Right now there’s a child somewhere in the Sahara Desert who’s dug up an abnormally large root. His mother will be able to cook it up into a weak stew dinner for the whole family. He’s running home with it in his arms, ecstatically whooping.
Right now there’s a man on the balcony of his penthouse apartment looking over the New York streets. His tears are falling the hundreds of metres down to the sidewalks beneath him as he contemplates jumping. His girlfriend has just dumped him.
We sometimes assume that those who are more fortunate than us must be happier than us. We assume that the moment you reach a certain socioeconomic status, obtain a certain number of friends, that’s it; we’ve found happiness. Happiness doesn’t work look like that. Happiness can’t work like that.
What is happiness? It’s a release of neurotransmitters which encourages the repetition of an action. We interpret this subjectively as a good thing, but all it’s really doing is conditioning us to continue acting in a similar way.
Happiness is very similar to a drug, in fact most drugs act on us by stimulating unnaturally powerful releases of these neurotransmitters which usually only trickle into our system in tightly controlled levels. Like a drug, we become habituated to it. In a certain sense.
It’s not as if we become habituated to the actual neurotransmitters themselves, but rather it takes more of a certain action to promote the release of similar levels of neurotransmitters. We become habituated to a certain standing and require improvement in order to stimulate further release. A good way of thinking about this is in terms of progression. Improvements in our situation, be this physical, intellectual, or social, stimulate the release of neurotransmitters.
It doesn’t matter what level you start at, you’re going to be habituated to it. What matters is how quickly you’re improving yourself. The only way of being happy is to be perpetually improving yourself.
There’s an evolutionary explanation for this. If we were capable of attaining a state of nirvana, we’d die. There always needs to be something pushing us forwards, no matter how far we’ve gotten. Those individuals who became satisfied had fewer children, ate less, and had fewer children. These traits died out a long time ago. By dilution and death we’ve become incapable of satisfaction.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be flying forward learning new concepts at the speed of light. This doesn’t mean that you have to be moving a floor per day from the ground floor to the penthouse in order to be happy. Chances are you’re already developing yourself and becoming better at something every day, passively.
If you do want to maximize your happiness however, and who wouldn’t want to do that, it’s important to keep in mind that the only way to do this is to grow.