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Are You (Truly) Happy?

We’re supposed to be pursuing happiness in this liberal democracy of ours, or at least have the right to pursue it. We don’t have to, if we’d rather not. We also have the right to be unhappy. The choice is finally ours.

I think our problem is not that we don’t want to be happy, but that we’re confused over what happiness really is. What does it mean to “be happy”?

We’ve been duped by the advertising industry into equating happiness with pleasure – the buzz, the rush, the kick, the tingle. Pleasure stimulates a reward pathway in our brain that can never get enough, which means if an ad company can link their product with our craving for the buzz, rush, kick, or tingle, we’re going to buy – and keep paying until we’re either addicted or depressed, and maybe both. What could be called “consumer depression” is the apocalypse for advertisers and Big Business, and they work hard to keep us in the game.

With a little reflection, however, it’s not hard discern the difference between pleasure and happiness. Happiness isn’t merely enduring pleasure or a steady, life-long dopamine rush. It doesn’t always come with the buzz, kick, or tingle – and quite often it’s absent these altogether.

Neuroscience has revealed that happiness flows along a different pathway than pleasure, depending more on serotonin than dopamine. Big Pharma and drug doctors have managed to turn this discovery into huge profits as well, hooking millions on the lure that more serotonin in their brains will magically make them happier. It doesn’t work that way. While pleasure is a product of our body and brain’s biochemistry, with what’s going on between nerve cells, happiness has more to do with our engagement with reality as persons.

The “synapse” of greater interest here is what presently separates us from three things: the grounding mystery deep within ourselves, the vibrant world all around us, and the evolutionary ideal of our higher human nature.

I’m going to name these dimensions of happiness contentment, enjoyment, and fulfillment. Each dimension might be considered a “type” of happiness, but I’d rather keep them together as a dynamic unit – as the three facets or faces of true happiness. We can focus on one or another of these facets, but losing sight of their unity could lead us into obsession and inevitable disappointment. Let’s spend some time on each dimension of happiness, and then bring them all together for the full picture.

Contentment

Contentment is the feeling that we have all we really need and all is well. While it may seem synonymous with satisfaction, contentment isn’t just about having our needs satisfied. It goes deeper than that. I connect it with our “grounding mystery,” referring to that deeper reality supporting our self-conscious experience from within by a physical, living, and sentient animal nature.

Our “first nature” is where the journey of life begins. In the best of all possible worlds and a perfect family, our body was able to settle into reality and relax into being. An inner clearing of peace and calm opened up inside us, allowing awareness to very naturally orient outward to the world around us. Our inner life became a place of solitude and quiet reflection, a deep center of strength and resolve, as well as a refuge of solace and surrender.

When we can simply be in this moment, without wanting for anything but resting entirely in the support of our grounding mystery, we are profoundly happy – even in the absence of emotions and the running script of our chattering thoughts.

This is nirvana, the placid and undisturbed (literally “no wind”) condition of a still pond. This is happiness as contentment.

Enjoyment

Hearing the words side-by-side – contentment and enjoyment – confirms their distinct connotations. If contentment is inner peace, enjoyment is more about our relationship to the world around us. When we are content, we want for nothing. When we are enjoying something, we tend to want more – not crave it or desperately need it like an addiction, but to stay with it because we find it amusing, intriguing, interesting, or inspiring.

Enjoyment probably comes closest to pleasure and is typically where our confusion starts. Relating to what’s around us involves our senses and sensations – how this, that, and all of it makes us feel. And aren’t our feelings encoded upon the primary dichotomy of pain and pleasure? It’s an easy mistake. And it’s just where the advertisers find their opportunity.

The difference becomes more clear when we acknowledge how many times our greatest enjoyments in life ride in the balance of pain and pleasure, of sacrifice and bliss.

Our true enjoyment is not merely in how something “makes us feel,” but in what it means to us, how precious, serendipitous, and grace-given it is.

I won’t go very deep into it here, but anyone could guess what consequences for enjoyment are brought into the picture when we lack contentment. The emptiness within is not cultivated as an inner clearing for surrender and repose, but is instead a void that must be filled. When we look to the world around us for things to devour – food and drink, possessions and relationships, titles and achievements, even religion and its god – whatever joy we may find in gulping them down will be short-lived. It will also be followed by resentment, which is the very antithesis of enjoyment in its true sense.

Some Christians speak of “a god-shaped hole” at our center, which turns god into a commodity that churches can peddle to consumer-believers. But again, we will never get enough of a god we have to swallow.

Fulfillment

The third facet and dimension of genuine happiness is named fulfillment. As with the other terms, this one has gotten lost in our contemporary pursuit of the buzz, the rush, the kick, and the tingle. In popular culture, “fulfillment” is the ultimate feel-good. If something isn’t fulfilling, we are excused for putting it aside and looking elsewhere for “the real thing” – what the ads promise in exchange for our money.

As I’m using it, however, fulfillment is associated with capacity, completion, and realizing our true potential as human beings. In this sense, fulfillment is always “above and ahead” of us, orienting us to what we are still in the process of becoming. We get tastes of it when we dig deeper into ourselves, step outside our comfort zone, and leap for the ring just out of reach.

The history of our species is the long story of latent talents, dormant powers, and “godly” virtues coming awake, driving our further progress in the direction of a more humane and self-actualized human being.

Ultimately – and fulfillment is about what is ultimate or “highest” – this facet of happiness doesn’t let us just settle for mediocrity and the half-assed life. Many of us do live this way, of course, but the fact that we possess an inner drive and aim (what Aristotle called “entelechy”) which seeks our self-actualization helps explain why we are always living just short of being truly happy.

It’s likely our existential insecurity (i.e., our lack of contentment) that motivates us to grab on and grip down on life rather than whole-heartedly enjoy it, which attachment then holds us back from the fulfilling and liberated life that could be ours.


So here we are, on this “Happy Thanksgiving” day. If we are gathering with family and friends at a table, perhaps we can take a few moments to contemplate whether we are truly happy. We can indeed be thankful if we are, since genuine happiness is not a solo project but a conspiracy involving countless others and some good luck besides.

And if we’re not so happy right now, then we have an idea about where to begin.

 
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Posted by on November 28, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

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Life Without Hope

Over the years I have come across authors who decry hope as an unnecessary setup for human unhappiness. They fault it for pulling the focus of concern away from present reality and projecting it into a fantasy of the future that never quite arrives as expected. Perhaps because so much creative energy has been invested by humans in unproductive wishful thinking, which presumably includes religious pining after Paradise, these well-meaning critics of hope suggest that we’d all be better off without its distractions and disappointments.

I get their point, in one sense. Hope is a setup of sort, and what human beings hope for rarely “comes true.” And yes, hope can siphon precious energy away from the challenges of real life, sometimes even persuading us to let opportunities pass or even trash what’s real for something better later, on the other side. Because baseless, unrealistic, and otherworldly hope has been used as an accelerant of violence (in the name of future hopes) as well as a justification for emotional detachment from the pressing issues of contemporary life, the solution is to discredit it in the hope that we will live more fully, and more responsibly, in the present.

But as I have a sympathetic affection for our inherently conflicted species, I’m going to take a different slant on this matter of hope. Seeing as how depression is the malady of our modern age, could it be that living without hope – or, following the sage advice of these authors, forsaking hope in the interest of a more reality-oriented mindset – is at the root of our problem? Maybe we shouldn’t confuse hope with mere wishful thinking, with longing for something away from, different than, or after the challenge presently upon us.

As animal organisms, humans are anchored by physical needs to the living earth. When these basic needs are met – assuming that our pursuit of them hasn’t gotten tangled up in the complications of emotional insecurity (which is a generous and entirely unrealistic assumption, I know) – the satisfaction we feel is a key ingredient in the happiness we seek. Happiness is more than the satisfaction of our needs, but I’m ready to say that it isn’t possible unless our survival and health are supported in some adequate degree.

Perhaps it was to seduce us into satisfying our basic needs, that nature sprinkled the fairy dust of pleasure on the things we require to live, reproduce, and flourish as a species. This, I will say, is the second key ingredient to happiness. We don’t need pleasure to live, but the pursuit of it tends to get us involved in doing what is necessary for life to continue. If apples weren’t sweet to the taste, if sex didn’t bring convulsions of ecstasy, or if reading a good book was utterly devoid of pleasure, there’s a decent chance we wouldn’t bother with them.

If satisfaction is mostly about our physical and developmental needs, then pleasure might be the evolutionary bridge from an existence oriented on survival to one that’s virtually preoccupied with enjoyment. The pursuit of pleasure is probably at work in our tendency as sensual-emotional beings to be both gluttonous consumers (it feels so good, we just can’t stop) and wasteful stewards of resources (when we get sick or bored of it, we just leave or throw it away). Entire industries prosper on our relentless, at times reckless and imprudent, desire for pleasure, enjoyment, and indulgence in what feels good.

So is that enough? Can we close our theory of happiness on these two key ingredients – need satisfaction and the allure of pleasure? If we just put up a strong moral fence to prevent theft, murder, exploitation, and bad business – and throw in some incentives for recycling and getting out to vote – human beings should be happy, right? No, that’s not right. Why? Because humans also require hope to be happy.

I will define “hope” as Holding Open a Positive Expectation for the future (see what I did there?). Most likely it has to do with the part of the brain most distinctive to our species, the prefrontal cortex, which gives us, among other things, an ability to grasp the Big Picture and take the Long View on things. This part of our brain isn’t fully online until sometime in our early to mid twenties, but once it is online our happiness depends henceforth on our belief in a promising future. Holding open a positive expectation for the future can keep us going when we are languishing physically, scratching the ground for satisfaction, having to cope daily with chronic pain or the absence of what once brought us deep enjoyment in life.

Young children are often idealized for their spontaneous and innocent engagement with present reality. They don’t worry about tomorrow. They don’t get caught up in their plans for the future, making strategies for what they want their lives to be like in some distant future, and then worry over what they can’t control. Oh, to be like that again! Please, just lop off my prefrontal cortex and let me revel in the limbic fairyland of my freewheeling imagination.

promised landHope doesn’t have to be either the escapism of wishful thinking or palliative therapy for a life in general decline. Holding open a positive expectation for the future is an essential human activity, and is, I would argue, the third key ingredient of happiness.

By holding the future open, we add cognitive aspiration to the emotional inspiration and physical perspiration of daily life. In believing that today is even now opening up into tomorrow, that this world and our life in it are already passing into the not yet of what’s still to come, we are liberated into our responsibility as co-creators of the New World.

And if, like Moses peering into the Promised Land but unable to enter, all we can do is hold the future open for our children and their children, hope is ultimately what makes life meaningful.

 

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Impossibly Human

Schedule of NeedsI spend a lot of time reflecting on the nature of human beings and what we need to be fully human. In that quest is an acknowledgment that humans don’t always live up to their potential – that, in fact, we frequently underachieve or leave unrealized what is in our nature to become.

Perhaps due to the ambivalent “gift” bestowed on us by God or evolution, referring to our ability as self-conscious choosers to determine our own destiny, ours might be the only species on this planet that routinely frustrates its natural design. There is in the apple seedling an impetus or inherent purpose that drives development towards becoming a mature fruit-bearing apple tree. Nature has provided us with something similar, but our self-actualization takes us far beyond physical maturity and reproductive fitness.

The analogy is still provocative, however: If apple seeds are intended to become apple trees, what is the analogous evolutionary ideal that is even now tugging at our genes, shaping our personalities, and luring us in the direction of human fulfillment? Almost two and a half millenniums ago, Aristotle named this internal impetus or inherent purpose the entelechy of a living thing, an inner aim that guides development to its natural completion. Apple trees just “go with the flow” and attain self-actualization practically every time, while human beings, with our self-conscious free will, end up getting in our own way and almost always make a mess of ourselves.

In this post I will present a theory of human needs, about what we need to be fully human. Instead of categorizing these needs according to where they fit among the “stacking” intelligences of our physical, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, and spiritual aspects – exemplified most famously in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” – I will consider the possibility that our needs as human beings are not so stackable and complementary, but are rather inherently in tension with each other.

To satisfy one need puts a strain on other needs; and to hold on to satisfaction – or to think that we can “get it” and be done – around any of our needs will tend to generate anxiety and ultimately depression, insofar as the latter is a state where we lose hope of ever finding what we really need. This inherent tension among our needs, along with our tendency to get hung up in anxiety or pulled down into depression, might make us wonder whether our species represents a failed experiment of nature. We got loaded with a set of needs that is impossible to satisfy as a whole. Maybe.

My diagram above lays out what I regard as our evolutionary needs as human beings. The “stair-step” design is an effort to avoid the limitations of the stacking model, which is too vertical and static, while retaining a developmental perspective. Needs to the left are both deeper and earlier than those to their right, just as needs to the right are higher and later than those more leftward. I don’t want to dispose entirely of the idea that our needs open up in some kind of sequence (thus the left-to-right progression up the stairs). But with each “step” a new element of tension is added to the mix, further complicating the prospect of self-actualization as we go along.

So let’s dig a little deeper into each of these five human needs, and try to get a feel for how impossibly human we really are.

SecurityI define security as the assurance an individual is encouraged to have by virtue of being grounded in a reality experienced as provident and supportive. By identifying it with an inner assurance I am deliberating separating security from the question of whether the individual’s reality is actually provident and supportive. In other words, security is an internal perception more than it is a description of external conditions.

Typically when our biological urgencies for air, nourishment, protection, and bonding are met, the “idle speed” of our nervous system gets set to an RPM that is relaxed, calm, and open to our surroundings. The organism-environment duality is perceived as auspicious and favorable to life – in Einstein’s words, the universe is friendly. We needed security – this assurance – when we were born (even before), and we haven’t stopped needing it ever since.

EnjoymentBut soon we need more than just to feel secure – not just more secure, but something more than security alone. Our developing nature opened out to reality in quest of enjoyment: pleasure, amusement, happiness, and excitement. To enjoy something is to find joy in it, or to take joy from our experience of it. While security has to do with the mood or mode of being as calibrated in our nervous system (anxious or calm, recoiled or open to reality), enjoyment is about emotional engagement with what has our attention.

Because enjoyment requires an open engagement with reality, this need introduces “competition” with our need for security. While security is basically passive in seeking confirmation that reality is provident to the animal urgencies of our body, our need for enjoyment compels us to actively seek what will bring pleasure and excitement. Opening ourselves in this way to reality, however, exposes us to pain and harm as well. It seems we can’t have total security and real enjoyment at the same time.

MeaningPerhaps the first efforts at meaning-making in humans were inspired by a need of consciousness to ascend to a vantage-point on reality where the inevitable suffering of life can somehow be reconciled and included in a single worldview. We need to know that the pain, hardship, and bereavement that haunt our happiness are somehow worth it.

Beyond this therapeutic function of meaning, though, is the way it crisscrosses reality with threads of causality and purpose, value and significance, identity and reference that our minds can inhabit. This web of meaning gives us a way of connecting the dots of experience, imagining patterns across the complex features of existence and otherwise confusing events of our lives. We have only recently begun to appreciate to what extent meaning is in the eye of the beholder – not “out there” in reality but projected by our minds for the purpose of making sense of things.

TranscendenceWhy can’t human beings just be content in our webs and worldviews? Why do we grow bored with the agreements and interpretations that once contained our experience so neatly? Why do we keep asking questions and challenging the answers? What is it that compels us to look over the wall, push the envelope, and try new things?

I think the answer is that we have a need for transcendence, to “go beyond” whatever boundaries and horizons define our current reality. (Let’s not forget that these boundaries and horizons are not actually in reality itself but projected onto it by our minds.) Perhaps something in us knows that meaning is a self-made illusion, and that genuine contact with reality requires a daring outreach into the unknown. Perhaps the fact that we are dynamically alive and continuously evolving beings makes it unavoidable that our comfortable castles in the air eventually become too small to contain our spirit.

I don’t want to confuse this need for transcendence with a metaphysical interest in the so-called Transcendent. This isn’t a “need for god” or for the supernatural in our lives. The compulsion to go beyond meaning is an implicit acknowledgment that humans need not simply more meaning, but something more than meaning. Since even our highest and most sacred meanings are still only qualifications on the present mystery of reality, we need to go beyond even these in our quest for authentic being.

FulfillmentI am using the term “fulfillment” here to get at the idea of self-actualization, where nature is perfected, as it were, in the mature and fully developed individual. It is common in the traditions to envision this ideal state as the liberated, exalted, and glorified personality, depicted in theism as a deity who actively expresses and models the virtues of our higher nature.

This is one of theism’s important contributions to our human adventure: What we might call “the moral character of god” (again, referring to the mythological deity) serves to attract and inspire our ethical formation in the direction of those qualities upon which human well-being and genuine community depend. With fulfillment, these virtues and attributes are gradually internalized by (or awakened in) the aspirant, opening out into new varieties of post-theism where the need for an external role-model is finally transcended.Schedule of NeedsThe question remains whether this destiny of human fulfillment is even possible, given the inherent tension among our developmental (and evolutionary) needs. Inevitably, it seems, tension produces conflict, and conflict – internal and interpersonal – gets us tangled in neurotic contradictions, chronic frustration, inter-tribal hostilities and more suffering. We grip down on the wrong things for security. Our craving for enjoyment becomes addiction. We surrender truth for meaning. We opt for self-improvement over transcendence. And in the end we sacrifice fulfillment on the altar of security, forfeiting our higher nature for the sake of a few petty ego conceits.

Perhaps we are impossibly human.

 

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Mystical Faith and the Way to Peace

And now we began to drive through that narrow strait. On one side was Scylla and on the other Charybdis. Fear gripped the men when they saw Charybdis gulping down the sea. But as we drove by, the monster Scylla seized six of my company–the hardiest of the men who were with me. As they were lifted up in the mouths of her six heads they called to me in their agony. But I could do nothing to aid them. They were carried up to be devoured in the monster’s den. Of all the sights I have seen on the ways of the water, that sight was the most pitiful.

– Homer’s The Odyssey

S_CIn Book XII of Homer’s classic Odysseus must steer his ship through a dangerous strait, carefully threading his way between two monsters on either side. Charybdis is a whirlpool infamous for pulling vessels into its vortex and crushing them beneath the water, while Scylla, on the opposite bank, is a six-headed monster who reaches out and plucks sailors from their decks and devours them whole, if the captain should venture too close.

Beyond the strait is a beautiful island where Odysseus and his men will find peace and refreshment. But that fantasy must be suspended in the face of their present challenge. Circe had counseled the captain to not allow his panic over losing his ship to one monster drive him, by overcompensation, into the other.

And yet, that’s what happens: In their fear over falling into the swirling void of Charybdis, some of Odysseus’ men scramble to the other side of the deck, whereupon they are snatched up by Scylla and lost forever.

                                                                                                 

In my last post I offered a way of understanding yourself as driven, motivated, and inspired by the impetus of desire. Composed of a sensual, emotional, intellectual and spiritual nature, you seek different types of experiences, satisfying fundamentally distinct needs.

The pursuit of pleasure, though exploited by advertising and a slippery slope into addiction, is an evolutionary set-up designed to move you toward what your body needs to live and reproduce. Emotionally you seek happiness, which likely arose in correlation with the strong social affinity of our species. The quest for meaning compels you to construct an intellectual model of reality, called your worldview, that will orient your life inside a context of significance. Finally, your spiritual nature desires authenticity, wholeness, communion and peace – all summarized under the single term well-being.Quad

I offer the diagram to the right as an abstract representation of the artistic illustration above, from the scene out of Homer’s Odyssey. The “strait” that Odysseus – Captain Ego – must guide his ship through begins at the bottom of my diagram, which corresponds to the developmental stage of infancy and early childhood.

Pleasure and its opposite, pain, were the guides that helped you stay inside that provident niche where your basic needs could be satisfied. Spontaneous reflexes and deep unconscious drives in turn provided clues for your caretakers to know what you needed.

Through a process known as socialization, your cultural handlers (parents, teachers and other adult higher powers) exploited this natural preference for pleasure and avoidance of pain, using it to shape you into a “proper” member of the tribe.

In this way, “right and wrong” were associated, by the pairing of pleasure (reward) or pain (punishment), to your evolutionary interest in good (pleasant, tasty, nourishing) versus bad (unpleasant, disgusting, toxic). Thus the moral categories of “good” and “evil” have their roots in your natural inclinations. The moral pedagogy of your tribe first anchored into, re-coded, and then abstracted from the sensual intelligence of your body.

Because no culture is perfect and no family is without its shadows, your moral development might have gotten hooked and saddled with shame, guilt, and self-doubt. Such complications can make relationships difficult depending on whether you cling to others for security and reassurance, antagonize and push them away, or remove yourself emotionally to avoid being swamped.

This is where I see Odysseus as Captain Ego, on the narrow path between Charybdis and Scylla. In the painting above, Charybdis (the whirlpool) is on the right and Scylla (the picker) is on the left – corresponding nicely to the right and left hemispheres of your brain.

Although many functions are shared across the two hemispheres and their deeper networks, neuroscience has discovered stronger (more numerous and vibrant) connections between the so-called right brain and the body. Your early development was dominated by right-side processing, which was all about emotional formatting, making necessary attachments, and setting the general “feeling tone” of your emerging worldview.

It took a bit longer for your left brain to get involved. Left-side processing involves cognitive functions of denotative language, classification, cognitive abstraction, forming inferences, and constructing theories that explain and predict reality in meaningful ways. This world-building work picked up the deeper emotional codes of your right brain and incorporated them into a more elaborate perspective on reality.

So, whereas your emotional right brain communicates with your body and its visceral interior, your rational left brain uses the scaffolding of language to arrange and interpret your external environment.

But again, because no one gets through the gauntlet of childhood without bumps, bruises and a few psychological scars, the larger evolutionary task of steering your way between emotional engulfment and intellectual nitpicking – watch Scylla picking off Captain Ego’s crew – can be a tricky ordeal.

Perhaps, as happened to Odysseus, there is a tendency in all of us to swing our ship away from the prospect of getting overwhelmed, exhausted in emotional struggle, and pulled down into a hopeless depression. In compensation, we pick things apart, strip out the passion, and lock our life’s meaning inside small stuffy boxes of dogmatic conviction.

Either way is death: either the death of enjoyment (happiness) or the death of significance (meaning). It’s possible that an entire lifetime (or more) can be spent tacking back and forth, steering clear of suffering but dying inside our convictions, or refusing to take a stand for anything and consequently falling for (into) everything.

The real tragedy, however, is that your spiritual nature and the desire for wholeness, communion and well-being is kept from advancing to the Isle of Serenity beyond. Of course I’m not talking about paradise after you die, but the bliss that awaits your realization this very moment, on the “other side” of the challenge.

Between Scylla and Charybdis is a very narrow path indeed, one that requires focus and control, mindfulness and balance, equanimity and orientation, along with a deep internal calm and full release to the present mystery of reality. A large number probably never make it.

This mystical faith in being-itself is the only way through.

 
 

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