Why, Perhaps, You Are Not Happy

love model2“I Wonder Who We Are Except In Relation to Others?”, Patti Digh asked, somewhat rhetorically, in a recent IM conversation. No question that we are social creatures, and that we cannot live a healthy life alone. But we are more than just social creatures — we have an identity that is innate, a ‘self’ that we are born with. But somehow, this innate self seems to be less and less ‘us’ as the world becomes more crowded, interrelated and complex. And at the same time, we seem, as a species, to be becoming less happy.

The reason for our modern unhappiness may be simple: We are not ourselves. Each of us actually has three ‘selves’ that are, increasingly, in conflict with each other.

‘You’ are, first of all, a complicity of your body’s organs, evolved by them to protect them from dangers and to help coordinate their actions and movements. Your body, collectively, through chemistry, tells you to do some things in its interest: What to eat, what to feel, who to love and lust for.

‘You’ are, secondly, what is programmed in your DNA, unconscious, instinctive knowledge of how to survive that has evolved over three million years. Your instincts tell you how to respond to situations you don’t have time or mental bandwidth to respond to: When to fight or flee, what is really going on, what makes ‘sense’.

And, thirdly, ‘you’ are what your culture indoctrinates you to be, in order to be useful to it. Your culture tells you what to believe, what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, who and what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’, how you should live and make a living, and, in a battle with the first ‘you’, what to eat, what to feel, and who to love and lust for.

When your physical ‘you’, your instinctive ‘you’ and your cultural ‘you’ are in sync, you are at peace, purposeful, joyful, but when they are in conflict you are stressed, unhappy and, well, conflicted. You are being pulled in three directions at once. And ‘you’ are never in control. After all, you are not yourself.

Why would Gaia have evolved us this way, when it seems to be a recipe for unhappiness, even paralysis?

Let’s consider two people, the composite ‘yous’ of (a) an indigenous and (b) a modern culture:

  • U1 is the composite ‘you’ that might emerge in a natural, indigenous culture
  • U2 is the composite ‘you’ that emerges in highly stressed cultures like our modern civilization

U1 learns what to eat, what to feel, who to love and make love with by reconciling what her body tells her to do with what she observes others doing. Individual choice is respected, so any conflicts are resolved quickly and simply in favour of the body’s instructions. In rare cases where the conflict is serious and irreconcilable, when the culture simply cannot accept an individual’s choices, the individual will choose to leave the community, or be forced out. U1’s instincts are finely honed, listened to and trusted. Instinctive judgement is complementary to that of the body and society, and unchallenged. This way of unconflicted living is the way, I think, ‘prehistoric’ humans lived and all non-human creatures live. It is a way of living that has evolved because it works, except in situations of extreme stress: overpopulation, resource scarcity and exhaustion, environmental (habitat) destruction. 

U2, by contrast, lives in such a state of constant and extreme stress. Her body and instincts cannot adapt themselves to these unnatural scarcities. Her body, in a constant state of trying to cope with stresses that her ‘fight or flight’ responses are no longer adapted to, begins to wear down due to the relentless hyperactivity of stress response chemistry that is, in U1 cultures, only briefly activated. She falls victim to chronic physical and mental diseases unknown in U1 cultures. She is forbidden by a brutal and intrusive, controlling culture to do what her body and instincts tell her to do, and punished severely if she defies that culture, through incarceration, physical abuse, deprivation, theft of her essential needs by the culture, and psychological opprobrium by others in the culture. She begins to hate her body and distrust her instincts. She becomes unhappy and self-loathing, inconsolably conflicted. She becomes chronically physically and mentally ill.

This happens because, in cases of extreme stress, Gaia’s solution is to make the society so unhappy it acts, extremely, within itself, to mitigate and eliminate the cause of the stress. In natural societies facing such stress, birth rate plunges, and, in extreme cases, the strongest in the society hoard resources from the rest so at least some will survive the stressful situation. If that isn’t enough, they eat their young. Once the population and resources are again in balance, the stress reactions abate and a U2 culture becomes again a U1 culture.

Modern human U2 civilization has now been around for about 30,000 years, and we are taught that this is the only way to live, the only way we have ever lived. We are taught the comforting and outrageous lie that U1 cultures were somehow barbaric and desperate, unhealthy and terrifying and ‘red in tooth and claw’. We have forgotten that U2 states are only supposed to be temporary. Well-intentioned, we have perpetuated this U2 state, and we continue to deny its utter unsustainability. Our third, cultural ‘yous’ have, in the process, become more pervasive, more controlling, more ruthless, and more violent with each passing century. Gaia is now, reluctantly, giving up waiting for us to rectify our own behaviour and is now taking things into her own hands. What is left of our instincts knows that this will not be pleasant, and this knowledge is adding even more to our unbearable stress.

So if you are, in your heart, anxious, unhappy, and conflicted, it is not surprising.

It is easy to say that we should learn to be self-aware, self-knowing, humble, that we should keep our sense of humour and laugh at the impossibility of resolving these conflicts. That we should pay attention to our bodies and our senses and our instincts and trust them, accommodate them, understand the truths about ourselves that they teach us. We are all so busy struggling with the consequences of these conflicts and stresses that it is hard to get above them, to focus on the causes.

As hard as it is to do, we should strive to create the time and space to be at peace with ourselves. To love our conflicted, absurd selves, as they try impossibly to adapt to a situation that is dreadful, ghastly, not long for this world. What our three selves try to get us to do cannot be reconciled, but neither can any of these selves be subverted. So we have to know our selves well enough to resolve the conflicts between them, and to make some courageous, and probably unpopular, decisions. We must learn to define ourselves less in relation to others and more in terms of what makes us uniquely us, if we can rediscover, or discover for the first time, who that is.

Not in order to be nobody-but-ourselves — it is far too late for that.

Just to be happy.

Category: Being Human
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7 Responses to Why, Perhaps, You Are Not Happy

  1. Karen says:

    I’ve always been curious – who wouldn’t have done well in a U1 society that is prospering or doing not too badly in the U2 society? I’d like to think it’s all jerks in SUVs but surely there’s someone who’s doing better in the U2 than they otherwise would have in U1. Maybe my mother, who I despise in character but whose debt I otherwise cannot repay?

  2. andy mill says:

    1 “No question we can’t live a healthy life alone.” I would question that. 2 “In natural societies facing such stress, birth rate plunges, and, in extreme cases, … they eat their young.” I’m no expert but I’ve never read about this intriguing bit of gore. why make such a claim? 3 It’s my impression that modern societies, the first cities, etc., have been around for 10,000 years, not 30,000. 4 “It is easy to say that we should learn to be self-aware, self-knowing, humble, that we should keep our sense of humour and laugh at the impossibility of resolving these conflicts.” Laugh? are you insane? Rather than curling up in a ball and waiting for the end we should do all we can to fight it. It is an impossible fight but it’s the right one and it’s the only way to maintain real sanity.

  3. Mariella says:

    ¿ And what about changing the perception of ourselves from … human beings (solid idea and feeling of being something) … to “human processes” (open idea and feeling of continuos change…)? obviously these changes are influenced by everything you mention, but as the feeling is different, so may be the result..

  4. Amanda says:

    You truly have a beautiful mind, Dave. I don’t think our civilization can withstand much longer, especially not in a future that’s exactly like the past. Somewhere in our design, in the structure of our First Selves, there is a glitch–a lot of them, actually, but some more malevolent than others. And I’m convinced it’s these recurring glitches, these perversive misanthropic traits that will inevitably result in civilization’s end. Despite believing this, I haven’t reconciled a way to… live, because I don’t know how to in a world like this, a world so manufactured and anti-intuitive to what our First Selves think and feel. I do feel fleeting joy from time to time–deep, immersive, natural, plain joy–and I am able to cherish the rarity of those moments in full… But the sorrow and hurt and misery and death others feel during those same moments is deeper and more continuous than anything else in the world…I think there’s a part of me that will never be entirely, truly, happy. A part of me will always be ultra-sensitive to the despairs of the world. And I think I’m okay with that. I don’t think I have any other choice.

  5. Peter Bodo says:

    You can deal with complex environments only by ignoring part of your genetic and cultural Selves. This is what makes succesful U2s and what made succesful U1s. BTW, don’t confuse success with SUV-ownership.

  6. As to one of your thrusts… I really don’t conceive of the self in that manner. I think that the human being is not part and parcel with her or his society. That’s a blurring of the lines of definitions, in my opinion. I live in the usa… and so I have a different on society than you do. The usa is pretty wild and crazy, where Canada is much more sensible, and rational. But what I see as I look around me, is that folks have a tendency to adopt an ethic of reasoning according to consensus. They look about them, at their society, and they try to discern generally what everybody else holds to be true. This is where you would see that odd melding which you talk about – where the real self, has an awkward societal aspect.

  7. Jon Husband says:

    When I went through my major life change (period between 40 – 45 years of age), giving up a senior position in a global firm, coming to terms with limited means and no pension, etc. I struggled a lot with the patterns and threads of my life, with meaning in and at work, with the dissonance(s) between me and my values and the work I was doing and why I was doing it, etc.I often asked myself (and read a lot about) the “purpose of life”.Much of what I read and thought was reasonably complicated, by the time I had worked through it.I kept coming back to, and eventually decided that for me, the purpose of human life was clear. We humans are here, in my opinion, for no purpose other than to meet each other, consider being in relation with each other (in whatever form that relation takes, although I have preferences) and take pleasure from being conscious about being alive and being able to think, talk and act about consciousness, right and wrong, beauty, music, sex, literature, the inventions of humans like wine, chocolate, mashed potatoes and the million and one other things that one must wonder from time to time how we got here (208) from there (10,000 BC and further back).The rest of my life (give or take 20 – 25 years) will be spent listening to others, trying to be a good friend to those who accept me and my friendship, and doing no harm (oh, and speaking my mind from time to time).I’d love to be as ambitious as you, re: changing / saving the world, but I have a firm, practical and realistic grasp on my powers AND my many inadequacies ;-)

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