lazy person who likes good restaurants, clean sheets, books, movies,
and chatting with friends about their specialties in various fields,
certainly not inclined to romanticize “caveman” (really
"hunter-gatherer") life. But I think it
said that if you wanted to make Lanchester’s Ig and Og unhappy,
the way to do it would be to take them out
of their Paleolithic environment! Admittedly,
even as a thought experiment this is not a fair way to make a point,
applied to individual adults who’d already adapted psychologically to
But to change the experiment accordingly, would raising their infant
children in our world raise those children’s
happiness over the level their parents enjoyed?
not suggesting that we haven’t made great progress over the past
hundred thousand years, only that this progress doesn’t guarantee happiness.
For I see that as a fundamental thing, not one that is
necessarily greatly enhanced by the kinds of progress we’ve achieved so
distinguishes between our relative happiness, as we pass from one set
circumstances to another, and absolute happiness, which his sources say
determined by the (set point + conditions + voluntary activities)
my first article in this series]. But neither of those really captures
I mean by the word “happiness.”
the relative and absolute types of happiness he mentions involve
moods and affect profiles, one more fleeting, the other more on-going
of us as individuals. Neither reaches into our human fiber, feeling and
capacity to “know” far enough … even a person who, because of his “set
fortunate circumstances enjoys a fair degree of happiness in
“absolute” sense, may still lack the kind of fundamental contentment
recognition of rightness that I associate with real happiness.
early humans weremore happy than many of us
are, precisely because their allegedly “nasty, brutish and short” lives
emphasized and exercised fundamental features of human nature, rather
by-passing these in favor of specializations that tend to divert us
of what we are. The potential benefits of this option are not discussed
Lanchester’s article, nor is such a notion (“exercising fundamental
human nature”) even part of our modern perspective. Where in the brain
look for that? Where in our memories of past situations? Or
This is a WoK question.
thirty-three years ago, when I was trying to get some real
experience of what my teachers in contemplative traditions (Tibetan
the time) were saying, I spent sixteen months living in very primitive
conditions in the old Gold Rush areas of the Sierra mountains. For much
time (aside from the deepest part of winter), I lived outside, next to
without even a tent. Everything we take for granted in city life, I had
myself (getting water, making fire to cook, etc.), and it was often
occasionally dangerous. I yearned for movies, a bed, food that didn’t
swimming across a river and carrying long heavy dry tree branches back
and along mountain sides to make a fire to cook, shelter from rain etc.
same liquid emerald river, and the sharp or tippy rocks and crumbly
canyon ledges I carefully
traversed (to avoid a messy death), and the cycles of days and
seasons—even the rattle snakes—offered
me a basic connection to myself and to Nature and back to me again.
different horizons, changing my view of what life is about, in its
the end, I still hadn’t made much progress with my contemplative
studies, but I’d begun to see where they applied. It shocked me to
what I had finally found was merely where contemplative traditions
human nature in relation to its fundamental defining contexts.
Returning to the
city, I continued to investigate that relation on various levels.
life, workaday circumstances and challenges, time pressures, politics,
… may all contribute to that same investigation—once one sees where the
the issue, is playing out. Alternating between city life and another
three years or so of mountain retreats during the past thirty-three
continued to study the basics of happiness and its connection to
questions that usually seem quite unrelated to “happiness,” both
nominally and in terms of our typical habits of thought,
even our scientific perspectives. WoK will try to bridge this gap.
don’t need to beat a retreat to the forest, but we do need to
recover an appreciation of these fundamental dimensions of life
and should be found everywhere. That emphasis on the most basic or
features of our human natures, of the Nature surrounding and
and on ways of knowing these, amounts to the shared central concern of
contemplative studies and science. It should be the central concern of
people too, because it bears on both our happiness and our appreciation
of what is most real about our lives. It also bears on the ways and
degrees to which we are “fixed” vs “free.” For if the picture painted
by some psychological, evolutionary and genetic science, summarized by
Lanchester, is the whole story, then my ruminations on happiness are,
just as Lanchester suggests, moot. I started to address this issue in
my previous article, and will return
to it in my next one.