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Lanchester on Happiness #3

(For the first article in this series, see Can the Study of Happiness Make Us Happy?)

A lazy person who likes good restaurants, clean sheets, books, movies, science and chatting with friends about their specialties in various fields, I’m certainly not inclined to romanticize “caveman” (really "hunter-gatherer") life. But I think it should be 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, when applied to individual adults who’d already adapted psychologically to their situation. 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?

I’m not suggesting that we haven’t made great progress over the past several 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 far. Lanchester distinguishes between our relative happiness, as we pass from one set of circumstances to another, and absolute happiness, which his sources say is determined by the (set point + conditions + voluntary activities) formula [see my first article in this series]. But neither of those really captures exactly what I mean by the word “happiness.”

Both the relative and absolute types of happiness he mentions involve moods and affect profiles, one more fleeting, the other more on-going and characteristic 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 point” and fortunate circumstances enjoys a fair degree of happiness in Lanchester’s “absolute” sense, may still lack the kind of fundamental contentment and recognition of rightness that I associate with real happiness.

Perhaps early humans were more happy than many of us are, precisely because their allegedly “nasty, brutish and short” lives and world emphasized and exercised fundamental features of human nature, rather than by-passing these in favor of specializations that tend to divert us from much of what we are. The potential benefits of this option are not discussed in Lanchester’s article, nor is such a notion (“exercising fundamental features of human nature”) even part of our modern perspective. Where in the brain would we look for that? Where in our memories of past situations? Or where else? This is a WoK question.

About thirty-three years ago, when I was trying to get some real experience of what my teachers in contemplative traditions (Tibetan Buddhism at 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 of that time (aside from the deepest part of winter), I lived outside, next to rivers, without even a tent. Everything we take for granted in city life, I had to do myself (getting water, making fire to cook, etc.), and it was often hard and occasionally dangerous. I yearned for movies, a bed, food that didn’t involve swimming across a river and carrying long heavy dry tree branches back across and along mountain sides to make a fire to cook, shelter from rain etc. But that 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. This opened different horizons, changing my view of what life is about, in its essentials.

By 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 realize that what I had finally found was merely where contemplative traditions started—the basic human nature in relation to its fundamental defining contexts. Returning to the city, I continued to investigate that relation on various levels. Modern urban life, workaday circumstances and challenges, time pressures, politics, squabbles … may all contribute to that same investigation—once one sees where the action, the issue, is playing out. Alternating between city life and another three years or so of mountain retreats during the past thirty-three years, I’ve continued to study the basics of happiness and its connection to “reality” 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.

We don’t need to beat a retreat to the forest, but we do need to recover an appreciation of these fundamental dimensions of life which—once identified—can and should be found everywhere. That emphasis on the most basic or fundamental features of our human natures, of the Nature surrounding and constituting us, and on ways of knowing these, amounts to the shared central concern of both contemplative studies and science. It should be the central concern of all 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.

Steven, 4/20/06.

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