Thoughts on Happiness

Jun 11, 2020

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What comes after the job, the money, the power? Why do we seek these things if not, in the end, for happiness? And is happiness simply a chemical symphony in the brain that we can hack into, or does true contentment lie somewhere ineffably beyond our physiology? Today, Jeff offers an orchestrated monologue of his thoughts on happiness.

Devon: Happiness means to me that my internal condition is in alignment with my external circumstances and that I feel a connectedness between those two.

Megan: I find happiness through letting go of my strong grasp of expectations.

Devon: I find happiness when I'm present in the moment because I'm not looking into the future and over analyzing the past. I can realize that everything in this moment is exactly what it's meant to be and that I'm OK. 

Megan: I find happiness through listening, instead of responding. 

Devon: There's nothing left to be done. I don't need anything. I realized that I truly have all that I'd ever need and I'm not seeking anything outside myself. Contentment.

Jeff: Happiness. I mean, what comes after the fame, the big job, the money, the power? I mean, why do we seek these things if not in the end for happiness? I mean, this is what I'm continually pondering is how to find it. Why is it so difficult to find it in our modern society? And admittedly, this is self-indulgent, perhaps even distasteful given everything that I have on the other hand, I too wield this double-edged sword of consciousness that makes me painfully aware that everyone that I know and love, including myself, will eventually die, decay and return to dusk. Perhaps it is this looming brooding awareness of my own mortality, of our collective mortality, that stokes this need for us to unlock this mystery of happiness.

Jeff: Now, there are many practices that are well-documented. There are spiritual texts, both ancient and modern to poke at the subject. I would also highly recommend reading Yuval Harari's tomb Sapiens for insight into this, I suppose, somewhat dodgy subject. Now, one way to poke at contentment is to determine what paths are fruitless, what does not work. And you know, so many of us are trudging dutifully, commuting in stultifying traffic to jobs that are unfulfilling, that limit our potential, all in service of what? Of a wage. The ironic thing is that a wage itself has no inherent value, nor does it even really exist. I mean, of the $60 trillion that are generated across the world every year, 54 trillion of those are just ones and zeros bobbing to and fro on computer servers. The other six trillion in notes and coins. I mean, what are you going to do with those? I mean, roll one up and snort something up your nose? I'm not sure if that ever happens anymore. Or in an act of ridiculous literalism, actually burn it?

Jeff: Money is just a construct based on an inter-subjective reality. It's only worth something to you because it's worth something to me, and it's only wear something to me because it's worth something to everybody else. The wage that we work so hard to earn is only valuable in that it is convertible and transferable to the acquisition of goods and services, that in our modern consumerism promise to unlock unbridled joy, a new apple red Ferrari, a Greco-Roman mega mansion with colonnades and naked statuary spurting water forth from bosoms, like Mike Tyson's tiger. Is there any limit? I mean, of course we don't need a social scientists like Brene Brown to tell us there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. The research is in on that, unless essentially you're living in persistent and acute pain or below subsistence levels, essentially not being able to provide for you or for your family basic things like food and shelter, then there is no correlation between one's economic position and happiness.

Jeff: Even though I sense that I know this, and you know this, and collectively we know this, on and on we eat the sugar of capitalism like a nine-year-old on Halloween. I have one. I've seen it. I mean, we're programmed, almost religiously. I mean, our dominant Western religion, one could argue, is capitalism. And like other religions, capitalism holds out this great promise of paradise. But unlike other religions, you don't have to wait until the afterlife to get there. You can have it like cheeseburgers and oil changes. You can drive right up and get it while you peruse Amazon to buy a pair of trousers. Unlike other religions, we seem quite happy to adhere to the tenants of capitalism. We just consume. We consume awful food that makes us fat and then the diet products to lose weight. I mean, there's no need for charity, compassion, empathy, forgiveness. Right?

Jeff: What social scientists will tell you is that there is a high correlation between happiness and connection between tight family and tight communities. However, capitalism, and I suppose social democracy or neo-liberalism on some level, has also undermine that by kind of endlessly sanctifying and empowering the individual in every way. I mean, few of us just stay and go to our local community college or stay around and work for the family business. We don't find our mates at church, we find them on Tinder or in bars, not through our parents. And you know, through technology and globalism, we're more likely to be in some sort of passionate exchange in our echo chamber with someone that lives halfway across the globe than even know our neighbors name. But in the end, like who's going to help you when you have a flat tire and you have to pick up your daughter from school? I mean, who you're going to call? You're going to email the person in Guam? I think not.

Jeff: These are the challenges. These are the things that are undermining our possibility for happiness in the modern age. I don't want to just throw capitalism under the bus. It's obviously been highly effective, more than any other economic system at bringing people out of poverty. But unfortunately, it has created a value system and structures that promote this notion that you are not enough and then market endlessly to compensate for your not enoughness, and there are not enough resources to continually grow, and grow, and grow. Now, you can look around the world around and find places that have a high proportion of happiness. Like for example, the blue zones where people are thriving cognitively and physiologically into their 90s and 100s, and one of the reasons why they're doing that is they're free of chronic disease. They're free of anxiety. But they have strong, strong community and they do not have this consistent underpinning of consumption, consumption, consumption.

Jeff: Now, a biologist might have a completely different approach to the notion of happiness. I mean, instead of happiness being sort of a product of external circumstances like we've just discussed, a biologist might contend that happiness is completely internal. Simply, it's sort of a reflection of one's own biochemistry. That happiness is the feeling of positive and pleasurable sensations in your body that are brought through the release or the emission of certain hormones or neurotransmitters, naturally occurring opioids if you will, ones that you've heard of such as oxytocin, serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, that rush that you get after you exercise. While I do subscribe to this idea that hormones and neurotransmitters obviously, our biochemistry, obviously, has huge effect on our sense of wellbeing. I also might posit the question of like what are the external circumstances that actually affect our biochemistry?

Jeff: I mean, we've often heard about is it not like the connection that a mother feels for her newborn that releases the oxytocin? You know, are we not active participants through our behavior and actions in our own biochemistry? I mean, neuroscience has looked pretty closely at the brain on charity. You know, being philanthropic actually triggers the release of dopamine in your brain. Ironically, it's not correlated to the amount of giving. I mean, the best way to actually be happy through philanthropy is to give little denominations very, very often this will keep you on sort of an IV drip of dopamine. So, I do think that there is a correlation between your actions, right action, and your biochemistry, that there are things that you can engage in. If you seek community, if you engage in selfless service, then you can actually have an effect on your biochemistry and enjoy these feelings of pleasantness and pleasure.

Jeff: Now, there's also sort of be a hundred biochemistry. I think humans have an incredible ability to sort of delude ourselves in some ways into happiness. One of the ways that we do this is by giving our lives sort of a sense of purpose and meaning. I mean, this was at the core of Victor Frankl's book Man's Search for Meaning. This is kind of our purpose here on Earth, it's defined meaning through work, through connection, and he even argues through suffering. Now, we may, for example, devote our lives to working for a nonprofit that is focused on sustainability, environmentalism, regeneration. And because we have sort of an inter-subjective agreement, sort of a mutual understanding that that is a life of meaning, that society has agreed that devoting yourself to a cause gives you purpose, we are excellent in actually transcending our own biochemistry in some ways with a greater sense of meaning or purpose to our lives.

Jeff: There's this notion around kind of existentialism of essentially authenticity. Authenticity at its core here is essentially aligning your life's actions and works with your deepest held beliefs and ideals, despite whatever external circumstances may exist. Sort of existence proceeds essence is a core of existentialism, living an authentic life. Now obviously for a millennia, people have looked to religion for a sense of happiness and contentment. Though I think more and more in the modern age, people have become disaffiliated from institutional religions because they recognize a certain sort of perversion manipulation of the teachings of Christ or Mohammad for the accumulation of wealth and power. They are looking elsewhere into new or spiritual texts, new thought Christianity, new ageism on some level, the Human Potential Movement, Wayne Dyer, Marianne Williamson, A Course, in Miracles, et cetera. I mean, many of us don't love the notion that all we are is flesh and bone, nor do many of us feel that it makes sense.

Jeff: That essentially, we are having a temporary human experience, but essentially we are spiritual beings. We are limited by our five senses and our special ability to kind of perceive things with those five senses that there is a life beyond what we can see, and touch, and feel, and hear and taste. That there is an infinite soul. That we are born with the divine nature. That this notion that Muktananda, it's that which is real never changes. I mean, that we are convinced many times that we are our bodies, but our bodies are consistently changing. And that eventually, as I've noted, our physical reality will end. We are drawn instinctively to a notion that there is something about us that is infinite, that has no beginning, that has no end, that is outside of time and space, and form, and location, and that we engage in practices like meditation to cultivate that. That we find silence as something that is infinite to find this portal to the other side.

Jeff: Marianne Williamson for example, would argue that we have an infinite soul. That we have the divine nature outside of, Laozi would call the world of the 10,000 things, the material plane. That we have something within us or outside of us, if you will, that is infinite. That is outside of time and space. That is this infinite soul which is love and that is experienced through the virtues of compassion, forgiveness, charity, empathy.

Jeff: Now, when we cultivate those qualities in ourselves, we connect to a shared and singular consciousness that makes us feel connected, that gives us a sense of community. Brene Brown says that spirituality is not an individual path. It's actually recognizing that we are all connected by a power that is greater than us. I am very attracted to this notion that happiness or the cultivation of happiness actually, that I have a lot of free will in that cultivation in that search, and that if essentially I can find and cultivate my infinite soul, that I can achieve levels of happiness.

Jeff: Now, I think that there is an interesting relationship between living a spiritual life in order to find contentment and happiness and the biologists' depiction and understanding of happiness as simply a product of your biochemistry. Now, you can essentially cultivate your infinite soul. You can subscribe to the notion that God is the love within you and that you can experience that love through compassion, through empathy, through forgiveness, through charity, that essentially you can walk in the footsteps of the ascendant host, that the angels that you wish to attract into your life will appear when they recognize themselves in you, that you can live from your highest place, that you can cultivate your better angels. But essentially, is this compassion, is this charity simply impacting your biochemistry? Are you simply endlessly engaging in acts of virtue in order to have a positive hormonal or biochemical reaction inside of your body? Is essentially all you're doing, giving, engaging in selfless service, to sort of trigger events of serotonin, or dopamine, or oxytocin. This might be an argument that a Buddhist would make.

Jeff: I mean, Buddhism, if you look at it, no religion has studied and looked at happiness as closely as Buddhism. We know the story of Siddhartha, born some 2,500 years ago to a very kind of wealthy family in Nepal, who lived his early life in a guarded castle and then eventually was able to go and experience the world. And of course, what he saw was a lot of suffering, a lot of famine, and death, and essentially over time of meandering peripatetically through India, developed his four noble truth. Essentially that life is dukkha, or mental dysfunction or suffering, and that this suffering arises directly from desires or from craving. And that this dukkha, these cravings can be eliminated by essentially following an eight fold path that involves right action and meditation, mindfulness, intention, et cetera. That there are levels of essentially deep concentration would he call called Dhyāna that essentially free you from suffering, free through eliminating cravings. What this brings about is equanimity, a sort of a sense of serenity, of peace of mind.

Jeff: Now, if contentment is really just equanimity, if happiness is equanimity. I mean, that feels, not bleak, but in some ways slightly blend. I mean, I'm not sure that like I want my happiness to sort of taste like my mother's tuna casserole, which she made me every week when I grew up. I sort of see happiness as much more energetic and infused with passion. But this is very contrary to essentially the Buddhist notion, that like to actually free yourself from suffering, the end result is this sort of golden mean, this middle way, this kind of equanimity, this evenness. And in some ways, while a Buddhist might argue that happiness comes from within, just like a biologist, I think a Buddhist might say that, "Well, honestly, if we're looking for true contentment that we need to transcend in some ways our biochemistry, we cannot just rely on actions that trigger certain kinds of neurotransmitters that give us a temporary ephemeral sense of solace and contentment that indeed we are looking for something more perennial, more permanent.

Jeff: And in order to do that, we need to find, essentially, our consciousness that doesn't really have any emotional connection, that emotions will come and go that will visit, but you are the house, that you are the subject and not the object. That you are not your thoughts, that you are not your feelings, that you are not your emotions. That you are this kind of neutered consciousness and this human reality is essentially just an experience that you're having through being able to, through your five senses and through your thoughts, experience kind of fluctuations in phenomena.

Jeff: In the end, I don't have any answers. I mean, what would qualify me to know anything about happiness? But these are the few points that I can take away and maybe you can too, which is simply do not pursue wealth and individual materialism. It has no correlation to happiness. Do not pursue the ego, a life of the ego, pursue a life of the infinite soul. Find purpose and meaning. Do things that have a positive impact on your biochemistry: selfless service, community connection. Even if these things are only ephemeral, even if they don't last for ever, they will cultivate not only positive biochemistry, but a sense of meaning and purpose. Find authenticity in your life. Essentially, align your work and actions with your ideals. If you are going to essentially hold dear and true these virtues of compassion and empathy, then align your actions and work with that. Then I would say cultivate a practice that frees you from desires and cravings. These are my thoughts on happiness. I'm sure they will evolve. Thanks for listening.

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