One thing they don't tell you 'bout the blues when you got 'em
You keep on fallin', 'cause there ain't no bottom
Emmylou Harris in Red Dirt Girl

Of course the trajectory of any life criss crosses the lands of happy, unhappy and everything-in-between. But did you ever notice that experiences of pure happiness are always limited in both magnitude and duration, but abject misery seems to know no such bounds? (Kind of reminiscent of Einstein's famous remark that, while the universe may be finite, human stupidity has no such limits.) Notice it's also a lot easier to go from happiness to unhappiness than the other way around. And like Emmylou says in her song Red Dirt Girl, once you're on that path, gravity alone will keep you on that straight and narrow. So if life were a thermodynamics quiz, you'd be forgiven for suspecting that happiness is the low entropy state, and unhappiness the high entropy state. And in fact, I think there's a good case to be made that there are many more unhappy brain configurations than happy ones, for reasons I'll get into. But for now, just note that this asymmetrical dynamic itself is really odd if the brain were actually equipped for sustained happiness.

In spite of common sense evidence to the contrary, though, the "Yes, dammit! I can choose to be happy" meme of the Axial Age (see previous post) is probably about as robust as human memes get. Of course, resilience of an idea contrary to facts is in itself not unusual. Nowadays it goes by the name of cognitive bias, and we humans downright excel at it. (If you need any hints, check out the last U.S. presidential election cycle). Two and a half millennia after its first appearance, and two and a half centuries after its inscription in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, the pursuit of happiness meme thrives all over the world as never before. Interestingly, it also cuts across all traditional belief systems and comes in all variations: religious salvation, spiritual awakening, or just a stiff upper lip frame of mind. The fact that the self-help mantra is by far the largest segment in book publishing, and the entire industry in the US alone is something like $12 billion ought to bring images of an exhausted dog chasing its tail. And in fact I think most people - certainly most of the ones I ask - know deep down it's all mostly just so much snake oil. There are exceptions of course(there always are) but for most us, the high of having some new fantastic guru-charged insight that will now finally make your life happy seems to last only slightly longer than it takes for a pizza to get stale.

So for all the happiness-gurus out there, here's some sobering news that shouldn't even be news. The bare-bones biological fact of life is that our brains adapted first and foremost to help us survive and procreate. Natural selection had no inherent interest in keeping us happy along the way. In fact, too much happiness would have been an obvious significant selective disadvantage. It would have kept us lazy, static and unwilling to explore difficult terrain; unable to learn hard lessons and adapt further. I believe this shows up in our basic mental architecture, and more to the point - if we’re objectively honest about it - in most of our lives most of the time.

Here I'll quote my grandmother, the venerable Evelyn Lee, who pulled a family through the dirt of the Great Depression and was able to once say with loving sincerity "Hell! We ain't here to be happy!" I've come to believe that on this particular point, she is more connected to the reality of our existence than were the keenly optimistic minds of Parsva and Epicurus.(see the last post) And in an extra tip of the hat the grandmothers, it seems nature might have had a special role for them in our evolution)

The tool natural selection did give us to keep going was the constant yearning we experience. Yearning, wanting, desiring something else than what we have as an emotional state obviously goes back to before the Stone Age; otherwise, well, we'd still be in it. But is it really happiness we yearn for, or something else? Think about it. The ‘feeling of happiness’ is only part of the brain’s dopamine reward system – it’s dished out at the end when the brain concludes it should reinforce certain pathways. So the feeling of happiness is really like a cookie. The brain constantly holds that cookie out to us, trying to motivate us in certain directions. Sure, once in a while we’re allowed a bite of the cookie, but just enough to keep us motivated and yearning for more. The problem for us post-Axial Agers is, I think, we've come to naively fixate on the happiness cookie and think that’s what life is all about. But the brain, and life in general, is not really interested in cookies – it wants something more nutritious, if I can stretch the metaphor. 

What the mind really wants, and what it’s designed for at all levels, is to constantly engage in pattern recognition. Pattern recognition, aka data compression, is really the only way we can survive and navigate the world. It happens from the lowest levels of sensory input and muscle control all the way up to seeing faces in clouds and concocting theories of quantum gravity. We know and feel all that dot-connecting within us more simply as finding meaning. Whether it’s reading animal tracks in the woods,or Tennyson by the fireplace; the feeling touch of a loved one or the grip of an enemy; finding the right life partner or the right pizza parlor: fulfilling our evolutionary mandate in a complex world requires constantly connecting the scattered dots of life into ever higher meanings. If the game of life had to have a name, it could only be the search for meaning.

Why do we seek love - to be happy? If the goal of love were to be happy, the brain would be a pretty stupid organ. Deep down we know better. Love is for most people, most of the time, mostly painful. Of course there are great, even long moments of high joy – the excited glow of being ‘in love’, the calm warmth of a hug from a loved one, or reflecting on the love shared with someone. All that great stuff. But the inner sensations of all of that great stuff is, again, just the cookie. Small bites from it may keep us seeking and yearning in spite of all that heartbreak, disappointment, fear, loss, emptiness, suffering... should I go on? ...  along the way. But what the mind really needs and finds in love, I think is meaning. Yup, meaning. I could throw in a hundred quotes on love and meaning here, but since I'm no poet and this really isn't that kind of blog, I'll refrain. But even without me explaining further, I'm pretty sure you get what I mean.

It’s the same story with our jobs and professional careers. There are a few lucky people who do exactly what they love, love all that they do and feel happy every minute on the job. At least I have heard of such people – personally, I’ve never met one. For most people, even a beloved career is mostly hard and difficult work - a daily grind of frustration and fear; sometimes doubt and often despair. That isn’t what happiness looks like – but it’s exactly what the search for meaning looks like. 

Why are religion and spirituality so important to most of us? Yes, it is a source of joy and hope for many. But in difficult times when we need it the most, do we really feel actual happiness from it? And by the way, do we really enjoy the idea of our sins being judged before a heavenly tribunal? Or coming back as a frog? Probably not so much. But we obviously crave the sense of higher meaning they give us. 

Which goes to why happiness requires a decrease in entropy, if you will. Data compression, pattern recognition, is precisely that. It's throwing out a truck load of data that you don't know what to do with so you can have your nice picture, of say, the Virgin Mary on cheese toast, or why your loved one has the most beautiful eyes you've ever seen. And once your brain has locked on to a pattern, there are many more data configurations that don't fit that picture than do. Hence, the miserable brain states tend to outweigh the happy ones that do fit the picture. 

But hang on a second, you might say. Even if the brain doesn't care if we’re happy, does it have to make us so abjectly miserable at times? I think this is other half of the brain’s cookie and stick system. (OK, the English metaphor is 'carrot and stick' but nobody eats carrots these days)

Physical pain is our brain’s way of signaling to us that something’s wrong and needs immediate attention: take your hand out of the fire; don’t walk on that leg. Mental suffering is the mind’s way of signaling too.  The mind suffers for only one reason, but in endless variations: again, I believe it yearns for meaning. When we suffer from a loss, it is, in one form or another - in ways we may or may not consciously understand - a perceived loss of meaning that the mind is bemoaning. If no deeper meaning seems immediately at hand that will satisfy the void, your brain will pull out its misery stick and beat you senseless until you go out and find it. 

But still, even if that's all true – can’t we just try to be happy? Sure and sometimes we actually are. It's just that the fixation on the cookies is what's counterproductive. Personally I wish I could stuff my face all day with the damn things. But really, our brain has all the computational and neurochemical resources it needs to make us happy 24/7 if that were the real goal. Instead, under our conscious radar a completely different program is being run- and it would be overwhelmingly in our interest to understand that. 

Yes it kinda sucks. OK it does suck. But on the upside - and this is the best consolation I can find - how many great human journeys really started with the sentence “Gee… I just want to be happy” anyway? 

Or maybe the working-man's hero Richard Feynman put it best When I found out Santa Claus wasn’t real, I wasn’t upset. Rather I was relieved that there was a much simpler phenomenon...  


04/03/2013 3:47pm

What about reward based learning mediated by neurotransmitters such as dopamine? In short, if you're happy, you will remember the pattern. If not, it'll be noise.

Me thinks thou needest to dance.

04/03/2013 9:06pm

Yeah! What a world that would be! Let the dopamine flow. Wait a minute... that's just what beer does. Unfortunately I don't remember much after a few beers!


Leave a Reply