The Science of Happiness

Bait-and-Switch Notice: There is no science of happiness.

Our brains were evolved to solve problems, and human societies even more so.  The history of man is one long succession of competitions (most of them violent, but not all) in which the better problem-solvers drove the lesser problem-solvers to extinction.

So if, like most denizens of Western cultures, you walk through life in a state of vague malaise and dissatisfaction, carrying on your back the feeling that something is wrong, and weary of the persistent ennui— if this describes you, then it is natural for you to regard this as a problem to be solved.

There’s a formula for self-help books and on-line clickbait:

Much of the advice in these lists is pretty good.  The best essay I know comes from Bertrand Russell, and his advice, in a nutshell, is to focus on helping others, to stop thinking about your own happiness, but to notice and appreciate it when it shows up.

The underlying premise that happiness is a project you can undertake systematically is misconceived.  Jeff the Night Sky Sangha anti-guru said it with his characteristic mix of oblique directness:

We think we can get to the bottom of delusion by way of understanding something and that that will hopefully relieve us of the nagging shit house of suffering we all know (or avoid at all cost) and loathe.

We can’t and it won’t.

Enlightenment is supposed in some accounts to be a state of permanent and uninterrupted bliss, ewige freude, but more credible to me is that the enlightened soul simply ceases wishing that things were somehow different from the way they are.  

Most of us live in a culture of individualism that fails to recognize lasting happiness as a communal function.  We have sought families and networks of like-minded people with whom to share, within a larger environment that is in conflict with our deep animal nature.  That’s a start.

The only other thing I know is that people’s sense of peace and fulfillment and satisfaction with their lives has little to do with comfort, money, traditional success, wish fulfillment, or even chronic pain.

1 thought on “The Science of Happiness

  1. This morning, I got a call from my first girlfriend in the 1970s, who was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer last August. She told me that in her latest PET scan, she was cancer-free. I laughed and cried at the same time.

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