Happiness is Just Chemistry, and Its Absence

(like everything on my blog, my graphics are covered by Creative Commons licence)

What is it about us that we never seem to be happy, at least for long? What does it even mean to be happy?

There have been endless studies suggesting that, a year after winning a major lottery, people are no happier than they were before. And that a year after losing a limb, those who suffered that tragedy are just as happy, on average, as the lottery winners.

Robert Sapolsky has explained how our body chemistry drives us to always want more — to never really be happy with what we have. That’s probably part of it. But another part of it, I think, is that our human brains’ constant ruminations — second-guessing, worrying, regretting etc, leave us in a stage of constant low-level anxiety, never content with the present, and obsessed with the past and the future.

This is all, of course, just my theory, just my amateur opinion. But my conditioning is to try to make sense of everything, and to use this blog to help me do so, so here we go.

Based on years of living with, observing, and reading about, non-human creatures, my sense is that, unless they have been abused or constrained under situations of chronic stress, they live most of their lives in a state of what I call alert equanimity (box 1 in the chart above). These are, I am guessing, times when their feelings of natural contentment are not being disrupted by stressful situations and the chemical responses of their bodies to those situations. Those stressful situations can be either pleasant, chemically invoking feelings of joy, exhilaration, and excitement (eg a dog sniffing the trees and meeting other dogs on a walk), as shown in box 2 in the chart above, or they can be painful and unpleasant, chemically invoking feelings of fear, rage, anger and sorrow (eg the dog being hurt, trapped, or meeting snarling dogs on a walk), as shown in box 3 in the chart above.

This I think (which Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s book on behavioural theory The Secret History of Kindness would seem to support) is the emotional range of wild creatures, other than those unnaturally exposed to constant and chronic stresses. I would guess that the feelings in boxes 2 and 3 are entirely the result of their bodies’ biologically and culturally conditioned chemical responses to various types of situations and stimuli. I also suspect that they feel these emotions “full on” (ie more powerfully than humans), without the veil of human judgement and sense-making dampening them. And there seems to be evidence that, once the source or situation or stimulus that provoked the chemical reaction and resultant emotional response has passed, wild creatures quickly return to their ‘natural’ state of alert equanimity.

I have no idea whether that state of equanimity, which I have observed in many creatures over the years and which seems to be a state of contentment, relaxation and acceptance, but also of quiet alertness and attentiveness, one that I can’t imagine any human ever experiencing — is likewise chemically induced, or whether rather it is the blessed and precious absence of chemicals driving us to feel, and do, one thing or another. I wonder in fact if this is actually the state of bliss, or zen, or ‘present awareness’, or simple ‘beingness’, that many meditators and spiritual ‘teachers’ are striving to achieve, sustain and train others to attain.

Is this state of equanimity “happiness”? In moments of quiet, and freedom from stress and outside worries and preoccupations, I have experienced something close to this as a form of happiness quite different from the state of happiness that comes from being in love, or making an exciting discovery, or doing anything actively pleasurable.

But it’s still clearly happiness. If you’re a wild creature, and you spend most of your life in a state of equanimity (box 1), a modest amount of it in a state of joy and active pleasure, and a few unpleasant but fleeting moments in a state of fear, rage, anger and/or sorrow, that sounds to me like a pretty great life. If the trillions of creatures that make up a wild animal’s body are conditioned to maximize pleasure and minimize pain as their ‘prime directive’, this would suggest that they’re doing a bang-up job. What better way could there be to ensure the survival and propagation of species than to make most of their lives happy?

No wonder, then, that humans so often seem to have this intuitive sense that there’s something important ‘missing’ or ‘lost’ in their lives, that life shouldn’t have to be this hard, and that there should be a lot more happiness in the world than there is. Are we humans missing out on the extraordinary happiness that wild creatures feel most of their lives?

The bottom part of the chart above tries to capture the gamut of human emotions, and how, I would theorize, we live in an utterly different emotional ‘world’ from that of the planet’s wild creatures, one largely of our own creation and imagination, and one that neither equips us better to live functionally, nor makes us happier — in fact it results in us being much less happy, and constantly dissatisfied with our lives.

While most wild creatures live in the emotional states in green in the chart above (boxes 1-3), it seems to me humans live in a different set of emotional states shown in blue in the chart (boxes 2-5). We share the (chemically conditioned and induced) states of joy, excitement, fear, anger, rage and sorrow with wild creatures, but our fear, anger, rage and sorrow often festers into chronic anxiety, hatred, indignation, judgement, blame, shame, envy, grief, and other unhealthy and traumatizing emotions (box 4) that arise from our brains’ furious propensity for ‘making sense’ and ‘making meaning’ of everything that happens, and making everything personal, when everything that happens is just conditioned behaviour.

And this is made worse by our high-stress lives, due to our now-global economic and social systems that force us to live and work in situations of endless, artificially-created precarity, conflict, competition, confinement, and alienation, eating and living unhealthily. So our bodies are trying to cope with chronic stressors as if they were short-term, acute stressors, and that is both killing us and making us crazy, reinforcing the cycle of unhealthy and traumatizing box 4 emotions.

We feel these unhealthy emotions, then we think about and rationalize them, and then those thoughts perpetuate the emotions, which drive us to think more about them, and so on, in an endless, inescapable loop.

The best we can hope for, it seems, is to get some respite, in moments when there is relatively little stress, in a state I call alert (low-level) anxiety (box 5), in which we can mostly, but not entirely, quieten our minds and our unhealthy emotional reactivity, enough to just pay attention to the immanence of everything. Soon enough, though, some thought, event, or trigger, will yank us back into that loop of unhealthy box 4 emotions.

The box 5 state of alert anxiety is not equanimity, and it is not exactly happiness, but it is at least contentment, while it lasts. We have no choice but to settle for that, and the brief moments of joy and excitement we can grab while we can.

In fact, I would argue, we have no choice in any of this. It is not our ‘fault’ (individually or collectively) that the human brain evolved to drag us into the box 4 thought/feeling loops that prevent us, most of our lives, from being really happy, except for fleeting moments. It is not our ‘fault’ (individually or collectively) that, in trying to make things better for all humans, we created systems that keep us in a state of chronic stress, amplifying and constantly re-triggering these happiness-killing emotions. This is just how our species inevitably evolved.

In all creatures, happiness is just chemistry, or (in the case of true equanimity) an absence of chemistry. The trillions of tiny creatures that make us, and everything else, up, are working furiously to condition us to do what evolutionarily has worked. They make us feel, and think, what we then have no alternative but to feel, and think. Sadly, for humans, relatively few of those feelings are feelings that could be called happiness. Try as we might, that isn’t something we can ‘fix’.

That’s my theory, anyway, for what it’s worth. Hope you’re happy now!

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