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HAPPINESS AS A SURVIVAL SKILL

According to anthropologists, our brain architecture has changed little during the past 250,000 years. Our brains still carry strong primal survival circuits, some positive, some negative.

Our negative survival circuits are defensive, win-lose, fight or run away. Win-lose circuits generate negative emotions such as fear, sadness, anger, bitterness and loss, all necessary to avert danger, all very unpleasant feelings.

Our positive survival circuits are creative, win-win. They prompt us to have children, to nurture them and each other, to build, enhance, improve, enjoy. They generate positive emotions that give us a sense of well being, make us happy. Positive emotions are fun!

During the first 247,000 years in our modern brains, we were savages. Negative win-lose emotions prevailed. Only over the past 3000 years, has humankind begun the jerky transition from savages, to barbarians, then to civilized people…at least more or less. Only during the past 3000 years has civilization’s win-win begun to edge out savagery’s win-lose. Only over the past 3000 years has life offered us more time off from survival to explore happiness.

Positive psychologists view happiness as a cluster of positive emotions about our past, our present, and our future. Happiness about our past generates satisfaction, pride, contentment, serenity. We’re happy about having raised children, even if we weren’t always happy while bringing them up. Happiness about our future generates optimism, hope, trust, confidence, faith. Our children may be a handful today, but we’re working hard to offer them future opportunities that didn’t come our way.

Surveyors asked 900 Texas women what made them happiest. They responded in order of importance: sex, socializing, relaxing, praying and eating. Their answers reflect widespread confusion about what makes us “right now happy”. Positive psychologists identify two kinds of “right now happy”, pleasure and gratification. Pleasure is sensual and momentary, like a glass of good wine. Gratification is more practiced and learned, like a round of golf, a good book, a warm conversation with a close friend.

If you’re confused about happiness, join the club. Over the past 3000 years, much has been said about human happiness, much of it conflicting. The Old Norse word happ meant “favored by the gods”. It survives in modern English words such as happy, mishap, happenstance, even perhaps. In the ancient world, happiness was just good luck, like winning the lottery. No, said ancient Greek philosophers, we can achieve happiness by right thinking. Early Christian theologians saw happiness, not as cerebral, but emotional and ecstatic though reserved for the faithful in the after-life. Jeremy Bentham said happiness on earth is the greatest good for the greatest number. A legion of gloomy intellectuals, including psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, concluded that happiness is an illusion and thus unattainable. Today’s TV commercials promise happiness if we buy the right stuff. Cartoon smiley faces wish us a nice day.

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson inscribed the “pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right. Jefferson enjoyed books, wine, music, travel, good conversation, and most of all, his home at Monticello. But that’s not what Jefferson meant by happiness. With those words, I think Jefferson intended to implant a revolutionary survival skill into the public conscience of his new country: a duty to pursue others’ happiness.

Pursuing others’ happiness isn’t always fun. And there’s no “Easy Button”. Jefferson’s pleasure was interrupted by years away from Monticello in public service that was anything but fun or easy. Raising an infant nation, like raising our own children, could be downright unpleasant, exhausting, discouraging, require sacrifice.

Lots of people claim to be pursuing my happiness these days. It would be nice to believe them, to wallow in their promises, to buy their stuff, and just ignore the needs of those whose happiness Jefferson admonished me to pursue.

Doggone it, Mr. Jefferson, pursuing happiness is so inconvenient!

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