Teaser Appetizer: The Past and the Future of Happiness

The second line of the declaration of independence “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is ambiguous for a good reason: ambiguity in politics is as rewarding as precision in science. The authors of these lines were aware that only the pursuit was an “inalienable right” but not happiness itself. But this right may be wrong and the pursuit futile. Here is an example from Abd Er-Rahman III of Spain: (960 C.E): “I have now reigned about 50 years in victory or peace, beloved by my subjects, dreaded by my enemies, and respected by my allies. Riches and honors, power and pleasure, have waited on my neither call, nor does any earthly blessing appear to have been wanting to my felicity. In this situation, I have diligently numbered the days of pure and genuine happiness which have fallen to my lot. They amount to fourteen.”

Happy20sad20face_1Dearth of happiness seems to be the nature of existence and considerable human activity is geared to enhance it. What haven’t we done to chase this mirage! Our irrational tools are: war to attain peace; marriage-divorce–remarriage; crime and cocaine and of course Viagra for failing happiness. But the most bizarre is for religion to assert that my-god-is-better-than-your-god and if you agree, you will be happy but if you disagree I will kill you – that will make me happy.

Prophets, philosophers, psychologists, economists, biochemists and cynics have attempted to dish out prescriptions for utopia and their emphasis reflects the bias of their system.

The chase for the happiness mantra started many centuries ago. Buddha’s (540BC-480BC) doctrine of “four noble truths” acknowledges there is suffering, the cause of suffering is desire and the control of desire alleviates suffering. Dhammapada, a Buddhist text gave a prescription for happiness (verses 197–208) more than 2000 years ago “Live without hatred, anger and passion; stay healthy; avoid pursuit of worldly pleasure and possessions, stay tranquil in victory and defeat; seek company of noble and trustworthy kinsmen and avoid ignorant people”.

Socrates who lived a few years after Buddha echoed that a virtuous life was the essential prerequisite. The ingredients of the happiness cocktail have not changed: love, trust, kinship, achievement, money, health, self esteem and engaging activity. While Buddha would extol the virtues of suppression of desire, other disciplines would urge us to pursue them passionately.

Economists would like to inspire us to chase wealth. Fortunately for the uninspired, they have found no constant correlation between income and happiness. We know that the hungry poor are miserable and they are less so when they get some money, but happiness does not increase after a certain level of income. Richard Layard, a British economist calculated that fifteen thousand dollars was the threshold and any richer is not happier The Japanese have six times more money compared to 1950 and the Americans are twice as rich compared to 1970 but the populations are not any happier. (Layard, “Happiness: lessons from a New Science”) Wealth increases consumption but not happiness.

Can a Buddhist economic system increase happiness? Can the notion rooted in Buddhism — the ultimate purpose of life is inner happiness– be delivered by state intervention? Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the king of Bhutan (a Buddhist nation) suggested in 1972 that countries should be more concerned with “Gross National Happiness” than with Gross Domestic Product. His four pillars of GNH are: economic self-reliance, environment preservation, promotion of indigenous culture and good democratic governance. Richard Easterlin, professor of economics at the University of Southern California a supporter of this concept says “We have been misguided in dismissing what people say about how happy they are and simply assuming that if they are consuming more apples and buying more cars they are better off.” But history bears the evidence that economists’ failure to distribute happiness equitably is as successful as their distribution of wealth.

So much for the economists; what do the psychologists say? Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, conducted an elegant experiment with people from various cultures. He distributed pagers to a few thousand people and paged them randomly. He asked them to write down what they were doing and how they felt when the pager beeped. The investigation tried to capture the activity at the moment when people said they were happy. The study showed that people were happy when they were immersed in what they were doing and were oblivious even of the passage of time. They were experiencing what Csikzentmihalyi called “flow”.

Psychologists have even tried to quantify happiness. Interviews with more than 1,000 people has yielded the following: Happiness = P + (5xE) + (3xH). Here, P is personal traits like outlook and adaptability, E is existing health , finances and relationships; H stands for higher attributes like aspirations, expectations, self esteem and humor. Sounds like it is Dhammapda wine in a mathematical decanter.

Other psychologists have shown that happiness is not a formula but an inherited endowment. The level of happiness stays at a predetermined ‘set point’ and alters only temporarily after a life changing event. You would presume that a lottery winner will be eternally happy and a person crippled by an accident sad for ever. Not so. Both return to their original frame of happiness after about a year. Consider this formula: H=S+C+V. Here, H is happiness, S is your set point for happiness, C is the life situation and V is voluntary activity.

A formula can give you understanding of the happiness but cannot enhance it. Enter the biochemists who don’t want to be left behind in the pursuit of joy chemicals. They have matched our glandular secretions to our emotions. Some molecules seem to mirror our emotions:

  • Oxytocin – a hormone that augments uterine contractions during labor- is our bonding agent. The hypothalamus exudes it abundantly during bonding, mating, pregnancy and even a sensual massage.
  • Endorphins are internal opiates that relieve pain and induce a ‘high’ during strenuous jogging and are also released during laughter and orgasm.
  • Dopamine is the achievement and reward hormone; the levels rise not only after an accomplishment and also with the anticipation.
  • A passionate romance stimulates neural growth factor but the high levels recede after about two years. Nothing lasts for ever, especially romance.
  • And then there shines the star of mind modulators: 5-hydroxy tryptamine (5HT) also known as serotonin. When Marcus Aurelius meditated “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself” he may as well have been referring to 5HT.The vagaries of this single molecule suffuse mirth or misery; this alone decides who to bless and who to punish.

The human body has only 5 to10 milligrams of 5HT, ninety percent of which resides in intestines. Only half to one milligram lies ensconced in small packets, in the nerve cells of medulla, pons and midbrain. With an incoming signal the packets burst into the space between nerve cells and attach to receptor proteins. Scientists have characterized fifteen such receptors and each one modulates a different function like sleep, hunger, body temperature, muscle contraction and depression The quantity of 5HT and its attachment to a specific receptor determines individual’s psychological destiny.

Numerous studies in animals and humans have shown that low levels of 5HT are associated with depression, suicide, aggression, self destructive behavior and poor impulse control. Drugs like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft increase the levels of 5HT and can alleviate these symptoms. Recreational drug ‘ecstasy’ surges the serotonin level in the neuronal synapse and inordinate excess results in ‘serotogenic syndrome’ a potentially lethal condition. Futile pursuit of happiness sometimes starts as a pursuit of hedonistic sensory pleasure but often leads to a contrary state – unhappiness.

So here we are: from Buddha to biochemists, happiness can not boast of a glorified past but can it envision a promising future? Ray Kurzweil says, “The essence of being human lies not in our limitations but in our ability to transcend them.” And can we break beyond our natural boundaries? Some experts think the answer lies in biotechnology:

The pursuit of happiness and self-esteem—the satisfaction of one’s personal desires and recognition of one’s personal worth—are much more common human aspirations than the self-conscious quest for perfection. Indeed, the desire for happiness and the love of excellence are, at first glance, independent aspirations. Although happiness is arguably fuller and deeper when rooted in excellent activity, the pursuit of happiness is often undertaken without any regard for excellence or virtue. Many people crave only some extra boost on the path to success; many people seek only to feel better about themselves. Although less radical than the quest for “perfection,” the quests for happiness, success, and self-esteem, especially in our society, may prove to be more powerful motives for an interest in using biotechnical power for purposes that lie “beyond therapy.” Thus, though some visionaries—beginning with Descartes—may dream of using biotechnologies to perfect human nature, and though many of us might welcome biotechnical assistance in improving our native powers of mind and body, many more people will probably turn to it in search of advancement, contentment, and self-satisfaction—for themselves and for their children. [The President’s Council on Bioethics, Washington, D.C., October, 2003]

That was the past and future of happiness but what about the present. Well, cynics are the only people who seem to have got it right. As George Burns quipped “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”