If you were an eighteen year-old youth in a small village 5,000 years ago you’d probably think you were good-looking because there were only fifty other men in your village and most of them were either old, scarred and wrinkled, or still little kids. But if you are a teenager today you are a lot more likely to feel inadequate. Even if the other guys at school are an ugly lot, you don’t measure yourself against them but against the movie stars, athletes and supermodels you see all day on television, Facebook and giant billboards.
What is happiness for you?
Winning a lottery? Buying new house? A promotion? True love?
Let me clarify this for you, Nobody was ever made happy by winning the lottery, buying a house, getting a promotion or even finding true love. People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies. The complex system of nerves, neurons, synapses and various biochemical substances such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin!
A person who just won the lottery or found new love and jumps from joy is
not really reacting to the money or the lover. She is reacting to various
hormones coursing through her bloodstream, and to the storm of electric signals flashing between different parts of her brain.
Evolution has moulded us to be neither too miserable nor too happy. It enables us to enjoy a momentary rush of pleasant sensations,but these never last for ever. Sooner or later they subside and give place to unpleasant sensations.
For example, evolution provided pleasant feelings as rewards to males
who spread their genes by having sex with fertile females. If sex were not accompanied by such pleasure, few males would bother. At the same
time, evolution made sure that these pleasant feelings quickly subsided. If orgasms were to last for ever, the very happy males would die of hunger for lack of interest in food, and would not take the trouble to look for additional fertile females.
Think for a moment of your family and friends. You know some
people who remain relatively joyful, no matter what befalls them. And
then there are those who are always disgruntled, no matter what gifts
the world lays at their feet. We tend to believe that if we could just change our workplace, get married, finish writing that novel, buy a new
car or repay the mortgage, we would be on top of the world. Yet when
we get what we desire we don’t seem to be any happier. Buying cars and
writing novels do not change our biochemistry. They can startle it for a
fleeting moment, but it is soon back to its set point.
Nothing captures the biological argument better than the famous New
Age slogan: ‘Happiness Begins Within.’ Money, social status, plastic
surgery, beautiful houses, powerful positions – none of these will bring
you happiness. Lasting happiness comes only from serotonin, dopamine
That’s one option. Another is that the findings demonstrate that happiness is not the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments. Rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.
Hence any meaning that people ascribe to their lives is just a “delusion”. The scientist who says her life is meaningful because she increases the store of human knowledge, the soldier who declares that his life is meaningful because he fights to defend his homeland, and the entrepreneur who finds meaning in
building a new company are no less delusional than their medieval counterparts who found meaning in reading scriptures, going on a
crusade or building a new cathedral.
So perhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.
So I have two alternate happinesses with me.
One. If happiness is based on feeling pleasant sensations, then in order to be happier we need to re-engineer our biochemical system.
Two. If happiness is based on feeling that life is meaningful, then in order to be happier we need to delude ourselves more effectively.
This is quite a depressing conclusion. So let me conclude again. Happiness is no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.
So why so struggle to achieve that disappears as soon as it arises??
Yuval Noah Harari
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