Jack Nicholson in As Good as it Gets
No one dies a virgin. Life f***s us all
Let me start with a short history of happiness before I trash it. My hope is to illustrate clues along the way to what may sound like a radical idea, but is, I think, actually pretty straightforward.
As far as I can tell, the 'pursuit of happiness' as a riddle of life to be solved seems to be another Iron Age invention. (Bronze Age scholars: feel free to slap me silly with counterexamples, but I couldn't find any) Apparently, earlier times tended to consider happiness as something that either came your way or it didn't, and there generally wasn't much you could do about it. The word 'happiness' itself, in all Indo-European languages, derives from ancient words for luck. In modern German, it's actually still the same word, which turns out not to be as confusing as you would think. Anyway, I'll call that clue no. 1
But while happiness per se may not have always gotten our attention, misery and suffering in all shapes and forms clearly did. The earliest surviving works of literature, for example - the hymns of the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna - contain a sad tale of banishment from the temple and sexual harassment from a brother-in-law. The themes that come out starkly in the oldest human writings are conflict, suffering and yearning. Sure, what else do you expect from literature, my first English Lit professor loved to emphasize. But what's telling is that, even back then, so much of that isn't directly related to what you would naively expect - our evolutionary mandates for survival and procreation. Enheduanna seems mostly upset by her loss of status. The Lament for Ur goes on mostly about destroyed buildings and temples. Gilgamesh's journey through the wilderness is the search for wisdom, not a cold drink of water. And so on. So Bronze Age people were clearly searching and yearning for meaning beyond their daily bread. Yet with all that yearning, it still didn't seem to occur to anyone for thousands of years to express the meme that Thomas Jefferson told us was self-evident: "I just want to be happy". Call that clue no. 2
In any case, that all changed with the Iron Age, or more specifically, the Axial Age. The earliest historical figure of a new 'find-your-inner-peace' movement was a sage from the Ganges Valley, Parsva, who started meditating his way to Nirvana three centuries before the Buddha. The meditative traditions spread slowly, but they did spread. Meditation is hard work, after all, especially for novices like me. But for however long you can do it, the benefits to your peace of mind are pretty quick and manifest. Unfortunately, they also go away if you stop. Maybe this is why the meditative traditions have a solid but still niche adherence of less than 10% of the global population. That fact that meditation feels so good but is still so hard is clue no.3
An even quicker benefit was offered by the pre-Socratic Epicurus. He figured that avoiding pain and seeking pleasure was a seriously not-bad strategy towards happiness. Really, it should have been a damn easy sell as a life philosophy. But in truth, Epicurus had relatively few takers. (It's a shame that the word 'Epicurean' somehow got corrupted into the first two of the seven deadly sins, since Epicurus really taught modest, thoughtful, simple living as the highest pleasure. But there you go.) Anyway: for me that's clue no. 4
In principle, the monotheistic religions - Zoroastrianism, Judaism, then later Christianity and Islam - should have been the toughest sell of all. On the one hand they do promise happiness to the faithful... just... well... not in this life. The primary aim of this life is obedience to God no matter what the suffering is, as a fellow named Job would readily confirm. So if your life still sucks, suck it up and wait for the afterlife, buddy. The surprising fact that these belief systems, and not Epicureanism, or even Buddhism, are dominant on the planet is, I believe, a really, really important clue no. 5 to what our brains are really after.
Part II to follow.