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The Precarious Pursuit of Happiness

According to the founding fathers of the United States of America, three things are important to a free people: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Life, free of war and free of fear, is basic. Liberty is essential to a cooperative and productive society. The pursuit of happiness is as old as human introspection. When we became able to realize the difference between being pleased about something and not pleased about something else, and that we preferred being pleased over being unpleased, we slowly, and at first unknowingly, began the pursuit of happiness. We were probably still primates at the time. Even Chimpanzees show emotions of being pleased or not pleased. Thus, we humans have been pursuing happiness for a long time, even before we became fully human.

Over a period of roughly 3 million years as we evolved through our hominin ancestors, we came to understand that being happy and pleased should be our default state, but that it was often difficult to achieve. Disease, food shortages, and conflicts within the group or with outsiders were often serious problems to cope with.

So, first, we had to define happiness; of course, plenty of food, warm clothing, and secure shelter are obvious. But beyond these basics, as we separated into a variety of cultures, it became harder to determine a definition of happiness that fit all cultures and environments. Satisfying the needs of one culture did not necessarily please another one some distance away.

For example, some cultures, such as hunter-gatherers, required large areas for hunting game in order to be happy and have an ample food supply. Agricultural groups needed several acres of fertile ground and plenty of rain or a source of water for irrigation. As cities grew, the need for building materials and knowledge of construction methods became important. In each of these disparate cultures, however, the need to communicate and work with other people was paramount.

To hunt large animals, to grow acres of crops, and to build cities all required cooperation and specialization. Then as communities grew larger, social hierarchies arose. Leaders who could supervise and facilitate the flow of information and products from maker to user be they spear points, plows, or bricks began to emerge.

Also arising in humanity’s formative years was a class of people who claimed to have esoteric knowledge that would answer our more existential questions, such as, why do we get sick, what are the spots of light we see in the sky at night, where does rain come from, why do we sometimes see flashes of light and hear rumbling noises? The bliss of not caring about such things evolved into the frustration of not understanding them. As we grew more curious, we began to ask questions about our environment and ourselves but had no science or medical information to answer them for us.

So, when someone came along who claimed to have answers to these puzzling questions, we listened. The idea of shamanism spread from group to group, and in time, nearly every community came to have not only its social leaders, but those who set themselves up as spiritual leaders as well. In some cultural groups one person took on both roles and sought to become an absolute ruler. Even as late as the 17th century, some kings claimed divine right to rule the populace.

As their power grew, both types of leaders began to require certain rituals or rites that enhanced their prestige in the community. Social leaders set up political hierarchies with themselves at the top of the system with a cadre of followers to carry out their directives among the rest of the populace. Spiritual leaders invented elaborate rites in which the participants venerated the local deity, and recognized the shaman or priest as the earthly representative of that deity.

Deities usually varied from culture to culture. Some were idealized versions of humanity that reflected our need to be moral and caring to each other. Others took on the role of war gods who sometimes demanded human sacrifices. Over the years as nations conquered each other, the various deities grew or diminished in power.

The social and religious arrangements worked well for those who were willing to go along with the rules and rituals of the leaders. The king or political leader could oversee the day-to-day well-being of his people even to the point of sending them off to war with other groups if food, water, or other resources needed replenishing. Priests and shamans took on the role of keeping the deities happy through elaborate rituals, prayers, and sacrifices of animals and sometimes humans. To be assured of their happiness in this life and the afterlife, the populace paid with their wealth, their time, and sometimes even their lives.

In some cultures, all that the multitude of followers had to do was listen carefully and learn to obey the admonitions of both the political leaders and the spiritual leaders. Obeying became a way of life for most people, and it is a strong trait in many people today. The most credulous of us learned to put our trust in our leaders and believed them when they told us they knew the truth about things that we who toiled in the fields and in the streets did not. In this way some of us achieved a modicum of happiness and security by giving ourselves over to our leaders and a plethora of supernatural deities who we trusted to make good decisions for us.

Political leaders led us to believe that they knew the truth about how to best run the nation and how to interact successfully with other nations, even as they marched us off to fight in their wars. Spiritual leaders told us they had a special connection with the one true god or a certain group of local gods and that all other gods are false and should not be revered or worshiped. We learned to believe in these leaders or we were forced to obey them by their sycophants who could threaten us with prison or death. All too often it got to the point whether it did not matter if the leaders were right or wrong, they demanded blind obedience. In some cultures, in our past and even today, happiness was achieving a level of obedience and submission that limited one’s rights but kept one free from punishment.

The systems evolved into the good and bad behaviors that we see around the world today. Looking back on our history, one would think that after thousands of years of philosophical inquiry, thousands of gods and religions, thousands of kings, politicians, and innumerable bloody wars, humans would be able to understand that blind obedience to any leaders who claim to have a direct connection to any omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient god or some sort of special insight to the “truth” of how people should be governed, generally caused more harm to their fellow humans than good. Selfish and irresponsible leaders who claim to know the truth as revealed to them by a god or intuited by their own “infallible” insights have brought a great deal of unnecessary misery to humanity.

One problem is that the pronouncements of some ambitious, egocentric leaders are too often blindly obeyed by a people who do not make the effort to see both sides of an issue or believe without examining the evidence that would back up or negate their belief.

The dogmatism and intolerance of those who have professed to know the absolute truth, whether they be pious priests or godless autocrats, have been troublesome. Their orders have sent millions of men and women into bloody wars or suicide missions. Rational people plead their case but often feel powerless to stop the slaughter of themselves and the destruction of their homes by leaders who will not listen.

But is the truth these potentates profess to possess, any more truthful than anyone else’s truth? Or is it that so many of us do not have a truth within ourselves that we live by and so we grasp at the truth that some charismatic personality claims is the one we should devote our lives to? But as the old saying goes: what is truth? And we continue to debate whether truth is relative or absolute.

Unsubstantiated statements not based on real evidence yet promulgated as truths have gotten us to the point where many parts of our beautiful and nourishing Earth have become hazardous places for human habitation. In our violent history very few habitable acres on our planet have not experienced a conflict where blood was spilled and where human beings sought to kill each other because of political differences, resource scarcity, or religious disagreement. And, unfortunately, the ignorance of our ways continues. Every hour of every day somewhere in the world humans suffer and bleed in a conflict of some kind. We cannot seem to rid ourselves of this curse we have imposed upon ourselves.

The reasons are many. One, for example, is that when it comes to giving in to conflict, some of us humans are weak and seem to find it easier to impulsively dislike someone who we disagree with than to take the time and effort to analyze the other person’s point of view and work out a peaceful compromise. And even though in our hearts we know better, we continue to define the strong as those who mindlessly use their muscles or weapons instead of their mind to solve even trivial disagreements.

On an individual level, killing someone is murder and many men and women have been executed for committing it. Yet, ironically, wars that cause thousands of deaths are sometimes considered occasions of national pride. Voltaire, who was a genius at making ironic statements, pointed out the idiocy of how we look at large conflicts when he wrote: “It is forbidden to kill; therefore, all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” If you are willing to kill for your or someone else’s version of truth, pause a moment and consider that you might be ending a human life over nothing more than a difference of opinion or loyalty to a narrow-minded point of view.

Or as philosopher George Santayana pointed out, most of the time politicians start wars just: “to substitute their own language, commerce, soldiers, and tax gatherers for the tax gatherers, soldiers, commerce, and language of their neighbors; and no means is thought illegitimate, be it fraud in policy or bloodshed in war, to secure this absolutely nugatory end.” Some of us injudiciously go to great lengths to show how narrow minded, prejudiced, or xenophobic we are.

It is not that religions, governments, nor cultural ideologies are inherently bad. They can provide a level of security and peace of mind to many people as well as perform needed social services. These are human creations, however, and therefore subject to human foibles. Problems can arise if the adherents to a particular dogma or entrenched point of view, especially those who have risen to leadership positions in a nation or cultural group, develop a sense of paranoia when they feel as if their power base is threatened or their precepts questioned either from external foes or internal dissonance. Even the father of Der Ubermensch, Friedrich Nietzsche, pointed out that: “Fixed convictions are a greater menace to truth than lies.”

Thus, paranoia, fear, and fixed convictions on the part of those in power often lead to irrational defensive behavior that instills fear in the populace. Practices such as developing an internal spy network, a secret police force, restricting travel, or limiting internet access are a few of the tactics that have been used, and are still being used by oppressive governments to quell opposition, both internal and external. In such a situation you now have both the government and the populace fearful of each other. One type of fear engenders another and exacerbates the problem.

It is unfortunate that even though most people easily understand how fear is used as a tool of suppression and greatly disapprove of it, in most cultures throughout our history there have always been plenty of acquiescent sycophants to carry out a despot’s hateful and divisive directives. These sycophants and henchmen who play their little power games with people’s lives are the enablers. They get the job done for their master. Without them the tyrant is powerless. They allow their leader to control their motivations either through fear that the tyrant will turn on them or a desire to gain favor and move up in the tyrant’s inner circle.

But why do reasonable and rational people give in? Why allow tyrants to reach the tipping point where their level of power becomes such that they are in control of a religious sect, or a government and in some cultures even come to have absolute power over people’s lives. When that point is reached, it is too late and we are forced to obey a tyrant’s orders.

One problem is that sometimes we do not recognize the signs that someone is consolidating power. At first, we are apt to support a person whose encouraging chatter seems sincere. We go along with the conniving leader until it is too late. When we finally realize the error in our judgment, we cannot do anything about it. We sought happiness but got misery and confusion instead.

Yet, if more of us thought for ourselves and carefully analyzed the information about an ambitious leader and the course of action that was being promoted by that person instead of mindlessly bowing down to a manipulative autocrat, we would all live in a safer, more cooperative, more harmonious world.

It is often a life-or-death situation. History and the daily news constantly remind us that tyrants kill human harmony and are not averse to having people murdered or imprisoned in order to attain and hold on to power. In today’s world should any political or religious leader be allowed to have that much absolute power?

One question that thoughtful people have been asking for centuries is should any leader have the power to send young men and women into war knowing that many of them will suffer and die? It is sad that in spite of our many thousands of years of the evolution, this crude and barbaric behavior that began early in our evolution, is still considered necessary by power hungry rulers. It has been and continues to be the bane of our humanity.

Are we able as an intelligent species to rise above this old and calamitous behavior? One way to counter this kind of blind obedience is to have the mental acuity that allows each of us to be open minded enough to think in global terms, not just about pleasing a national, religious, or cultural leader with a narrow point of view. Being a citizen of the world offers a whole Earth perspective rather than a nationalistic one.

But until we reach the point where most of us can have a global perspective, when an aspiring leader asks for your loyalty, be discerning. Learn all you can about that person. Do you want that person to be in a position to make important decisions for you? Consider the good advice Alexander Pope gave us when he wrote in his Essay on Criticism:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing.
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.”

Find out enough about someone so as to make an educated decision whether to follow that person or not. A superficial perusal of a person’s intentions might not lead to a wise decision.

While analyzing the motivations of others, let us always be mindful of how our own actions can help enhance global cooperation and foster symbiotic relationships in which each of us makes a contribution to the well being of not only ourselves, but everyone around us. As the cliché goes, ‘we’re all in this together’ with the same needs, same emotions, and the same desire for peace and tranquility in our lives. The good news is that the vast majority of us do not wish to have our happiness, our peace and our tranquility spoiled and have no desire to spoil the happiness, the peace and the tranquility of others wherever they live.

The pursuit of happiness has always been humanity’s greatest endeavor, and we show it in a number of ways. In science, it is learning about the complex world of nature that spawned us and sustains us. In medicine it is learning about the intricacies of the systems that keep our bodies healthy and functioning. In human relations it is learning about each other, our motivations and our behaviors so that we achieve a level of agreement and cooperation in which all of us realize that such antiquated practices as war and mass killings do us no good and that these behaviors and the people who perpetuate them become looked upon with scorn as primitive and ignorant.

Yet, in spite of our good intentions, we have brought ourselves to a perilous turning point in our evolution. Never before in our history from Australopithecus to Homo sapiens have we had enough weapons to kill ourselves by the millions.

We are not happy that we have gotten to this point. Most of us enjoy a decent standard of living with enough food to sustain us and better medical care than we have ever had in our history, and no rational person wants this to end in a painful war or nuclear holocaust.

Most people love life. We want to keep our human progress going and continue our pursuit of happiness. Yet when organized into armed nations we sometimes fall into threatening each other with vitriolic rhetoric and rattle our swords loud enough for everyone around the world to hear that we are ready to destroy the world in order to get our way. Even the least sophisticated of us can see that this threat of murder-suicide is an utterly absurd way for anyone to behave, especially those people who we have entrusted to run our political institutions in a rational and reasonable way.

But we cannot seem to help ourselves get out of this rut of constant conflict that we are stuck in. Are we doomed to be belligerent toward each other until there are not enough of us left to fight? Have we gotten to the point that we had rather fight each other than think?

Instead of pursuing happiness, are we actually pursuing self-destruction? After climbing the evolutionary ladder for over 3 million years, are we priming ourselves for a self-imposed extinction? As the number of weapons increases, we need to be careful. As physicist Stephen Hawking cautioned: “Whether the language transmitted sense of responsibility is sufficient to control the DNA transmitted instinct of aggression remains to be seen. If it does not, the human race will have been one of natural selection’s dead ends.” Would it not be the height of irony that we humans who have evolved to be the most introspective, the most intelligent, and most creative species ever to live on Earth, proved to be the one least capable of controlling our emotions?

From the individual thief to the despot controlling a vast army, the malady is a mental problem. But it does not call for a psychologist or a plethora of drugs to cure it. What is needed are a few adjustments in the way each of us sees the world and our place in it, adjustments that we all can make that could enable us to be a bit kinder to each other. Some adjustments in our thinking and the way we see human relationships are long overdue.

So, take a minute to think about a few adjustments you and everyone else can make that will be beneficial to all of us in our pursuit of happiness: where we have been greedy and selfish, replace that with sharing; where we have been mean and inconsiderate, replace that with kindness; where we have been self-centered, replace that with compassion for others; where we have been bigoted, replace that with tolerance and open-mindedness. As the saying goes, ‘put yourself in the other person’s shoes and walk a mile in them. Feel what the other person feels.’

You are right, perhaps this is too simplistic an outlook. Being kind is so far down the list of priorities that many of us do not bother with it beyond our close friends and family. It seems that the default mode for a good many of us is just get the job done regardless of who it hurts. Maybe some people say that it was this can-do attitude that helped build some aspects of our global civilization. But have we carried that attitude so far that it is now helping to destroy what we have built?

Although many people we meet or read about do not seem to express it, we must try to believe that deep inside each of us is a moral will, a type of conscience or internal voice that reflects the spirit of who we are at our deepest human level. Those of us who are compassionate enough to consider other people as more than just enablers to do our bidding, look for our moral will to guide our own behavior and we seek the moral will in others as well.

Many believe that it was our moral will that developed early in our evolution that has enabled us to cooperate as a species and trust each other enough to build our great human civilization and a global network of trade. It is our moral will that is the basis of our ability to form symbiotic relationships that allow people of different skill levels and cultural backgrounds to find common ground and work together.

Where we have stumbled, however, is that there have always been many ambitious people who refuse to acknowledge the existence of a moral will or they consider it a hindrance to being able to use people in any way they wish in order to reach their material, political, or religious goals. Complacency and not being concerned about the happiness and well-being of others is easy. Being kind and compassionate takes thought and effort. It is unfortunate that so many of us are hesitant to bother thinking and acting beyond our small comfort zone.

But each of us has a tool to use to bring out the best in us. Each one of us can learn to use the enormous power inside our mind. And we can use our mind’s power of thought to expand our consciousness to the point that we can have empathy with people we encounter. We can learn to understand that people have the same feelings as we do. The power of the mind is more powerful than guns and bombs and in time we will come to consider these weapons as relics of our past and as grim reminders of the turmoil and trepidation our ancestors went through as they evolved from wild animals to thoughtful humans.

Because each of us has a will of our own, each of pursues happiness in ways that fit our needs and circumstances. And pursuing happiness is not always an easy endeavor. Our different points of view can bring on contention that often requires patience. What makes one person happy might seem somewhat distasteful to another. At the same time, however, we need to keep in mind that we all share enough common needs, common emotions, and similar hopes for the future that allow us to keep working toward building a safe and flourishing global community.

We do not want our civilization to be endangered; we have worked too hard and too long to build it just to let it be destroyed by folly and ignorance. As Stephen Hawking pointed out: “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something special.”

We seem to forget that we are special, certainly on this planet, in this solar system, and who knows how far beyond. But quite often we act as if we are nothing more than street gangs fighting for turf and prestige. We can do better than we have done so far!

Problems such as wars, environmental degradation, social and religious conflict are anathemas that we will eventually work through. We shall proceed with our precarious pursuit of happiness as if nothing, not even ourselves, can possibly stand in our way!

Ted McCormack

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