to sun and rain, wind and clouds.

But there are greater candidates than weather as the locus of happiness. I began to suspect that, although my theory of instincts was correct, I needed to pay more attention to what might be called "secondary needs." Most of these have been summed up quite neatly by Maslow in the second chapter of his Motivation and Personality. Happiness, in his view, consists in satisfying various needs, arranged in a hierarchy. The lower needs must be satisfied before the higher needs can be met -- in fact, the higher needs sometimes do not even exist until the lower needs have been satisfied. At the bottom are the more-physical needs such as avoidance of pain, the need for food, the need for sleep, and so on. Perhaps slightly higher would be the need for sex, although Maslow is rather vague about this topic. But for most people the higher needs seem to dominate. For example, people have a need for safety, for security, a need to avoid uncertainty and danger, to be free from worrying about tomorrow. A second need, almost contradicting the first, is the need to be free, to be independent, to live one's own life, not to be under someone else's thumb.

There are other needs. Of great importance is the need to be loved, to be cared for, to be cherished; there are so many people who exhibit what I call the Marilyn Monroe syndrome; such people have everything, but they die because in childhood they did not have what was needed. Then there is curiosity, the need to know what is over the next hill, what is behind the next tree; that curiosity can also take more-inward forms, such as wanting to know the structure of the human mind, or the structure of a computer. (To judge especially from other mammals, however, I would be inclined to list curiosity as an "instinct," a primary need, at least in the sense that most mammals seem to gravitate toward novelty, complexity, and intensity.)

Above all these other needs is one that is hard to comprehend: the need for self-actualization, the need "to be all that one can be," as is often said. But that need is so hard to define, and even to understand its existence requires a leap of intuition, an epiphany. Perhaps it can be said that all people need to be creative, all people need to use their minds one-hundred percent, rather than the five percent to which mentality is so often (so sadly) restricted. That creativity can take any form -- to be an artist, to be a musician, to write a novel, to build a house -- it all sounds a little stupid, as if the ultimate goal were to indulge in some sort of occupational therapy. But it is more than that, and I have certainly known that self-actualization once or twice in my own life, particularly when achieving some intellectual goal, when I have felt overtaken by a kind of shamanic spirit, but a spirit that is really my true self.

All these secondary needs seem to be derived from the instincts, the primary needs, perhaps in the sense that they serve to ensure the fulfillment of the primary needs, but the secondary needs soon take on a life of their own, they become autonomous, they overwhelm the primary needs. Again, Maslow is not terribly clear on this matter, and I am partly inserting my own ideas about the connection between innate drives and conditioned ones.

And thirdly, in this analysis of happiness, I might mention the Buddhist doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. Life, according to the Buddha, is largely suffering. Suffering is caused by tanha -- desire, craving, attachment. There is a way to end suffering, and that way is the Eightfold Path, the Buddhist code of morality, of daily discipline, of meditation -- but in essence, the Buddhist way is to withdraw from desire, to retreat from the torment of longing. "I want, I want, I want" is the song not only of every child, but of every adult. It is the animal nature in all of us, giving us no peace if we succumb to it. To be happy, in the Buddhist view, is to step back from one's animality, to say no to the great Darwinian struggle.

I have a lot of sympathy for the Buddhist view, and yet I am often worried by its similarity to Christian asceticism. Is that similarity only superficial? The puritanical Christian view is that one must withdraw from the desires of the flesh, that one must renounce lust and gluttony, that one must remove oneself from the fires of the mind, from anger and envy, pride and avarice -- in short, that one must be free from desire. How is this different from the Buddhist doctrine? Well, certainly there are a few differences. The Buddhists, for one thing, are not saying that desire is a sin, they are simply saying that it is a nuisance. Yet I have mixed feelings about the Buddhist retreat from desire. In some ways it seems to be a giving-up on life, a "chickening out," a kind of cowardice. 

It is true that if I say no to that woman I will never suffer from the pains of jealousy, of lust, of frustration, I will never know the pangs of a broken heart -- and yet I have always in my heart the memory of a certain smile, of soft slender arms around my neck, of her dark eyes and of the forest of her hair -- do I really want to find happiness by casting out all that from my past and my future? Do I really want to say that I have never been burned because I have never been warm? So I want to be a Buddhist, but perhaps only once a year.

But all that is not the end of the theories. Perhaps human moods are a genetic trait, in the same way that temperament can be bred into dogs. Or perhaps the first few years of life are critical, putting an indelible stamp on the future. Each of the above two theories has a rather fatalistic overtone, but for one there is a pharmaceutical answer, to the other a psychological one. No doubt some people have advantages, genetic or developmental, while some have disadvantages. These two theories complement the "instinct theory," and yet they are only tangential to it. They explain how some people have a better or worse starting point, yet they do not explain why an advantaged person may one day be sad, or how a disadvantaged person may one day be happy.

The same kind of thing would be true of good health, proper exercise, good sleep, adequate rest from daily labors, a high-fiber diet -- yes, absolutely essential. Theories about the Apocalypse can often be shattered by a good brisk walk. But I can't find much cosmological significance in all that. Again, it's tangential -- or rather, I would say that care of the body is merely part of our instinctive requirements, our primary needs.

At the age of twelve, and at the very beginning of the eighteenth century, Alexander Pope wrote his "Ode on Solitude": 

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air
In his own ground. . . . 

Pope's thoughts at age twelve, like my own thoughts upon that wave-encircled stone, were probably as good an answer as one is likely to find. But of course the human mind at age twelve is about as close to crystalline as it will ever be.


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