RSS

Tag Archives: pleasure

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.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 28, 2019 in The Creative Life

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

 
 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

What You (Really) Want

At the very deepest level life is desire. Because organisms are open systems – not closed and self-sufficient, but dependent on their environments for what they need to survive and prosper – desire is active even at the cellular level. As our focus moves upwards to higher levels of organizational complexity and consciousness, desire becomes appetite, interest, longing, curiosity, aspiration and quest.

While your life at the individual and daily level may seem hopelessly complicated at times, the truth is that as a human being you seek just four things. Well, they are not really “things” in the straightforward sense, but rather distinct kinds of experience. It’s not really a successful career, a large social network, lots of money, or even everlasting life in heaven after you die that you really want.

What are these four types of experience, the pursuit of which makes you just like every other human being on this planet? Very simply, you want pleasure, happiness, meaning, and well-being. The present arrangement of your life, as well as the ambitions that get you out of bed in the morning and keep you awake at night, is fulfilling to the degree that you have managed to keep these four pursuits in a healthy balance.

Quad

Let’s look at each one briefly, and then explore how we human beings can lose this balance – and consequently lose our way in life.

You are a sensual being (there, I said it). What I mean is, you are wired and connected to reality by sensory pathways that deliver signals to your brain and body, spontaneously eliciting reflexes that move you toward what you need to survive and away from what might be harmful or dangerous. Pleasure is the lure that gets you to reach out for the big juicy apple. Your cells require its vitamins, fructose and fiber to do their thing, but you need incentive to pick it off the tree and take a bite. Apples are delicious and pleasing because they contain the raw energy your body needs.

Once in a while the apple turns out to be spoiled rotten inside, and your bite into it brings not pleasure but disgust – a signal that it is not gustatory, not tasty and edible, not good for you. Pain (disgust in this case) is the sibling to pleasure, and its purpose is to keep you from doing that for too long, which could result in sickness; or in other situations, in injury and death.

Your body is keyed into pleasure and the pursuit of it because organic evolution has made powerful pairings between the requirements of physical health and the numerous “delivery systems” (like the apple) in your environment that carry the goods. Pleasure feels good, and you typically want more of it. Until you get too full of apples; then the opposite signal of pain kicks in and you start to feel uncomfortable and nauseated.

The advertising industry has devised many clever ways of associating (the promise of) pleasure with purchases that really have nothing to do with what your body needs. A beautiful human model slunk over the hood of the latest model car excites our desire for sex and romance, and then anchors this feeling to the automobile. So we rush out to the dealership to find our beckoning lover. Sixty months of financing beyond our means is not too much (at least at first) to have the pleasure we’ve been promised.

In addition to pleasure, however, you also want happiness. This is because you are an emotional being as well as one that’s wired up for the pursuit of pleasure. Being happy – feeling positive, content, cheerful and optimistic in life – is another enticing payoff for getting into arrangements that (again, promise to) provide the support you need.

Happiness is a very attractive experience, and people spend gobs and gobs of their money, effort, and time in pursuit of it. Thomas Jefferson believed that everyone has an “inalienable right” to chase it down, though he probably didn’t foresee the reckless extent to which later generations would go at it.

Quite often – probably most often; okay, all the time – people seek professional help to find happiness. They want desperately to feel better emotionally about their lives, their relationships, their past, or themselves. This will usually involve a delivery system more complicated than an apple, along with a probability of complications and side-effects that carry some risk as well. But the risks are worth it – or so we are willing to believe.

What else do you want? Meaning. This is because you are an intellectual being equipped with a cognitive intelligence that picks up patterns out of the whirligig of reality, or makes them up where they may be missing. Patterns are rhythms and designs, constellations and correlations that connect things and suggest other orders of significance. The root-word sign in significance names something that points beyond itself and “translates” the mind into a cross-referencing system where its meaning is revealed.

Your mind is a factory of signs. The language you learned from your tribe established the basic conceptual building-blocks of your world. By nature your mind is never content with a closed box of meaning, but soon itches with curiosity to know what’s “outside the box” and around the corner of the latest theory. Of course this natural curiosity can be discouraged by your tribe (and often is), to the point where asking questions is tantamount to doubting authority and opening the box becomes a punishable sin.

The social construction of identity, of what we call the ego, involves the methods by which your tribe exploited your natural desire for pleasure, happiness, and meaning. Especially in the early years, your sense of self was powerfully defined by the preferences, attachments and convictions conditioned into you by your cultural handlers (parents and teachers).  Through the early stages of ego formation, a human being was made into “one of us” – an insider, a good boy or girl, a believer.

But the ego itself is an illusion, fronting a persuasive charade of reality while being nothing  more than a rather sophisticated role play. This appearance of solidity is tested in times of doubt and disillusionment, but like a frantic little spider, the ego rushes out to the rupture and weaves a story that will restore security. If it doesn’t take too long, the trance can go on without serious interruption.

But the web does break, predictably. This is because you are a living, growing, and evolving being. The tight suspension that supports your identity, your world, and all the things that impinge on your happiness cannot keep you from growing up and out of your current disguise. It’s not just that you want more happiness and more meaning – although, again, the advertising industry is ready to accommodate your fantasy. Flip the channel and you’ll see what I mean.

Something else is going on.

You are also a spiritual being – not a soul inside a body, but a being that engages reality with a spiritual intelligence. What are you looking for in this case? What qualitatively distinct type of experience is your soul after? Not pleasure, not happiness, and not even meaning, but well-being.

What is well-being? At first blush, it is about being well, which is linguistically derived from being whole. This is not an experience to be achieved, and it’s not about clutching more things and people into your life to make it complete. It is a realization that all is one and you are a participant in something very much larger than your little ego and its meticulously managed world. Something profoundly mysterious and beyond words.

You are inwardly grounded in this mystery as well as outwardly connected, directly or indirectly, to every other existing thing.

The mystical traditions call this experience communion, from com (with, together) and union (one). Your spiritual intelligence as a human being gives you the ability to be conscious of this mystery, even if you can’t describe it and make it finally (once and for all) meaningful. Soul is that standpoint in reality where you can touch the unity of all things and release your conscious self to the deep grace of being-itself.

And then – ploop! just like that – your mind wants to put labels on it, get a box around it, and convert the experience into a belief. Spirituality is made into a religion, mystery collapses into meaning, liberty is turned into obligation, and what was once a life-changing insight gets pinned like a butterfly to the rigid board of orthodoxy.

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

To experience well-being, you need to let go of the attachments and convictions that define you. Like the hard shell of the seed which must relax, let go, and open up to allow the green fuse to emerge, ego-identity and the little world you manage must surrender to the soul’s desire.

Until you can give yourself over to the mystery of life in this moment, your human fulfillment is postponed. Let go of fear. Let go of pain, and even of pleasure. Let go of doubt – and let go of certainty, too. Let go of what you think you need to be happy or have a meaningful life. Let go of “me, myself and I.”

Just let go. All is one. The provident mystery of reality will gently catch you. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on January 27, 2014 in The Creative Life

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,