Sunday, September 14, 2014

Why we do what we do

I was quite startled by a programme on the radio, especially the following transcribed excerpt. It’s a tiny fraction of a heavy book—literally*. I picked it up in the bookshop: not bedtime reading without strong arms. Yet in a few words it covers pleasure, happiness, the meaning of life—and how to make the most of it even if there is no meaning. It goes a long way to explaining religion and addictions, while offering no explanation as to why we have reached this point in our history, in this world of palpable imbalances. Enough to think about without bothering to read the other 115,000 words. See what you think. I could say a lot, but at this stage will leave comments to you, and to the Malinke tribe in the video embedded below

“There is also a biological reason why growing power does not translate easily into greater happiness. Our mental and emotional world is governed by bio-chemical mechanisms that were shaped by millions of years of evolution. Our happiness is not determined by our wealth or political rights. Rather, it is determined by a complex system of neurons, synapses and biochemicals. According to biologists, nobody is ever made happy by winning the Lottery, buying a house or even finding true love. People are made happy by one thing and one thing only: pleasant sensations in their bodies. Unfortunately, for all hopes of creating Heaven on earth, our internal biochemical system is programmed to keep happiness levels relatively constant. Pleasant sensations are only momentary rewards that soon subside. For Evolution has no interest in keeping us pleased. It is interested only in survival and reproduction. Since our biochemical system has not changed significantly in recent millennia, there’s no reason to think we are much happier than our ancestors. Compare a modern London banker to his forefather, a mediaeval peasant. 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. Intuitively, we would expect the banker to be much happier than the peasant. However, when the mediaeval peasant completed the construction of his mud hut, his brain secreted serotonin, bringing it up to level x. When in 2014, the banker made the last payment on his wonderful penthouse, his brain 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 the peasant.


“No movement without rhythm”--click for documentary video
“If happiness is really determined by our biochemical system, then further economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions are unlikely to make us much happier. Some argue that happiness shouldn’t be identified with pleasure; and that the real key to happiness is feeling that your life has meaning. The problem with that approach is that 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 great cosmic plan; and if planet Earth were to explode tomorrow morning, the Universe would keep going about its business as usual. Hence, any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a delusion.

“So if happiness is based on feeling pleasant sensations, then in order to feel happier, we need to re-engineer our biochemical system. If happiness is based on feeling that life is meaningful, then we need to delude ourselves more effectively. Is there a third alternative? One interesting alternative has been suggested by Buddhism. According to Buddhism, all feelings, whether of pleasure or of meaning, or of anything else, are just ephemeral vibrations that disappear as fast as they arise. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, that feeling has now gone, and I may feel angry or bored. If I identify happiness with particular feelings, and crave to experience more and more of these, I have no choice but to constantly pursue them. And even if I get them, they immediately disappear and I have to start all over again. This pursuit brings no lasting achievement. It creates only stress and dissatisfaction. However, if I learn to see my feelings for what they really are—ephemeral and meaningless vibrations—I lose interest in pursuing them and can be content with whatever I experience. For what is the point of running after something that disappears as fast as it arises? For Buddhism, then, happiness isn’t a particular feeling, but rather the wisdom, serenity and freedom that come from understanding our true nature.

“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 sensations. 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 mediaeval peasants?”


*Transcribed from Radio 4’s “Book of the Week”, for Friday 12th September 2014. Excerpt starts at 05:10 and ends at 10:51. It was taken from a serialization of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. The link expires in a few days’ time. You may therefore find it more convenient to download a copy I made of the excerpt itself, here.
The solution is to buy it as an e-book, less heavy on the pocket and arms, & very readable.
Alternatively you can watch the same video on YouTube, after you’ve got through the adverts.