On Happiness and the Environment

In our modern times, achieving happiness seems to be a priority. Only ego validation – in the form of career fulfilment, personal success, and fame, or their less flattering versions of vanity shows and chase for online followers, views, and ‘likes’ – can compete with individual happiness today to the top of the list. And although happiness has, quite understandably, always been an important human goal, there were times where promoting a certain idea or particular beliefs; where defending certain values; where furthering an institution, team, or nation; and, hopefully for some still, where achieving familial and group betterment, all were as or more important than individual happiness. Notwithstanding, great deal of recent talk and media are dedicated to the topic of happiness, as if it is the ultimate end goal of human existence. In societies where some of the religious beliefs have been shed, this has become an all the more important subject.

Without a doubt, happiness is a needed state of experience to all living beings, and the alleviation of suffering in particular is of primary importance. But happiness is the result of something else; it is not an enduring end goal that one finds and clings to like a gold chest. It is wrongly assumed that hedonism is simply the blind search for pleasure, and Epicurus’ advocacy of happiness is quite different from that which is commonly construed today. Moreover, what makes us happy at one stage of our lives is not necessarily the same at another stage; we are endowed with different characters that enable us to be happy differently; and of course, happiness cannot be equated with material prosperity, the latter being only a contributor, if at all.

Happiness is an emotional state that the agent experiences as the result of certain interactions with the outside world, other agents, and/or one’s own being (as with meditation or working out). It is limited in time and is actually quite rare. In fact, we spend most of our time not being overly happy, and it is a normal aspect of the human condition. Otherwise, happiness would cease to be that special thing to which we long. All else in the individual being equal, the type of happiness to which he aspires and which he ultimately realises, and all the consequences of this realisation, are factors of the environment in which he evolves. I have previously talked about the importance of the environment and its influence on the behaviour of any individual, no matter how strong or detached she can be; this is part of the reflection on the influence of the environment, only focused on the particular aspect of happiness, which has become a sort of pop culture torch.

Happiness is a somehow vague concept; it is common for two individuals to say that they are happy while experiencing slightly different feelings in the least. Happiness takes on different variants; it can resemble satisfaction; it can be a psychological state of peace and serenity; it can be an ego trip; it can be the excitement of action after restlessness; it can be tranquillity in cherished routine; it can be a feeling of reward after achieving a long sought objective (a case of dopamine rush); it can result from strong social bonding (a case of oxytocin rush); it can be sensual pleasure; and it can be relief from pain (a case of endorphin rush). There are different ways of reaching happiness; some are more ephemeral than others, and some are physical while others are cognitive. Nevertheless, it is rather clear that most of us need to experience on a not-too-rare of a basis one or several of those feelings, and that some of those ‘feel-good’ emotions can, temporarily or more permanently, compensate for the lack of others. When we lack one particular variant of happiness, we try to compensate for it by seeking more of another, even sometimes to the point of becoming addicted to such compensation.

The variants of happiness and the offsetting of one by another are central to the relation between the environment in which we live and the kind(s) of happiness that our environment favours. Consequently, some environments can be more constructive or pervasive in the manners in which they promote certain variants of happiness and limit others. The environment is the nation, the city, the neighbourhood, the media culture, the Internet, the workplace, and other. In some environments, the prevalent way of achieving happiness is through consumption and spending; in some, it can simply be family and human relations; and in others, it takes place through conflict, and even oddly through violence and warfare. Some people realise happiness through exploring the world of meaning, and some do so by probing truth and science. Prevalent variants of happiness can require increased consumption of particular resources or they can come with greater long-term cost. For instance, we say that inviting people to enjoy smoking leads to a society with higher cancer rates in the future.

In the same way that changes to incentives influence people’s behaviour, changes to the environment can alter the sources from which humans draw most of their happiness. Simple as it is, I find this to be an important sociological fact that is seldom considered when addressing the subject of happiness. Happiness is ultimately shaped by human interactions, fulfilled values, the perimeter in which a human being operates, and the incentives and rewards to which he or she is subject. We can live in environments where all lead to temporary, hindering and resource-consuming forms of happiness; and we can live in environments with enduring, humane and synergistic forms of happiness. Environments change dynamically, and such changes come to impact the way people become and stay happy. And importantly, we often have partial power to alter an environment or take ourselves out of it. The way Buddhist disciples in the mountains draw their happiness from contemplation is different from the way winning gamblers draw their happiness in Las Vegas or Macau; both are at some point feeling happy and fulfilled, and both can feel the satisfaction of having achieved something, only in remarkably distinct ways. The archetypical story of the rich and famous person who ‘has it all’ ending up miserable, with substance abuse problems, and dead by suicide or overdose can be better understood through such environmental considerations.

Once we admit the environmental impact on happiness, then we can deduce two easy correlates: (1) Happiness in societies with different climate, geography, demographics, and cultural environments can be different in kind, and arguably some of it can be more sustainable than other; and (2) Material well being and technological development only favour certain variants of happiness by changing the environment. From personal experience, I am inclined to say that the most enduring forms of happiness in society are those that grow organically and measuredly with culture; in several newly formed or economically changing cities, if you probe, you tend to find human relations weaker, and people falling on consumption and maybe temporary vanity as a way to compensate – repletion is the sovereign source of melancholy, as William James said.

It also reminds me of something J. M. Roberts and Odd Arne Westad said in The Penguin History of the World, when talking about the great development of Ancient Greece while contrasting it with the limited means with which people there lived at the time, “That civilization was rooted still in relatively simple economic patterns; essentially, they were those of the preceding age. […] Such men were the typical Greeks. Some were rich, most of them were probably poor by modern standards, but even now the Mediterranean climate makes a relatively low income more tolerable than it would be elsewhere.” I suspect that, even today, many low-income people find life more tolerable, and even more enjoyable and happy, than the rich living in harsher environments.



Are We All Naive At Some Level?

“[…] a large proportion of our positive activities depend on spontaneous optimism rather than mathematical expectation […] a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction […]” John Maynard Keynes.

We live in a very intricate and continuously surprising world. We constantly seek answers to our questions, we often discover new things, and when we do so, our old views of the world and of us seem naive and silly. We often look at other animals and we find them to be simple in their behaviour and their reasoning, and we may even pity them for that. In our mind, we are superior because we are less naive. But, when we realise major discoveries or undergo a major revision in our thinking, we feel the same way towards ourselves; we see our past selves with almost the same aura of naivety with which we perceive more seemingly simple creatures.

Naivety is a definite weakness of cognition most of the times. We reject a romantic view that praises natural naivety in the name of some bedevilling of knowledge and progress. But does naivety lead to bad or sub-optimal behaviour one hundred per cent of the times? Ironically (and unfortunately) we have to say no… We all operate with some form of naivety at some level and in what concerns some subject matters. It can be in our political, social, or religious views; it can be in our human relationships to each other; for the specialists, it can be in thinking their area of speciality superior to others; for business executives or investors, it can be in their economic reasoning or in liking to see indefinite trends where there is none. Curiously, it is some of this spontaneous naivety that makes us do things we otherwise would not have done; and while, most of the times, little positive comes out from these spontaneous actions, knowledge and progress can ensue in few cases unintentionally. Didn’t we discover the New World through such a dynamic?

When it comes to the subject of naivety, we can think of two great dangers (at least): (1) not knowing or refusing to admit that each of us has some propensity to be naive in some particular area; and (2) letting ourselves be manipulated by others who know how to exploit particular naiveties we have.

Aren’t we all a bit as was said about the famous Don Quixote de la Mancha:

“But is it not a strange thing to see how readily this unhappy gentleman believes all these figments and lies, simply because they are in the style and manner of the absurdities of his books? […] apart from the silly things which this worthy gentleman says in connection with his craze, when other subjects are dealt with, he can discuss them in a perfectly rational manner, showing that his mind is quite clear and composed; so that, provided his chivalry is not touched upon, no one would take him to be anything but a man of thoroughly sound understanding.” Cervantes, Don Quixote


The Power of Mental Shortcuts

When we attempt to render human cognitive abilities special, or try to shed a light on what makes our mental capabilities different or ‘better’ than other cognitive capabilities around us (be it in other animals or in artificial machines), we can think of many elements: a higher level of consciousness, a developed memory, or advanced analytical and logical capabilities and with wide scope. Yet, it is the power of our mental shortcuts that is of crucial importance and is often omitted. These mental shortcuts have been given many names: intuition, heuristics, problem solving tools etc. In fact, what still makes humans capable of producing some things that artificial machines are not able to achieve today is not necessarily due to their ‘intelligence’ or their ‘memory’; it is rather due to their ability of approaching mental data efficiently through cognitive shortcuts, their ability to translate problems into equations quickly and efficiently (equations that machines are more capable of solving than us), and their ability to represent cognitively a wide variety of things they experience .

This does not mean that our mental shortcuts are always right (many shortcuts do lead to errors in judgment and behaviour in some situations). And the origins of these shortcuts are partly instinctual, partly developed with age, and largely altered by experience and by the environment. This makes of mental shortcuts a difficult subject of understanding and its scope a very wide one. Mental shortcuts are key constituents of what we call cognitive models, which much of our knowledge and conception of Reality and Existence depend upon.

Historically, Henri Bergson envisaged two types of intelligence: one analytical, which operates by reducing a problem into smaller pieces, analysing each piece, and going by conjunction, and another more intuitive intelligence, inscribed in duration (la durée réelle ou la durée créatrice), where everything is considered as a flow and not as a sum of parts as in the case of analytical intelligence. Curiously, Bergson saw analytical intelligence as a hallmark of the human intelligence (alongside intuitive intelligence that we share with animals) and made it the cause of many of our fallacies and weaknesses of understanding. In reality, our recent knowledge in the field of cognitive sciences actually points to the contrary: we have very powerful mental shortcuts, very powerful heuristics; we approach our experiences in a nimble and short-circuited manner more so than in an analytical one. In our mental shortcuts lies a good deal of our greatness but also our faults.