Happiness and the Pursuit of Happiness

One of my favorite BIG THINKERS, Dave Berreby, criticizes our Declaration of Independence.  Here’s the Declaration’s theory:  We have the right to life, and we have the right to the liberty to use our lives to pursue happiness.  The pursuit of happiness must mean that happiness in the bottom line.  Happiness must be good for us.  But Dave has his reservations.  Here’s my spin on some of those reservations:

The best way to achieve happiness is to pursue it.  But that’s surely not true.  The best way to be happy is to do what you’re supposed to do.  That’s what evolutionary psychologists think:  Our desires point us in the direction of “prosocial” behavior—behavior not chosen for the sake of happiness but for the benefit of others—the social group.  Christians think that the best way to be happy is to be charitable, to act for others out of love of God.  And Stoics think the best way to be happy is to act like a rational “fortress,”  always acting responsibly toward others—being magnanimous or generous—so as not to compromise who you are.

Happiness is most often the result of being virtuous, although, of course, there’s no guarantee.  Even the Declaration says we have a right to pursue happiness, not to be happy.  The right to happiness is the decadent product of  the “therapeutic” orientation of our time.  Old-fashioned psychology as self-discovery through candid conversation is replaced by the allegedly reliable result of mood-enhancing drugs.  But, big surprise!  The drugs don’t work.  The best way to feel good remains to be good.

 The pursuit of happiness supposes that it’s better to be happy.  But data shows, Dave explains, that’s not really true; “experiments suggest that people in happy moods are more gullible, prejudiced and careless of detail than are their downbeat peers.”  In this respect, it seems like being happy really means being complacent or bovine contentment.  It means living a life free from restless pursuit.  To paraphrase  the legendary Dean Wormer from Animal House, being fat, stupid, lazy, and happy is no way to go through life.  And Mayor Bloomberg agrees.  But doesn’t that negative judgment depend on the cause of your happiness?   It might not be  true if your happiness is caused by your fulfillment of your relational responsibilities.  What about the happiness comes from having lots of children and raising them well?  That’s different than the apathetic contentment that allows you to ignore your kids while watching the game guzzling beer.

On the other hand, there’s little doubt that the feel-good high you get from listening to Mozart or reveling in some other uplifting work of art does lead, as Dave says, to making stupid  mistakes in ordinary life.  The “reentry problem,” as Walker Percy described, for those lost in thought is severe.  The problem with absent-minded professors is they’re happy being absent from everywhere but their minds.  Everyone knows they’re a significant risk factor.  Maybe we should make driving while listening to Mozart illegal, at least for those who are too addicted to his form of love.  This has implications for the Google campus:  As portrayed in The Internship, it’s all about providing happiness all around—from the music to the sleep pods to the free pudding and various  New Agey amenities.  Maybe “Googliness” shouldn’t even try to have anything to do with happiness.  Maybe the campus needs more Mahler and way-existential seminars on our misery without God and so forth.  Maybe Google should revert to the old-fashioned American work ethic, which separated productivity from happiness more clearly and honestly.

Happiness, Dave explains, often comes from thinking that we’re at home in the world, that my “inner state” has a comfortable niche in my external environment, which, of course, includes other people.  If I know that correspondence doesn’t really exist, then I’m unhappy.  But I also know I have to adjust—sometimes painfully—to the expectations of others in order to survive.  So it’s unhappiness that leads me to find a “collaborative” place in some workplace group.  But what therapeutic Googliness aims to do is to soothe you into believing that collaboration conforms to your “inner state,” and so adjustment isn’t painful, but natural.  But maybe more truthful and productively creative is the constant tension between individual desires and the good of the ad agency that animates the unhappy characters on Mad Men

Not only that, it's the perception that our environment is fundamentally hostile to our desires—our being—that’s the foundation of the modern world’s techno-creativity.  I’m not going to adjust, by gun, I’m going to make my environment adjust to me.  Once we get too happy, technology stops galloping and starts to crawl.  Nobody, in a way, is less happy than the transhumanist, who won’t rest until he achieves total control over his being and his environment.  Those happy with less—those with the serenity that comes with acceptance—are fools.

But the philosopher who inspired Mr. Jefferson and his Declaration, John Locke, said it’s quite impossible for us free individuals to do anything but pursue happiness.  That’s what we’re hardwired to do.  Dave’s suggestion that we consciously pursue unhappiness won’t work for us. But Locke also says that our pursuit of happiness is really constant uneasiness.  We can’t rest content in enjoyment for more than a moment, and so our lives are constituted much more by the restless pursuit of happiness than actually being happy.  Restful enjoyment comes much more naturally to members of at least many of the other species.   And we’re often wrong in what we imagine happiness must be.  So the unconscious pursuit of unhappiness is pretty darn common.  Locke was as alive as Dave to the downsides of happiness,  but he didn’t confuse happiness with its pursuit.  Locke thought that a people devoted to the pursuit of happiness would be powerful and free, but happiness itself would remain elusive.

Big Think Edge
  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

  • Prejudice is typically perpetrated against 'the other', i.e. a group outside our own.
  • But ageism is prejudice against ourselves — at least, the people we will (hopefully!) become.
  • Different generations needs to cooperate now more than ever to solve global problems.