I remember that there was a point in my childhood when I believed that the president was in charge of a country; that he directed and was consequently responsible for its course. As the years have passed I have been progressively disillusioned and my role has been inherently complicated as I have realized that course of the world is nebulously steered by all of us and we are all eminently human. We are not in a vacuum, although as an individual it is difficult to fathom the varied and complex impacts of a decision, they nonetheless propagate through the world. We have entered, with the increased interconnectedness of the world made possible through communication technology, a time in history where we are able to view humanity from a meta perspective made widely accessible. We are able to see what emerges from six billion of us; we are able to watch as we commit very human atrocities and mistakes of the past, but with no one to blame but ourselves. What are we doing?
Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. The observed intelligence and order that arises within ant colonies or bee hives is a good example, or the incredible interconnected vast network of knowledge and information comprised entirely of ones and zeros that is the internet. In the same way that these systems arise, the complex consciousness that wrote this and that is currently reading it arises out of the incomprehensibly vast interconnected combinatory network that is the human mind/body. Our perception, our emotions, our ability to reflect, our ability to exercise impulse control, our ability to create, to understand, to learn all emerge from this interaction.
We have scarcely explored the labyrinthine depths of our minds and bodies. Our brains define us within the animal kingdom; they are the height of evolutionary complexity refined over billions of years. The spread of our genetic material around the earth has been catalyzed by the incredible adaptability of our minds and bodies to our environment and by our consequent ability to recognize threats and opportunities. This adaptability and complexity is represented physically within the three pound mass that is our brain; three pounds comprised of roughly 100 billion neurons, each one with thousands of synaptic connections running to other neurons. This network typically accounts for 2% or less of body weight, yet it consumes roughly 20% of the body’s oxygen and 25% of its glucose.
Neurons receive signals from every part of the body through the nervous system, which operates as a complex network strung together with synapses that send signals from neuron to neuron for processing with the purpose of regulating our internal systems and perceiving external threats and opportunities. They operate as excitory and inhibitory cells, firing along their synaptic connections if a certain chemical or electrical threshold is achieved from the thousands of other neurons with which each one is connected. They are our connection to the external world in addition to all that constitutes our internal world. Neurons form smaller networks in this way, building and strengthening synapses each time that they fire simultaneously. The more a network fires, the more glucose and oxygen it receives. We store every event or moment, along with its feeling tone and much other inconsequential data, in this way. An imprint is made in our mind. Memories and feelings are recalled by similar events or even seemingly innocuous occurrences. Evolutionarily memory serves the purpose of storing information regarding threats and opportunities. Our minds are structured to be most adept at recognizing threats and tend to store them more markedly than positive experiences as positive experiences have far less consequences for our survival. Neurons underlie the functioning of all the basic systems that constitute our body, a vast array of interdependent switches.
Our concept of self emerges as we have no other relation to the world than through the memories, the imprints left on this network as a recipient or actor in all of the events that constitute our lives. We are that which perceives, craves, fears, wants, reflects, acts, feels; all of which can only have the body as their referent. This subjectivity gives rise to a subject. The self brings everything together into a cohesive concept, but one that is malleable and continually evolving with each passing moment as the physical web of connections that learns, remembers, and changes.
Emergence can also be used to understand our collective existence and the nebulous properties of humanity that arise through our interaction with one another and all that is external to ourselves. As we breathe, as we transport ourselves, as we speak, as we eat, as we drink, as we consume, we interact with and change what we perceive as external to us. The global economy, political decisions, war, environmental degradation, materialism, inequality, injustice, the intellectual edifice, the institutions that govern our lives all emerge out of the complex interaction of over six billions three pound bundles of neurons. Each of us is a node in this vast network.
The scale and range of these emergent properties are continually growing with the growth of humanity, but our minds appear to be insufficiently adapted to the current state of human existence to find a sustainable balance. Evolution individually rewards unflagging vigilance, rapid response in instances of occasional threats or opportunities, and the maintenance of internal physical balance. Difficulty arises as we live in a world that is perpetually in flux, that is completely interconnected, where there are constant minor threats and a myriad of opportunities. The mind and body are motivated through the interaction of neurons with glands that release chemicals, such as adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine that produce strong internal feelings with which we are all intimately familiar, stress, lust, fear, craving. It is evolutionarily advantageous for these feelings or motivators to have a strong impulse towards action as they evolved to do exactly that, but often have a tendency to misguide us or continue driving long past any recognizable destination.
We no longer live a hunter gatherer’s existence; we no longer live in small tribes where social standing is of incredible importance for the propagation of our genes, we no longer live in a state of perpetual physical threat; we widely recognize the benefits of constraining population growth. We are operating an old system directed towards contemporary aims. What are we seeking? Happiness seems to be the general consensus. What is happiness?
I have traveled high and low, seen the miser living in gilded misery, seen the jubilant pauper, seen the tortured genius, seen the grinning imbecile, seen the begrudged beauty, the exuberant eyesore, the restless junky, the disgruntled devotee, the ungrateful heir, the contented monk, the joyous artisan, the bereaved widow, the lively libertine. I have journeyed into my mind through a lengthy process of reflection, self-observation, and research.
What is happiness? To many people on earth, myself included, this idea appears as the primary aim of existence, although we by necessity approach it obliquely as it is nebulous, flighty; it seems to be perpetually beyond the grasp of many. It isn’t a place, it isn’t a thing, it isn’t a goal, there is no way to grab it, there is no agreed upon path; there isn’t a definition that seems satisfactory. We spend our lives pursuing it though with some socialized notion of what it represents to us, an idea of the right path. Rare is the individual who lays happiness out as their specific goal, even rarer is the individual who does this and ever finds it. The prevailing idea that dominates our world currently is that we maximize the happiness or well being of individuals through the maximization of personal freedom, which is inexorably linked to the idea of material prosperity.
Is happiness something completely abstracted from the external world, a proper balance of chemicals in one’s mind? Is it innate? Is it something that can be cultivated? Is it an identifiable, consistent sensation of tranquility, absence of suffering, comfort, satiation? Or does it originate from things external? Is it relative material prosperity? Is it granted by god, by faith, by fate? Is it to be found in other people, in family, in community, in friends? Is it love? Is it health? Is it to be found in understanding, in learning, in philosophy? The ability to perpetually gratify an endless stream of desires? Is happiness mere distraction, through entertainment, through substances, through work? Is happiness found in expression, creativity, art?
Can you make another person happy? Will anyone ever be truly and completely happy as long as suffering exists? Does it even exist, is it tangible, or is it just a delusion, the very conception of which leads us wayward? Is it by its very nature fleeting or is it something that can endure? Can it ever be found in the future or is it something that we must find in the moment, in the life we already have? Is it the right combination of all of these things? Is it something that varies from person to person? Or is there commonality amongst people? Is the very act of searching the problem?
Do we know how to make ourselves happy? How often are we misguided in our pursuit, deluded as to what we think we desire as opposed to what we actually desire? How often do we speculate in our dissatisfaction or anxiousness that having something or someone, or the reverse, the absence of something or someone, will bring us happiness, only to find out that we were mistaken upon satiating this desire?
The discomfort that a craving or aversion creates disappears when the object that it desires is achieved; it is possible this is the best way to interpret the quiescence, tranquility or contentedness that many of us construe as happiness. It leads to our networks of neurons fleetingly lighting up. Within the brain the most human of areas seems to be the prefrontal cortex, which has evolved to reason, speculate, control impulses, and simulate with the object of satiating social and physical needs, but our ability to speculate on outcomes and determine a clear path forward diminishes with complexity and depends on our previous experience in that area. The prefrontal cortex is often not accurate; it is not properly oriented to our complex world; it is adept at deciphering how to find food, water or a mate, but not as skilled at deciding between a dozen products or choosing a career path. If we have not encountered a specific situation previously, it is likely that we are going to misjudge the outcome and its consequences to ourselves.
Developed economies seem to turn on the reality that the mere conscious belief that something is desired, the belief that it would possibly make you happy, has the ability to generate a legitimate discomfort. This discomfort can generate a desire that upon satiation leads to quiescence or contentedness, regardless of whether it is misguided or self-harming. Its gratification leads to a cessation of the discomfort, creating a cycle around it, a craving. In this way many of the strange compulsions and seeking that we exhibit can be understood; our seemingly limitless materialism can be examined in this light.
The root of much of our transitory cravings and desires lies in a more deeply seated desire for beliefs. We want to believe that we are beautiful, that we are loved, that our job is infinitely meaningful, that we are important, that we are ethical, that we are intelligent, that we are happy. These beliefs cannot be made a reality, they are ideals. This leaves us trying to convince ourselves of an ideal or that it will be realized.
“The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice ― Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments
What does happiness mean to me? It is a balance in my life that manifests as an effortless flow, as clarity, as contentedness, as serenity. A pure manifestation of this flow appears when I am meditating, when I am writing, when I am doing something physically absorbing. I seem to be elsewhere, wholly apart from the mundane preoccupations that dominate my life, even if I am immersed in them. The moments where I am at peace and find happiness seem to be when I am letting the current of life carry me, feeling the flow and watching the world whisk past rather than swimming against the current or trying to grab hold of the banks to stop the inevitable. This flow to me is the balance of the universe, all that is beyond my locus of control; understanding this means living within it.
I seem to experience two wholly distinct types of happiness: there is happiness that is derived from my life accomplishments, from the narrative that I give to my life; and there is happiness that I find in the beauty and tranquility of each moment. One lies in the actual conscious flow and the other resides in the detritus that is pulled from the flow and kept in my memory. I often look towards the narrative that I create, this voice inside me, as the arbiter on my state of being, my happiness. I believe we can perceive our lives as complete and fulfilled, as we all often do, and be completely miserable in the present. Being happy with one’s life seems to be related to achieving one’s goals, attaining certain things, but experiencing happiness seems to lie in finding tranquility, love, equanimity, performing actions that bring these feelings into one’s life. There is an important balance to be found between the two, but the second seems more imperative than the first.
Happiness can be found in gratifying cravings and desires, but a more lasting happiness is to be found in the cultivation of appreciation and acceptance. It seems that in a way, happiness is the antithesis of perpetual restlessness and seeking; it is contentedness. We see our ability to accept and find happiness in the quickness with which we adapt to a situation with no other option; most people rapidly accept and move onward. It is the choice, the option that agitates us. Striving to gratify an endless stream of individual wants is unrealistic and this path is chosen at the expense of the environment, collective society, personal time, and stress.
The physiological nature of our minds is both freeing and vexing. If all one’s self, ones memories, ones learned behaviors are manifested through physiological change, if it all amounts to a remapping or reworking of our brain, then we can shape, change, mold our minds. We dedicate much time to cultivating our physical appearance and collecting objects, yet very few of us find time to nurture our mind, to take care of it, to listen to it. Mindfulness is incredibly important as it is how we can shape our mind, through control of the focus of our mind’s eye; we are able to choose our direction, choose our path.
If we look inside ourselves it is hard not to be humbled by the complexity and the vastness of the brain, of its existence as a unique map of each person’s life, of the capricious torrent of self-directed thought and perception that characterizes each of our internal lives. We can derive compassion from an understanding of the internal life that characterizes each of us, the seeking, craving, the aversion, the weak self that is all driven by strong physical impulses. We can also begin to understand ourselves, take responsibility for the world in which we live and strive to contribute something greater. In a world that emerges from our interconnectedness, from the complex interactions of each one of us, what signals are you sending? What type of world are you ultimately helping to foster through your decisions and actions? Are you living in accordance with the values that you hold? They cannot legitimately hold much truth for you if you are not. These questions have sweeping implications for the structure of the world that we live in, for the existence of every individual. If you are not creating tranquility, contentedness, compassion, balance, and goodwill, what is the nature of your existence?
What is happiness to you? What do you seek in life? Please respond and enlighten me.