Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Truth About Happiness (2 of 3)

Defining your happiness on the success of romance is not very different from doing so based on the availability of cocaine.

Xenocrates
Love is simultaneously the greatest cause of happiness and the worst kind of sadness.

Love, religion and freedom are often regarded as the hallmarks of true happiness. If that were true, then why is it that there are so many people in love who are unhappy? Why are so many religions experiencing such attrition in young people? Why is it that nations that have overthrown their oppressive governments aren't exactly happy with their hard won freedom?

I explore these fallacies of happiness in greater detail.

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Fallacy #4: That it exists in someone's arms

When polled, the vast majority of people cite that their single greatest pleasure is being loved by someone else. It is not inexplicable then that being in love is so widely considered to be the greatest definition of happiness. If so, then you can create exactly the same feelings in your brain by taking a MDMA drug like Extacy. So happiness can literally be stored inside a pill.

In a recent post entitled "Love is a Drug", I elaborated on how the feelings that you sense when in love are nothing more than electrochemical reactions in your brain — reactions that can be manipulated. What I'd like to add is that the idea that love equals happiness is a bit naive. The reason is that people tend to love and hate with the same degree of intensity.

Love is a sensation that was designed explicitly for one purpose and one purpose only: for procreation. If it was not for this emotion dulling our sensibilities, we would not engage in the relatively dangerous act of exchanging bodily fluids in order to perpetuate the species. Also, one is not able to sense the feelings of heartbreak if they were never in love in the first place.

Consider all the people who have committed suicide in the name of love lost. If they had never fallen in love, they would still be alive today. The same can be said for all the people who have been killed in a jealous rage when they were discovered to be the other half of a philandering lover. So let us think again: Should love be considered the most reliable source of happiness?

Don't get me wrong: When you've fallen in it deep and it actually works out, there is probably nothing else in the world that can bring you the same sense of happiness. The trouble is that because we're such sophisticated animals, we anthropomorphize the idea of love to such an extent that love becomes an object in and of itself, instead of a gateway to something else.

Love probably causes more unhappiness than it does happiness. The reason for this is simple: Almost everyone will experience romantic love in some way. But most of those people will lose that love and experience a sadness unlike any other — sadness that is equal in intensity of the happiness they had from having that love amply reciprocated for such a considerable time.

This is why most couples who grow old together feel less sadness when their loved one dies, especially when those feelings age with their ageing brain. As the brain gets older, it produces less and less Serotonin, and thus a less intense sensation of "love" as age takes it toll. This obviously doesn't apply to everyone since we are all biologically different, especially in our DNA.

People who've never been in love appear to envy those who are in it, while there are many more people who've had love and wish they'd never fallen into it. Then again, there are people who were once very deep in love until they had surgery that removed a tumor that also took with it, a part of their brain. As a result, they lose their ability to feel love and other emotions.

Cases like that are quite prevalent in neurology. Lawsuits have been filed over this thing. Some people who've been so badly burned by love have campaigned to warn others to avoid love at all costs. So can we honestly say that happiness is in the arms of someone? Do you think you're mature enough to handle the sense of betrayal that comes whenever love fails?

I once told an ex-girlfriend that I was breaking up with her because she used me to define her happiness. She felt that I was being unfair because of a post I wrote sometime ago entitled "Love is selfish". I reminded her that I still stand by that article, but I also reminded her that is precisely why I was breaking up with her. She had become a different person since we began.

I wasn't attracted to her because she was attracted to me. Rather, it was because she was already a happy person before she met me. I find happy people very attractive. Happy people are inherently sexy. After starting a relationship, one's level of happiness shouldn't decrease. Nobody starts a relationship to become less happy. Therefore something was clearly wrong.

She lost that ambivalent sense of happiness once she "fell" in love with me. Suddenly, trivial things such as being 5 minutes late for a date, forgetting to get her a gift for her birthday or remembering to wish her Valentine's day were precursors to bitter, pointless arguments that went on forever. Falling in love triggered some deep seated, unresolved insecurities in her.

She is not alone. Many people have the same problem.

It took me a while to realize I wasn't happy anymore — about three years in fact. That's the problem with being in love: You can get to a point where the happiness has since disappeared but you continue to pursue it anyway, just as someone would gradually develop an alcohol addiction that ruined their marriage or a gambling problem that soon cost them their home.

This is what many people who define their happiness by the presence or absence of love fail to understand. If you find that you could only be happy in the arms of someone else, then you are probably still too immature to be in a relationship with anyone. Defining your happiness on the success of romance is not very different from doing so based on the availability of cocaine.

Fallacy #5: That it is bequeathed by religion

Some people in the word believe this man knows the path to happiness.

If you are a long time reader of my work, then you've no doubt witnessed my struggle with the muddiness of religion. Of particular note should be a post I wrote some time ago entitled "The Anatomy of Belief", where I outlined the types of people who are more likely to subscribe to religion. In short, belief is nothing but a function of biology and environmental conditioning.

With that said, I was never a happy Christian. You can tell by all the lingering questions I had that were never satisfactorily answered and my discovery that the faith in which I was raised turns out to be nothing more than a ubiquitous farce. I just could not understand at that time how so many people could have subscribed to an idea that has so many gaping logical holes.

...and then I studied Psychology.

As it turns out, there is a part of the brain, the right brain to be more specific (a section of the amygdala to be even more precise) that is directly responsible for our ability to have a "God experience". This area of the brain is designed specifically as a coping mechanism that allows us to deal with our inescapable mortality. Not everyone has a well developed area like this.

People who don't won't have a god experience when they look at the majesty of nature. This has nothing to do with one's intellect. There is a colleague of mine who happens to be a very brilliant engineer who describes having this experience when he looks out onto an area as majestic as the Grand Canyon. His brain instantly tells him that "God did this". Mine does not.

The Carina Nebula as photographed by a refurbished Hubble Telescope. Some people would look at this image and instantly feel the presence of God. I (and many others) would instantly feel the amazement of seeing nature's star factories (because that's what it is). See more amazing Hubble photographs here.

When I experience the majesty of nature, I am mind boggled at the mathematical algorithm that produced it. I don't instantly think that some magical fairy did it. What is even more surprising is that this "God experience" is not specific to Christianity, yet Christians naively think they have a monopoly on it. Muslims, Buddhists and Zen Taoists have had the same experience and none of them had to worship Jesus Christ. Some do not even worship a god.

It was not until recently that I realized that there is a specific part of the human brain that predicates this experience. So everyone is capable to some extent of having that experience — women more so than men (which is why church populations are dominated by women). If this part of your brain is not well developed, then you are not going to find any happiness in God. In fact, you will probably be happier without religion. Belief appears to be a biological function.

Never the less, as much as I look back at those days when I pandered to the expectations of the adults in charge with a giant smirk on my face, I am equally respectful of people's will to be delusional. It is a great source of happiness and is probably more robust than falling in love. A delusion is an emotional coping mechanism (hence the right brain Amygdala source).

However, make no mistake: Religion is not a reliable source of happiness. Delusions are not fool proof. Just ask all the people who were Christians who turned to atheism. Between the religions that oppressed them and those that destroyed their families, extreme circumstances usually become the feather that breaks their delusional backs. However, those who've never experienced such extreme circumstances will continue to subscribe to their delusion of choice.

That will continue to happen until one of their sons is molested by a Catholic priest, one of their daughters are impregnated by the community pastor, or their family burns to death in a church building preparing for the end. Just as how alcoholics get a wake up call when their liver fails, theist will have a similar awakening when their elders are found to be only human.

But who am I to tell a man who has switched his source of happiness from a liquor bottle to the Bible that he has the wrong source of happiness? That would not only be cruel, but it seems unethical. This is why I generally have a problem with the pseudo-religious atheist movement. For people who don't believe in God, they're trying awfully hard to recruit others.

The real problem with finding happiness in religion is similar to that of finding happiness in the arms of a lover: Are you mature enough to deal with losing that source of happiness if your delusion breaks? The question is something of a Catch 22 since a delusion is so holistic, that a person who has found happiness in the arms of Jesus will never entertain such a possibility unless their delusion breaks — and that is usually the source of the problems that will follow.

Judging by the number of bitter atheists I met on my way out of religion, I would say that a religious delusion breaks really hard. I share some of those feelings too. I personally feel that I would have had a far more fulfilling and engaging childhood if I was raised agnostic. Instead, my youth is littered with bitter memories laced with guilt over my natural biological unction and unsatiated scholastic curiosity. I was miserable and I hated my parents for raising me as such.

Once I had reached adulthood and had the opportunity to separate myself from religion, the transition was a turbulent, gut wrenching one. It was only then that I realized I was being detoxified like a crack addict in a half way house. It took nearly 10 years for me to become rid of my deeply conditioned delusions. My many years of intense brain washing didn't go quietly.

Since being free of the neurotic guilt that defined by religious upbringing, I have never felt a deeper sense of contentment in my freedom from religion. It is only now that I realise that I was raised to judge and hate under the guise of religious love. But the most provoking thing about religious intolerance is that churches create atheists in much the same innocuous way that heterosexuals sire homosexuals. People still go to such churches — but only out of fear.

If you have a far simpler mind than I do, I'm sure you will find much more joy and happiness in the arms of Jesus than I did. You won't have any lingering questions keeping you up at night. Then again, I don't live in constant fear of going to hell and I am not frightened by a crazy old man shouting at Sunday Morning congregations telling them their world is coming to an end.

Now that I realize that all of those people were just crazy, I have never been happier. With that said, if you find that religion makes you happy, then you don't need me to convince you that your happiness functions in exactly the same way that of a drunkard does. It's the same part of the brain being stimulated. Your cognitive dissonance will manifest itself as pure faith.

Fallacy #6: That it comes with freedom


Video © Copyright 2011 — Reuters­­™.

It's interesting that I mentioned in the previous section that my freedom from religion is what brought me happiness, since the enslavement of others to religion is what might bring them happiness. While there are enough people on both sides to completely dismiss the idea that religion automatically bequeaths happiness, freedom from religion may not be for everyone.

This is where I and many atheists part company.

Some minds are so debilitated that they simply cannot thrive free of religion. Just recently, I heard a story on the BBC about a Chinese boy who sold one of his kidneys to buy an iPad and a Laptop. His mother is beside herself. She blames the lack of religious upbringing in China as a causative factor. I'm sure atheists around the world squirmed on hearing that explanation.

I would never sell my kidney for an iPad, nor would many others who're no longer religious. However, the difference is that we were raised religious. We put religion in its rightful place once we were old enough to differentiate between good and evil without the black and white filter of religion. The difference between declared and implicit atheists is that the latter is more likely to not have the moral conditioning that usually comes as a standard feature of religion.

I'm not saying that morality and religion are inextricably linked. I have very clearly declared otherwise. Rather, my point is that even if you're an atheist of some kind, you wouldn't have declared yourself an atheist without having first been exposed to religion. This means that you were already conditioned in an environment that has very strong religious undercurrents.

Therefore, it is fair to argue that as an atheist, your objection to selling your kidney for an iPad wouldn't be because you know better as an atheist. Your objection to selling your kidney would have come long before you decided there was no God. That is a function of religion. It's a very convenient little thing that brings rationality of a different sort to the majority of us.

But this child's problem is more a function of western indoctrination — one unmitigated by proper parental guidance and the morally questionable characteristics of some of China's cultural idiosyncrasies. That is the problem with freedom: It has a very steep price. Despite one's rejection of religion, one cannot deny its effectiveness among people of a lesser mind.

For better or worse.

It is commonly asserted that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Just ask the people living in the poverty stricken Caribbean nation of Haiti. They were the first Caribbean nation to free themselves of European colonial rule. The problem is that none of their colonial masters' advanced knowledge of social governance was transferred before their liberation. The result is over 200 years of social turmoil, corruption and abject poverty that brought Haiti to its knees.

A similar trend exists right across the Caribbean. You will notice that the level of political and social development appears to have a direct correlation between how long they were under Colonial rule. The longer they were colonized, the more stable their government and social development turned out to be. You will likely find a very similar trend right across the world.

In fact, the Arab Spring that is now sweeping across the North African Muslim states (where nations are rising up against their government — more often to their own detriment), will demonstrate this point even more poignantly; that there is no such thing as happiness with total freedom. Amidst those riots, criminal elements took advantage of the burgeoning chaos.

The Arab states are not the only ones who suffered.

You will see the same kinds of freedom in America where one's freedom of speech is either misused by politicians demonstrating their ignorance, abused by hip hop artistes exploiting violence and misogyny for profit, used to concoct hate speech attacking those with ideological differences or creating chaos in the streets of Vancouver simply because your team lost. Still, while North America will never repress that freedom of speech, it is a freedom that is paid for by the frustration and misery of the many others who are helplessly subject to its abusers.

This is how people who have freedom often abuse it — much to the chagrin of store owners and police.
So is freedom really a source of happiness?

Freedom is potentially dangerous — very few are mature enough to handle it. Many of the people believe that they would be happier if they were free failed to evaluate the costs and consequences of freedom. A convict liberated after decades of imprisonment becomes a social cripple as does an animal that was raised in captivity as opposed to the wild. Even the Bible anecdote of the freedom of the Jews from Egyptian rule carries the same thematic elements.

Freedom may be a great source of happiness once one is prepared to manage their own destiny. But that is rarely the case. A prodigal child prematurely moving out of his parents' home may crave the crisp air of self controlled destiny, only to meet up on the high cost of rent, and being ill prepared to be broke month after month with bills their parents once paid.

The pursuit of happiness through freedom is a powerful biological instinct that is very hard to ignore. What many fail to realize is that happiness via freedom is very deterministic. In other words, it is highly contingent on the will of the pursuer to meet with the challenges of freedom that were once managed by their captors. The amount of happiness derived from freedom is thus highly contingent on the raw determination of the mind pursuing it. One does not achieve happiness because they are free — one achieves happiness once they have decided to be free.

Up Next: The conclusion — the top four fallacies of happiness

E-mail: accordingtoxen[at]gmail[dot]com

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