TRUE HAPPINESS



© Andy Turnbull, 2006

Are you happy? Really happy? How do you know you're happy? That's a dumb question, isn't it? Anybody knows whether they're happy or not! They think they do, anyway.

But do they? How about the drug user who thinks he would be happy with an unlimited supply of heroin or crack? The sexual deviate who gets excited by a woman's shoe or a Teddy bear? The hypochondriac who delights in a new illness so exotic that most doctors haven't heard about it yet? If we give them what they want they may think they are happy, but would they be really happy?

What is happiness, anyway?

Theologian Thomas Aquinas described it as the "summum bonum" -- the final end at which everything we do is ultimately directed -- but he didn't say what it was. The English Utilitarian philosophers of the 18th and 19th centuries saw human happiness at the highest moral good but they didn't say much about what it was either.

John Stuart Mill described it as "pleasure and the absence of pain," and unhappiness as "pain and the privation of pleasure" -- but we all know of people who seem to be happy despite pain and very little apparent pleasure, and others who seem to be unhappy even though they have full access to all the pleasures of the world.

Happiness is subjective and apparently related to pleasure and the fulfillment of needs whether they be physical, psychological or emotional. Because we in North America find it relatively easy to satisfy our physical needs, our happiness probably depends mostly on satisfying our psychological and emotional needs.

And these can be conditioned. One way or another drug users, sex deviates, hypochondriacs and others learn to find pleasure or satisfaction in behavior and rewards that would not please or satisfy the rest of us.

But I'm conditioned too. I may not think so, but I have been taught the norms of our society -- by my parents and schools, the church, the media and my friends -- and my perception of happiness is the result of that teaching.

So I have to wonder whether it's valid or not. Am I really happy, or do I just think so?

Even within normal limits our culture recognizes a wide range of valid conditions of happiness. We're not surprised that one man is happy as a farmer while another might prefer a completely different life as a cog in the machine of big business, or as a small entrepreneur or as a fisherman. Somewhere in our development we learn different values, and to value different rewards.

Are they all equally valid? We assume so, as long as they lie within the accepted values of our culture, but is that a valid standard? Maybe not because, by definition, the accepted values of our culture include all the pleasures and rewards we consider valid.

That's a frightening thought when you consider the umpteen billions of dollars the advertising industry spends every year, and it's control of popular media. The function of advertising is primarily to condition us.

That sounds like the wind-up for a diatribe against advertising, but it's not. I am concerned about advertising and I worry about propaganda, but that's not the point of this essay.

It is a problem though because the use of happiness and unhappiness in selling is obvious. Everybody seeks happiness and if I want to sell you something, it is to my advantage to equate the possession of that something with happiness.

That would be difficult if you were already happy, so as an advertiser it is in my best interest to try to make you dis-satisfied or unhappy.

And I suspect that the combination of the opinion molding apparatus and socialization by people who are themselves molded by the apparatus is so powerful that we can no longer trust our own perceptions of happiness. Like most people I "know" what makes me happy, and what would make me happier, but my "knowledge" is subjective. Can I trust it?

Probably not, but I might be able to find happiness -- or at least a definition of it -- through logic. My logic is subject to conditioning too, of course, but I try to be objective and I can hope to find an objective measure of happiness.

I start with the premise that happiness -- whatever it is -- exists. I must assume that, partly because so many people accept its reality and partly because without that assumption I have no reason to search for it. If there is no happiness my search will be fruitless, but on the other hand if there is no happiness I might just as well waste my life on a fruitless search. Especially if -- as in my own case -- the search itself contributes to a condition that I identify as happiness!

And I believe that I am the product of a long evolutionary process, an heir to perhaps 50,000 generations of identifiably hominid ancestors. Most of my physical and mental characteristics are the products -- or at least the survivors -- of this process, and most of the characteristics common to humanity have presumably played a part in making me what I am today.

Some of them -- such as my appendix -- may be of no obvious use now, but it is generally assumed that most of the characteristics I have inherited from my ancestors may have at one time contributed to the survival and development of the human race.

That's how evolution works. Species mutate at random, and some mutations work better than others. Mutations that give the mutants a better chance of survival tend to spread, because the mutants survive, and mutations that decrease the chances of survival die out, because the mutants die out.

Is there a function for happiness in that scenario? There is. Happiness rewards me for certain behaviors and lack of happiness punishes me for others. I need make no value judgments about different types of behavior here -- I need only assume that some types of behavior probably pleased my pre-human ancestors more than other types of behavior and, further, that whenever possible my ancestors did as they pleased.

Now I postulate two general categories of human behavior -- Survival Positive Behavior, which I will hereafter refer to as SPB, and Survival Negative Behavior, which I will refer to as SNB. I'm sure there must be a large "gray area" between the extremes, but I choose to ignore that for now.

I define SPB as behavior which is conducive to survival, and SNB as behavior which is not conducive to survival. Since I am thinking in terms of all humanity now, it must be the survival of the species to which I refer.

There is no need to identify specific examples of SPB at this stage. We need only accept the proposition that some types of behavior are conducive to human survival, and some are not.

And -- from tautology to tautology -- I can assume that people who practice more SPB than SNB were more likely to survive, and to leave descendants, than those who practice more SNB than SPB.

But why did they practice SPB? Not because they knew it was good for them. Most of my ancestors never saw a doctor interviewed on a TV news show, or read an advice column in a newspaper. They had no way of knowing what was good or bad for them, so they just did what felt good.

Consider the case of the first two proto-humans that met the a saber-toothed tiger.

Eek thought it looked dangerous, and he ran away. Ook thought it looked pretty, and he walked forward to pet it.

Eek has SPB, and he is an ancestor, Ook had SNB, and he was a snack. Because we're descended from Eek, most of us inherited his aversion to petting saber-tooth tigers.

It's a safe bet that my ancestors did not make many serious mistakes -- the fact that I exist is proof of that -- so I assume that most of their behavior was survival positive.

But they did not read advice columns in the newspapers, so I assume they mostly did things that pleased them. Tens of thousands of generations of my ancestors seem to have found happiness in SPB. If that is true, there is a strong possibility that I would find happiness in behavior that would have been survival positive for my distant ancestors.

Mostly that behavior would provide them with food, shelter, protection from predators and -- because we're talking about survival of the species -- children. My early ancestors didn't just produce the necessities -- they enjoyed producing them.

I can infer that because they survived. Some early men probably didn't like hunting much and they may have hunted only for food. They would have done all right while the hunting was easy.

But when hunting was poor, only the best hunters survived. They were the ones who enjoyed hunting for its own sake, who hunted when they didn't really have to, and who fine-tuned their skills to the point where they could find game where their less-skilled brethren could not.

Hunting produces only a fraction of the food eaten by hunting and gathering people, but food gathering is also a skill. Women who enjoyed gathering probably became more skilled at it, and therefore better able to survive hard times.

Logic leads me to categorize both hunting and nature study as SPB's, and I note that many people enjoy them today.

Later generations of my ancestors -- within the past twelve thousand years or so since the development of agriculture -- must have enjoyed raising food crops as farmers. Again -- the reasoning is obvious.

There were times when the farming was easy, and all who lived on or depended on farms ate well in those days. But there were also droughts, bad winters and other disasters, and the survivors of those times were the ones who enjoyed farming, who learned all they could about it, and probably those who habitually planted and grew more than they expected to need.

So far, no revelations. It takes very little to justify the suggestion that hunting, walking in the woods and gardening may be inherited pleasures. Millions of hunters, gardeners and naturalists accept that as a truism without a second thought.

I can also assume that finding or building shelter, making clothes and raising children also provide natural satisfaction, and it's no surprise that all of these activities, which could be considered work, are also popular forms of recreation.

Some people object to hunting, of course, but that's their choice in a society where their needs are taken care of by others. Living in Toronto I can fill all my nutritional needs without hunting, fishing, gardening or gathering.

But tens of millions of modern people fill their needs at a secondary level -- by working in a factory or an office or whatever -- and they have no direct contact with hunting, gathering, farming or building. Millions of them have are not even raising children. Can they be happy with that kind of life?

They have to be, because humanity has out-grown the natural world. There isn't enough game in the woods for us all to hunt, not enough woods for us all to pick natural foods, and not enough gardens for us to grow our own. Some say there isn't even enough room in the world for children.

But on the other hand my need to hunt is natural and, if I have to live in a world in which I cannot hunt, I have to find some other way to satisfy the same urge.

Women's urges may be easier to satisfy because women have always been gatherers, and if there is a gender component to heredity their primal urge would tend toward gathering. Shopping for bargains in a mall may not be exactly the same as looking for edible plants in the woods, but it seems to please some women.

By the same token women -- who do most of the farming in primitive society and who often feed their own families from their own gardens on today's market-oriented farms -- often fill city apartments with house plants.

This implies a gender factor in our instinctive needs, and I'm willing to assume that for the simple reason that men and women are different. Our brains are physically different and, through most of human history, the different sexes have played different roles in society.

This is not a value judgment, it is an observation of fact. It is also fact that men and women can inter-change some roles but that's just one more proof that human beings are the most adaptable animals in the world. Male and female of most forms of life on this planet act different roles, and the roles of men and women in most human societies, through most of human history, have been different.

But survival of the individual is no contribution to evolution. Unless they leave descendants to continue their line, people are not survivors in the evolutionary sense. I am the physical heir of people who reproduced themselves successfully and this implies that if happiness is related to SPB, then SPB must be related to reproduction.

Happiness is a well-stocked harem. I've always known that, deep in my heart.

But it is simplistic to think that an adult reproduces himself by fathering, or herself by bearing, a baby. Reproduction is a function of adults, not of babies, and the adult is not reproduced until the baby has matured and is capable of becoming a parent itself.

Some parents -- a doctor who will not rest until his son is practicing medicine, a plumber who insists that his son learn plumbing and even a mother who insists that her daughter marry and bear children -- may appear to take their reproductive roles to extremes. Such slavish devotion to complete replication of the parent is not necessary and is generally considered undesirable in modern North America, but it may well be the vestigial remains of a very sensible and responsible parental concern.

In pre-historic times there were few options among viable life-styles for humans in any given area, and it would have made very good sense for parents to insist that their children adopt a life-style that had been tested and proven over several generations.

If the physical situation no longer exists today, that is no reason to discount the validity of parental feelings. Evolution can't keep up with social and technical developments in human culture, and allowances must be made for genetic heritage as well as for cultural developments.

But whether we insist on children following in our footsteps or not, reproductive behavior must include the protection, nurture and education of children. Since this behavior is as important as sex in the gestalt of the reproductive process, it would be reasonable to assume that the urge toward this behavior is about as strong as the sex urge. Stronger, perhaps, because the behavior must be maintained longer -- and often under adverse conditions -- for reproduction to be successful.

The fact that I exist is evidence that my ancestors nurtured and cared for their children and, since my ancestry pre-dates customs, I must assume that this behavior is innate in the human species. It is basic SPB.

Many of our SPB's have been enshrined in customs, of course, and the customs vary widely from culture to culture. The customs which embellish SPB, however, must be distinguished from the SPB itself.

Customs are skin-deep, and a baby born in one culture but raised in another will assume the customs of the adoptive culture without question and without problems.

SPB is innate. It is common to all mankind -- with minor variations dependent on environment -- and while I concede that it may be buried or perverted in some human beings -- drug addicts and sexual deviates, perhaps -- I don't think it can be erased from any human being.

Compliance with custom will facilitate one level of happiness, but I suggest that compliance with SPB is necessary for "true happiness". It would be no surprise to find that in any viable culture, compliance with custom includes compliance with SPB.

But customs change and, in a time of rapid and major change, it may be possible that some SPB may be discarded along with old customs.

This must be a grave danger in a culture dominated by a powerful mass media, which can be a source of rapid change but which thrives on sensation and which can feed on the change it creates. Since challenge to an SPB will produce more sensation than challenge to a custom, such media is under pressure to challenge -- and therefore to discourage -- SPB.

If the pressure to change is powerful then the people of the culture may abandon the SPB and, if the importance of the SPB has been masked by custom, the importance of the change may not be readily identifiable.

But since SPB is being changed the change must affect all people in that culture -- especially those who adopt the change. This effect might be reflected by such surface effects as rising crime rates, violence, anomie and other mental problems. If the change in the SPB has been masked, these problems will be blamed on other causes.

The disappearance of some cultures in history may have been the result of the abandonment of SPB by the people responsible for the continuation of those cultures. If the guardians of a culture die out, for whatever reason, the culture will be lost even though the rank and file of the people who built it survive.

If anything so basic as SPB were to disappear from a society I should expect to find some objective warning signs, to indicate the lack of it. What form would these signs take?

There is one objective measurement used by zoo-keepers around the world to judge the physical and social living conditions of their charges -- including some exotic animals whose natural environment and social order may not be fully understood. The rule of thumb is that if animals breed and raise enough young to maturity to maintain or increase their numbers, then the conditions in which they live are suitable. If they do not breed, or do not nurture their young, something is lacking.

The world is in no trouble by that standard. On a world scale our problem is quite different.

But some identifiable groups within our culture are in serious trouble by that standard and, since they are the very groups who's physical environment is the "best" in terms of what I know of human health and survival, I must suspect social and cultural problems.

And since the groups that are in the most trouble are among the trend-setters for the world, I must consider the problem to be very serious.

The WASPs of North America are a dying race, in terms of breeding performance. If that is of no particular concern to others, it should be.

An African or an Asiatic, an Arab, an East Indian or a Latin American or a North American Indian could be forgiven if he looked on the decline of WASPs with little compassion, but the situation isn't that simple. Any of these people might assume that if and when WASPs disappear, others will take their place in the (perceived) lap of luxury but the fact is that individuals of other races also tend to become unsatisfactory breeders -- in terms of species survival -- as they enter the urban middle class. The problem that threatens WASPs today will also threaten their cultural heirs.

On a more practical level, the evidence seems to indicate that the society in which I live is not fit for human habitation. Since I have to either inhabit it or get out and since it's the most comfortable society I know I consider it worthwhile to search for the problem and, if possible, to change it.

What is the problem? I don't know, yet. I do know that it seems most acute -- most obvious at least -- among the urban middle class, and it may be more common than I think among urban people generally. Throughout history cities have traditionally grown by the migration of people from rural environments, more than by increase among their citizens.

It is obvious that SPB's are being abandoned by considerable numbers of urban people but since the SPB of breeding and raising children is the most obvious of the ones being abandoned, and at the same time it is the one I are using as our yardstick, it would be unsafe to assume that it is a direct cause.

Reproductive behavior -- which includes the raising of children as well as breeding them -- must be so basic that it could not be abandoned by people living in a viable social and cultural situation. If it is, the situation is no longer viable.

And I don't accept the threat of holocaust -- nuclear or otherwise -- as an excuse. The threat of mass death by any means other than starvation -- a problem which does not immediately threaten the people who are failing to breed in our society -- has never interrupted human breeding performance before, and I see no reason why it should do so now. The more WASPs born and raised now, the more chance that some will survive a disaster.

And I do not suggest that the problem is our failure -- as a cultural group -- to breed, or that I could solve anything by more breeding and by raising more children. I refer to our breeding performance because it is the only objective, culture free measure I have of our living conditions, and I suspect that if the other, deeper, problems which exist are ever solved we may have to adopt coercive measures -- a heavy tax on children, perhaps -- to control our own population. I don't look forward to this but, given the choice of a society in which people refuse to breed and one in which they have to be restrained from breeding, I would choose the latter. Breeding is a very basic human function -- it is basic behavior among all living beings -- and failure to breed when physical conditions favor it is an indication of very serious social problems.

I am quite willing to live with the birth rate we have now. I am not willing to live with the conditions that I suspect limit that birth rate.

If the specific problems in our society are ever identified I think it will be through a review of all customs in the traditional version of WASP culture and analysis of the SPB's, if any, they contain. If a custom which contains an SPB is not viable in our changing world then it must be abandoned -- it will be abandoned -- but the SPB must be recovered and enshrined in another custom.

Are you happy? I suggest that the answer is no.If you are reading this you are probably a member of a dying culture and you cannot be happy in a dying culture. You cannot be really happy in a culture in which SPB is being replaced by SNB on any significant scale.

You may be able to approach happiness, however, by analyzing your own behavior in the light of SPB and modifying it accordingly -- and perhaps by situating yourself in a community where SPB is the norm, rather than deviant behavior.

As long as SNB is seen as the norm in any society though, I suspect that true happiness is impossible for members of that society.

end.


back to Andy Turnbull's web page