Happiness from First Principles

Putting any theological or heterodox philosophical opposition aside, I am confident in saying; the only process that ‘designed’ the most fundamental biology and physiology of humans, was evolution. That is, all of our hardwired features exist–as if they had been designed by a god–to ensure survival in the environment in which our species developed. However, excluding some run-down areas in the north of England, the environment we inhabit today hardly resembles the prehistoric one our species developed in. We are hardwired to enjoy sugar because our ancestors would have needed its energy, we enjoy sex (even with contraceptives!) because our ancestors needed several kids in the hope that any would survive, and males find large breasts attractive because they are a reliable indicator of fertility–not because they are shallow.

Some of these evolutionary desires are more obscure. The pleasure experienced from a piece of art or music seems detached from the struggles of pre-historic humans; I confess to speculation here but it might not be so detached. Our culture is, in part, defined by the art we enjoy and the music we listen to–this shared cultural identity allows us to form groups, tribes and, eventually, nations, assisting our survival. Or perhaps the function of musicality resembles that of a male peacock’s feathers–attracting mates. It certainly plays a role in survival, or stems from something else that does. The desire for material wealth in the modern world reflects the importance of having food, tools and shelter in a prehistoric world. As do the desires for a network of friends and companionship reflect the increased safety of being a part of a group.

The next point of importance is how suited are these desires to modern society. To answer this, we need to distinguish between the biological and conscious ‘self’. The biology of these desires fixed; sugar, sex and good music release serotonin and dopamine whether we, consciously, like it or not. These responses being fixed allows us (the conscious self) to ‘hack’ them, we can enjoy sugar without being low on energy, sex without having children and music without forming a tribe. But they also can be ‘hacked’ by others; corporations sell enough food to kill 300,000 Americans each year, 1 in 5 US men say they are addicted to pornography, and modern pop and rap music often glorifies violence and the objectification of women. Clearly the things that humans desire may not be perfectly correlated with healthy functioning in today’s world.

There are some other, more interesting, ‘happy chemicals’. Take adrenaline, when we are in a ‘fight or flight’ situation, alongside increasing blood flow to larger muscles, it makes us feel more alive and exhilarated. In conjunction with the part of our brain responsible for fear keeping us safe, we can get a high of sorts by voluntarily partaking in ‘pseudo’ dangerous activities, like sky-diving, windsurfing and the Call of Duty series. Again, this can be taken too far by adrenaline junkies who put their life at risk in search of the high. Oxytocin plays an important role in forming emotional connections with others and endorphins are a sort of ‘man-made’ morphine.

These biological pleasures will form a key part of any fulfilling life, but they cannot be let to run free. The means by which to be happy is to consciously trick the biological desires to satisfaction in a sustainable way. But there is more to happiness than these primal releases of serotonin; hope and self-esteem.

Before these are discussed, it is worth adding a brief aside regarding drugs. Eating sugar when you don’t need to ignores the usual purpose of serotonin release, whereas taking drugs (stimulants in particular) ignores the usual mechanism of serotonin release. Rather than tricking the brain into thinking we are doing something that is evolutionarily beneficial, they change the very workings of the brain; the conscious self is not only hacking the biological but bypassing it all together. This makes drugs especially dangerous for both one’s physical and emotional health. The human body is designed, albeit badly, to regulate the pleasure you get from eating chocolate. It is not designed to regulate the pleasure you get from a line of coke. While I condone the use of sugar and promiscuity in search of happiness, I do not condone the frequenting of crack-dens.

Returning to the central question of; how can we use our biology to be happy? In truth, the two, rather lovely, things I mentioned before my digression are likely little more than complex extensions of our evolutionary desires. The pleasant feeling of hope, or optimism, is our biology rewarding us for thinking ahead with regards to our survival. High self-esteem, this is, having a positive view of oneself, is our biology encouraging a self-reliant approach to survival. Relying on others for gazelle meat and berries is risky, so the brain rewards us for having gone out and gotten them ourselves. This crude simplification certainly masks the complexity of actually managing these two feelings–but it is a different way of looking at them. It shows us two more features of a happy life; making decisions that set us up for the long-term, not just the short-term, and enjoying, even minor, self-made victories.

I am well aware of how little practical use this model of human happiness may be, and how much it has missed out (the importance of expectations, mental health, empathy). But it reminds us that we humans were ‘designed’ in a very different world to the one we live in today, and decisions should be made with that fact in mind.

Michael Tallent, Editor-in-Chief.

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