Happiness Is Confusing Even Our Smartest Scientists
Happiness has gotten confusing. Despite its importance it’s puzzling even our smartest scientists. “Bentham’s bucket error” is to blame, but "Plato’s Pastry" parable and a rare case of reality in Freud can help.
Daniel Kahneman (the “most important psychologist alive”) has spent a decade on “hedonimetric” experiments which assign “single happiness values” to each moments felt pleasure and pain. His conclusion? “The word happiness does not have a simple meaning and should not be used as if it does. Sometimes scientific progress leaves us more puzzled.” Despite eons of thinking, happiness has become a low-resolution word, unhelpful in seeing key distinctions.
Happiness got its simpler meaning in the Enlightenment. Before then few considered it mainly a matter of feeling good by maximizing each moments pleasure. But thinkers like Hobbes, Locke and Bentham believed “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure…They govern us in all we do.” Gravitating towards Newton’s successes, they sought equivalent scientific certainties in human affairs. Bentham’s “greatest happiness of the greatest number” principle needed a calculable kind of happiness. So he declared happiness and pleasure and 54 other “synonyms” to all be forms of utility fit for the same calculation bucket. This stew of slippery synonyms is the source of Kahneman’s confusion and science’s “more puzzled” progress.
Eons earlier Plato wrote: If a pastry baker and a nutritionist had to compete in front of children, or in front of men just as foolish as children… the nutritionist would die of starvation.” The rational mind’s task was to “govern the body” and not always choose to chase pleasures like a child.
Even Freud understood that pursuing moment-to-moment gratification was unworkable. He said the Pleasure Principle drove the immature Id to react thoughtlessly to pleasure and pain. But the more mature Ego was ruled by the Reality Principle, enabling prioritization and delay of gratifications and the ability to endure necessary discomforts. Enlightenment “happiness” is closer to Id-centric and should become more Ego-centric.
It’s time we rescued happiness from Bentham’s befuddling bucket (of dubious utility). Biological and rational realities require distinguishing happiness from momentary pleasure.
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker Cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions.
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- Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
- Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
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- U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
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Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.
- New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
- Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
- The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.
Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".
Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.
The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.
The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.
Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.
"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."
University of Colorado Boulder
This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.
Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.
The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.
Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.
What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.
"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."
Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
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