The Meaning of Life in Three Easy Steps
By Thomas M. Thurston Ph.D.
Table of Contents
Step One: Don’t Worry; Be Happy
Up from the Swamp: the Evolution of the Brain
The Functions of Happiness and Unhappiness
Reasons to be Unhappy
The Evolutionary Function of Happiness
The Brain’s Happiness System: the Happiness Neurotransmitters
Dopamine—the Master of Desire
Opioids—the House of Pleasure
Oxytocin—the Drug that Binds
Serotonin and Contentment
Comparison and Happiness
The Hedonic Paradox
Blowing off Steam
Depression and its Remedies
The Function and Dysfunction of Depression
Taming the Demon—Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Blame it on your Parents
Teach your Children Well
The Way of Happiness
“Don’t Worry” as a Spiritual Discipline
Raindrops on Roses
We Create our own Happiness
Constituent Elements of Happiness
Interpersonal Foundation of Happiness
Introverts and Extroverts—the Pull between Happiness and Meaning
The Discipline of Happiness
Learning and Striving
Step Two: Don’t be an Asshole
The Fundamental Ethical Imperative
Ethics is a Tough Business
Characteristics of Assholes
Assholes and Power
The Biology of Ethics
Low Road/High Road
Empathy and the Beginning of Ethics
The Development of Social Emotions
The Cooperative Group
Cooperative Groups and the Fundamental Ethical Imperative
Step Three: Do it Yourself
Why Do We Need Meaning?
The Surplus of Meaning
The Merchants of Meaning
Religion and Meaning
Foreclosed Development—Accepting a Substitute for Meaning
Traditions and a Rich Understanding of the World
The Spiritual Shopping Mall
Beyond Belief: the Importance of Doubt
Dead Ends in the Search for Meaning
Feeling Good instead of Being Good
Building the Path to Meaning
Get Up and Do It
Happiness is a Talisman
Rethinking the Noble Truths
Find your Valiant Path
Opportunities in our Times
Don’t Quit your Day Job
Some Practical Advice
My steps toward the meaning of life are intended to be “open source.” The term comes from the world of computer software, where a base system is accessible for use by any developer, without proprietary restrictions or licensing. Linux is an example. Closed soured systems like those of Microsoft or Apple are proprietary and require licensing arrangements. What works on one system might not work on another.
In developing an open source approach to the meaning of life, I would like to develop some ideas that can work for people with a broad range philosophies or spiritual traditions. These philosophies and traditions might provide the framework through which people develop meaning in their lives. However, I suggest that at a core level, everyone who finds meaning in their lives does a few basic things, and these things can be described and to some extent explored scientifically.
This approach differs from a search for the meaning of life in ancient texts. I’m not saying that the ancient spiritual texts are categorically wrong. I’m not saying that they’re categorically right either. There are two strong reasons to be skeptical of ancient texts. First, the world is different in important ways. Between the times of Moses and Columbus, roughly 1200 BC to 1500 AD, if you were a farmer, then your grandfather and his grandfather were farmers, as would be your grandsons and their grandsons. The same would apply to shepherds or merchants. Of course if you were a woman, you managed the household and the garden and raised children. The vast majority of people could be divided into the poor and the desperately poor. Average income did not change much, and the world’s population grew at a snail’s pace, if at all. Especially since the dawn of capitalism, roughly 300 years ago, the world changed rapidly. Capital replaced labor. Productivity increased greatly. With surplus farm production from reduced labor, people moved in droves to cities. Especially in the past 150 years especially in the West but recently in much of the world, a large middle class began to emerge. Work became increasingly specialized and income depended on skills and knowledge acquired new by each individual. Life changed from largely static with a limited and fixed amount of wealth to largely dynamic with a potentially ever-increasing amount of wealth. The ancient books come from this relatively fixed and static world.
Second, especially within the last 50 years we have developed the tools to better understand how the brain works. Aristotle thought the brain was a radiator. Now we are in the preliminary stages of using science to understand ourselves, to test hypotheses and to build up a reliable body of knowledge about how the brain and the body interact with each other and the world to give us the experience we have of ourselves and of the world. The authors of the ancient books had hypotheses, but limited means of testing them. Many of the guesses are the refinement of centuries of experience and are therefore quite good. However, the ancient insights tended to gather what I would call a surplus of meaning. They tend to accumulate extra theories, legends and metaphysical claims that supported and gave texture to the original insight through changing situations. These accumulations might have worked well in another time and be less helpful now. In the hands of fundamentalists they might take on an importance of their own, far overshadowing the original insight. Ancient texts called for faith and did not allow for a mechanism for sorting out meaning from surplus. Modern psychology and neuroscience allow for that great tool for the advance of human understanding: doubt. Only when we’re willing to take the risk of dislodging beliefs that we hold dear can we advance to deeper understandings of ourselves.
The first step toward the meaning of life is “Don’t worry, be happy.” Virtually all of our efforts, regardless of our intermediate goals, are aimed at achieving happiness. Religious and spiritual traditions are aimed at achieving happiness and alleviating unhappiness. Much of our worrying is worrying that we’re not as happy as we ought to be, or that someone else is happy at our expense, thus causing our unhappiness.
Yet happiness is poorly understood. People in general are good at recognizing when they themselves are happy. They’re also pretty good at recognizing when other people are happy. When it comes to defining what happiness is, even experts do not agree. If happiness is so important, it probably figures prominently in how the brain is made up and how it works. If we understand what is going on when our brain tells us that we’re happy, this might give some insights into how to increase happiness and decrease unhappiness.
A word of caution: happiness is not meaning. Happiness and meaning are two different types of things, just as red and circle are two different types of things. Happiness is a directly experienced feeling; meaning is on the conceptual level. Furthermore, happiness is a signal drawing our attention to something in a positive way. Similarly a traffic light is not telling us to appreciate red circles; it’s calling our attention to crossing traffic. Still, if the brain so powerfully directs us to seek out happiness, then happiness might just be involved in the path toward the meaning of life.
UP FROM THE SWAMPS – THE EVOLUTION OF THE BRAIN
The human brain is the fruit of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. The structure of the brain reveals three major stages in vertebrate development—the reptilian brain, the limbic or mammal brain and the expanded cortex characteristic of humans and a few other mammal species.
If you’ve ever spent any time watching a snake, you likely have come to the realization that watching a snake can be extraordinarily boring. In a recent visit to a tropical forest research station, a guide pointed out to me a hog nosed pit viper curled up on a fallen limb. It did not move. I got some good pictures. It may have been asleep but I was not willing to find out. If a snake is not threatened and is not hungry, it has no reason to move. Commonly it doesn’t.
The part of the brain that comes to us from reptiles is the brain stem, including the cerebellum. It keeps us alive, controlling digestion, heartbeat and breathing. We cannot, though our conscious effort, decide temporarily to stop digesting or to stop our heart from beating. If we are very good at holding our breath, eventually we will pass out and start breathing again. These vital activities are immune from the vagaries of consciousness.
The basic emotions also reside in the reptile brain, the emotions of fear, anger, excitement and pleasure. These emotions rouse us to action to keep us alive. The forth of these emotions, pleasure, is also an element of happiness. This is the base element of happiness. This experience can be as simple as eating a banana or as complex as listening to a Mozart symphony. Regular experiences of pleasure can lay the foundation for a happy outlook.
The limbic brain we share with our relatives in the mammalian family. Because mammals are warm-blooded, they need to eat a great deal more than reptiles in order to maintain their metabolism. They have developed greater skills in finding food without first becoming food. The greater information that the limbic brain manipulates is managed by a new brain structure called the hippocampus. The hippocampus makes connections and tells the brain where various experiences should be stored. Mammals can deal with a much broader range of situations. The grizzly bear, primitive as it seems to be, can range through hundreds of square miles of familiar territory.
All mammals are to some extent social, since nursing at the mother’s breast is what makes them mammals. Their brains equip them to develop social bonds, including such activities as caring for the brood, attachment to a partner or group, and enjoying play. Having groups, they can distinguish friend from foe, even within the same species. They evaluate and react to others’ intentions. Once while hiking in Glacier National Park I came across a grizzly bear, laying in the path in front of me. She (I assume for no particular reason) saw me. We needed to deal with each other. Grizzlies dominate every territory they occupy. My hiking guide told me that if I came across a grizzly, I should avoid direct eye contact (which is seen as confrontational), slouch to make myself look smaller, then back off the pathway turning my side toward the bear. Most of the times they will accept these signs of submission and move on. Indeed this one did.
The limbic brain gives us further capacity for happiness, through the basic bonds with mates, siblings and other group members. We know these bonds as love or friendship. We develop activities to reinforce the bonds or ease tensions. Elephants will help out other family members and grieve their dead. Otters spend a great deal of their time in play. When other mammals seem happy or sad, only a latent creationism on the part of researchers keeps them from confirming they are indeed happy or sad.
The expanded cerebral cortex is a newcomer in the evolutionary history of the brain. It is not widely shared—present in apes, dolphins, whales and in its most developed form in humans. The cerebral cortex allows quicker and better learning. The learning then can be applied not just in instinctive reaction but in planning. Planning involves intention and intention can even involve intention to deceive. With the enhanced ability to learn comes enhanced ability to pass on. Chimpanzees can develop tools and pass their tool-making ability on to members of their clan. Different clans use different tools. Clans may be said to have their unique cultures.
With increasingly complex social structures come more complex ways to manage the social structures. Within the cerebral cortex lies our capacity to do the limbic brain one better. We not only know how we feel (brain stem and limbic brain) but we can access how others feel. This allows us to take actions not just based on our feelings but based on the feelings of others. Empathy and altruism are products of the cerebral cortex.
While the cerebral cortex enables reflective action, we don’t always act reflectively. Most mammals manage quite well the tasks of avoiding danger and obtaining what they need to survive and reproduce without the assistance of a developed cerebral cortex. In the face of immediate danger, the limbic brain musters all resources for immediate action. A limbic brain structure called the amygdala manages these crisis situations. It musters all our resources to freeze, flee or fight. It blocks our capacity for learning and developing creative reactions.More nerves run from the amygdala deep within the brain to the reasoning center in the prefrontal cortex than run the other way. This explains the most common phobia, fear of speaking in public. The moment requires our finest reasoning ability. Yet the amygdala notices stress and suppresses the reasoning center in its habitual way of dealing with crises. The power of the amygdala makes controlling the emotions difficult. Commonly by the time the cortex is back in control, the best it can do is rationalize our actions and pick up the pieces.
But the reasoning center is not simply at the mercy of the amygdala. It can exert more control through conscious effort and through just plain growing up. Conscious effort has to do with being more aware of what’s going on, rather than giving the limbic brain free reign. Even the act of naming what we are feeling begins to engage the cerebral cortex. Thinking about more measured responses quiets the amygdala. Growing up helps because the cortex does not reach its full adult form until twenty or twenty-five. Much of the human cortex is not assigned to any particular task or content. Or evolutionary history is not strictly efficient; it has given us a great deal of excess capacity. Human societies and especially parents fill in a significant amount of this unassigned capacity with skills and information useful for success in society. However, the part of the brain that wants to learn and explore and learn new things matures before the part of the brain that wants to achieve balance, mastery and harmony.
Just as the brain stem and the limbic brain have their characteristic forms of happiness, so too does the cortical brain. As the seat of reflection, it can evaluate one’s life experiences, giving them texture and order. It can make the judgement that I am disappointed, or satisfied, or even quite pleased with my life. This evaluation is more or less stable, and can exist even in the absence of other forms of happiness. Periods of pain or loneliness can present serious challenges to our life satisfaction, but they do not necessarily dislodge it. Nevertheless, regular experiences of pleasure and limbic or social happiness enhance our changes of life satisfaction.
Because life satisfaction is happiness at its most deeply human level and because it is not particularly vulnerable to the sway of the moment, life satisfaction will ultimately be what I mean by happiness when I say “Don’t worry, be happy.”
The Functions of Happiness and Unhappiness
Reasons to be Unhappy
Is it only the mouth and the belly which are injured by hunger and thirst? Men’s minds are also injured by them. --Mencius
Unhappiness is not a pathology; it is an adoptive response. Happiness tells us that things are okay. But things are not always okay. Pain and its associated emotions signal us that things are not okay. Our ability to sense and react to pain is crucial to our survival. Pain overrides all other feelings and demands our attention. We must above all keep ourselves alive. Because over-reacting to pain is more likely to keep us alive than under-reacting, the messages from pain are commonly exaggerated. The message is “Deal with me. Deal with me now.” It’s commonly a good idea.
Only recently have researchers begun fitting emotions and mood into the larger picture of human evolution. This move has been misnamed Darwinian psychiatry. It now provides a unifying framework for models of emotion. Emotions function to adjust the range or our behavior in order to enhance our ability to respond to the threats and opportunities of specific situations.
Feelings and sensations have survival functions. Through millions of years of evolution, some choices are favored over others. If we had to reason through each choice anew, we would never survive. Pulling our hand away from a hot kettle is genetic, not reasoned. A baby’s distaste for bitter foods is likely related to the fact that many poisons are bitter. Deer don’t nibble on foxglove because in the past any grazing animals who might have nibbled on foxglove did not survive to pass on their genes. Our feelings, instincts and intuitions are grounded in a genetic code that has been building since the double helix upon which it is built first started to recombine in the primordial swamp.
Negative emotions have specific evolutionary functions. Fear tells us to flee danger. Anger warns us about violations of social norms or tensions within our group. Sadness alerts us to the loss of support. Disgust alerts us to the danger of contamination. Depression can alert us to the existence of a problem whose origins we don’t quite know. Across the board, pain and negative emotions alert us to risks to our evolutionary fitness.
Just as signals of pain are commonly exaggerated, negative emotions tend to over-signal as well. Many negative emotions signal risks to our relationship with the group. When it has nothing else to do (or even when it does) our brain tends to drift toward rehashing our social life. Someone else’s oversight becomes an intentional slight becomes an offense which then is fitted into a pattern of other possibly imagined assaults on our person. Emotional pain needs a reality check or its feedback loop will spin out of control.
Primates live in groups. The fact that humans walk upright means that the pelvis has migrated from its 90 degree angle with the legs and consequently that the birth canal is narrow. Humans are born small and (with all due respect to any woman who has ever given birth) with small heads compared to our adult size. This means that we’re dependent on the tribe for a disproportionately long time, even compared to other primates. As adults we lack fangs and claws. We need groups to hunt effectively or to defend ourselves (early hominoids were hardly larger than chimpanzees) against large carnivores. Social skills and smooth relationships are essential to our survival.
Humans have only one natural enemy: our neighbor. The question that has formed much of human history and pre-history is, Why shouldn’t I take my neighbor’s stuff? Why shouldn’t I kill him, take his wife, kill or enslave his children and take his land and everything he has, or any combination of these? Why shouldn’t my neighbor be thinking the same thing? Much of the course of human history is simply a variation on these questions. The story in the Book of Judges of the Israelites taking over the Land of Canaan is played out again on the planes of Darfur. In capitalism I take your stuff by being more successful than you in the same market. The impulse against globalization is that if rich and powerful nations are coming here, they must be here to take our stuff. Much of our psychic energy, indeed much of our taxes, focuses on protecting the stuff of my in-group from those outside, or regulating how we can exchange with one another fairly. Global cooperative systems tenuously keep this perennial worry at bay.
Because negative signals tend to be exaggerated, we often pay inordinate attention to them. We dwell on pain long after the source of pain is gone. Sadness can take on a life of its own, so that the sadness itself becomes the threat to our relationships. Under stress, a structure of the limbic brain called the hippocampus, which coordinates our memory functions, can shut down so that we don’t act rationally. We experience pain and negative emotions more intensely than positive ones. We are more moved by a melodrama than a comedy. We say we wish the news programs and papers would give more good news, yet we’re drawn to the blood and pain. We rubberneck the highway crashes.
Our over-attention to the negative can be a form of the life/dinner problem. If a fox and a hare spot each other, the hare will run until its last ounce of energy to escape the fox because the hare must escape every fox to survive. The fox, on the other hand, must catch some rabbits but it doesn’t necessarily have to catch this rabbit. The danger messages for the rabbit are stronger than the opportunity messages for the fox. However, in our daily life the causes of our panic, fear, shame or sadness are rarely as threatening as big animals that want to eat us. Giving undue reign to the fear messages can make us paranoid, hostile, less attractive, less open to the positive messages when they come along.
The Evolutionary Function of Happiness
But positive emotions do come along. Joy alerts us that something good has happened. Happiness alerts us to situations conducive to reproductive success. Don’t change anything right now. Seek out this situation again.
Our happiness systems seem to work pretty well. Reflecting the Lake Wobegon syndrome, where all of the children are above average, almost everyone has an above average level of happiness. In Great Britain’s National Child Development Survey, on a scale of 1 to 10, the median reported level of happiness was 8. In 42 countries survived in the early nineties, none reported an average score as low as 5, with an average score of 6.33. People strive to be happy, apparently with general success. Failing that, commonly they hide or suppress their unhappiness. Unhappiness is not merely unpleasant, it’s unattractive. In order not to drive people away and further aggravate their unhappiness, people will commonly “put on a happy face.”
Happiness systems function to keep us seeking what is best for us: a better environment, a better social network, better behavior. Beneath the surface of the happiness system is an edge of discontent, in case something that really is better comes along. Happiness systems must not only identify opportunities, but make us pursue them. It makes us believe that if we had those things, we really would be happier. When we get this thing, we become preoccupied with the next thing, so that the thing we previously wanted did not in practice make us happy.
Our brains tend to offset the exaggerated negative signals from sensations and emotions by ignoring a certain percentage of the negative messages, giving us an unduly rosy view of the world. When tested about how accurately they perceive their situation in the world, and their ability to deal with it, clinically depressed people consistently show a more accurate assessment of both. Most of us most of the time are protected by rose-colored glasses. We maintain our positive moods through an unrealistically optimistic view of ourselves and the world. Depression rips the shades off so we can realistically assess and address our problems. The rest of us are commonly happier than our situation merits (but apparently as happy as evolution wants us to be). As one of Lily Tomlin’s characters said, “Reality is highly over-rated. I find that reality is the main cause of stress for those who are in touch with it.”
The realism of the depressive is accurate but maladaptive. They better understand their challenges and limits, but have less energy to confront them.  The rosy view of those not depressed in inaccurate but functional. We are more enlivened, more energetic, more welcoming of the world’s challenges. More important from an evolutionary point of view, we are more attractive to potential mates. Those who can fake cheerfulness have an evolutionary advantage over the visibly depressed. Stress tends to muster the body’s resources for an immediate response, at the expense of long-term maintenance. This takes a physical toll. Maintaining positive emotions and controlling stress can give a survival advantage of seven years.
Pain is a sign that something bad is happening on a physical level and it needs our attention. Unhappiness gives the same signal on an emotional or social level. Pleasure is a signal that something good is happening, and we should continue doing what we’re doing. Happiness gives the same signal on a social and emotional level. In any case the signal is not necessary proportionate to the cause. We need to check the source, especially with negative messages. Happiness is signal, not a goal. If we would like to have more happiness, we should strive, not for happiness itself but for the things that trigger the signal happiness. We should strive for social and emotional well being.
The Brain’s Happiness System—Happiness Neurotransmitters
The feeling of happiness is a result of messages going on in our brain. Positive messages are associated with a certain set of neurotransmitters and tend to be focused more on our left prefrontal cortex, the area just behind our forehead and above our left eye. Negative feelings have their neurotransmitters and are focused more on the right prefrontal cortex. While one set of messages tends to crowd out the other, they can both be active at the same time. We can taste bittersweet chocolate and we can experience bittersweet moments in life. A friend’s illness might sadden us, but we might spend more time with her during her illness, drawing us closer together.
So we have the angel and the demon sitting on our left and right shoulders, respectively. One tells us what to do and one tells us what not to do. Either can override the other. However, if everything the guy on the left said were a good idea, then we wouldn’t need police and the Nobel Prize committee would be overwhelmed.
Dopamine—The Master of Desire
Our happiness system functions to keep us doing things that are good for us. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that drives us onwards without much specific content. It alerts us to the possibility of something new. The dopamine system opens up gateways to other neurotransmitters, making neurons easier to stimulate, acting as sort of a master-switch of desire. It is not so much a rewards system as an expectation system. Dopamine enables us to obtain our goals. It makes us optimistic and self-confident. It makes our goals seem tempting and achievable. More than any other neurotransmitter, it allows us to experience euphoria.
Don’t just live for today. That’s the limbic brain, that can’t conceive of the future. If you’re going to stop and smell the roses, then at least three months ago you planted roses.
Dopamine drives us to seek out newness but passes no judgment on the inherent value of the object of desire. Desire can drive us to find a cure for AIDS or to win the Boston Marathon. It can drive us to work overtime to get the big promotion, the right car, the right house in the suburbs, to max out our credit cards, to ignore spouse and family in search of measurable achievement, then to get the trophy spouse. Dopamine does not actually give pleasure in having any of these things. The pleasure from dopamine comes from striving to get something. What that actual something is matters not so much for the dopamine rush. However, whether we find a cure for AIDS or let our family fall apart in pursuit of the next promotion matter a great deal to our overall happiness.
Dopamine is involved with every addiction. Dopamine is active when we anticipate sex. Alcohol and nicotine release dopamine. A wide range of recreational drugs inhibit dopamine re-uptake. Instead of being reabsorbed from the brain, more dopamine remains in our system, yielding a dopamine high. Because dopamine is related to novelty, people headed down the path toward addiction want ever higher levels of their drug. The result is an impaired dopamine system. Addicts use their drug not to feel high but to feel normal, to compensate for their impaired dopamine system. In those who have “recovered,” the cravings may remain for from one to twelve years, but many researchers believe that the pleasure circuit will never be normal again.
Dopamine is not only the root of addiction, but also the root of creativity. Dopamine influences the brain to be curious, make connections. Dopamine is highly linked to altruistic behavior. Even when a small child tries to comfort her baby brother or sister, dopamine is filling her brain with pleasure. Scientists have long recognized this and call it the “helper’s high.”
Opioids—The House of Pleasure
While dopamine draws us into the future, another set of neurotransmitters cause us to focus on the present: the opioids. Opioid has its origin in a word referring to the processed juice of certain poppies. Opium has the ability to block pain and unhappiness and induce a state of dull well being. Opium and all its derivatives are all highly addictive. Opioids alert us that we’re in the midst of something that’s good for us. We should ignore whatever worries we have and focus on the moment. Opium derived drugs convey the same message when it’s probably not true. This false message might be okay when we’re coming out of major surgery, but might not be as helpful when we’re just having trouble dealing with the problems of our daily life.
Opioids are triggered from direct sense experience. They can come from a piece of steak, chocolate or wine. We can experience them while listening to our favorite music or while dancing. The endorphins associated with the “runner’s high,” are opioids. Even a brisk 20-minute walk can get the endorphins started. People under the influence of opioids seem incapable of sadness. The pleasure that people experience when they fall in love is activated by the opioid system. People literally become addicted to one another.
The opioids are easily accessible and happily much more effective than opium. To allow opioid happiness into our lives, we need to reign in the dopamine system and pay attention to the things that bring us direct pleasure. Opioids are released when we stop and smell the roses. Dopamine tells us when to go to the nursery to buy bare-root roses so that we can have the blooms to smell some day. Dopamine tells us that we have to have the luxury car. Opioids alert the enjoyment of the piece of strawberry pie we can afford today. Many things that produce opioids are either inexpensive or free. Some are not only free but wellness enhancing, like a brisk walk or watching a sunset. Opioids block out unhappiness. One way to reduce the net unhappiness in our lives is to pay attention to our opioid triggers and find ways to build them into the pattern of our lives. If we are regularly, intentionally and attentively doing things that bring us pleasure, then life seems better, and the challenges and unhappiness that inevitably come our way seem a bit more manageable.
Dopamine and the opioids have sort of a seesaw relationship. Dopamine is related to wanting and the opioids are related to liking. Rats stimulated to produce dopamine eat more, but studies of their behavior show they do not enjoy it any more. When dopamine is suppressed, they decline to eat, even when food is available. But if sugar water is placed on their tongue, they show signs of enjoying it. The opioid system rewards us for getting things that are good for us. Dopamine drives us to seek these out. However since dopamine is somewhat indiscriminate in driving us toward novelty and acquisition, not everything that activates desire will actually result in pleasure when attained. The Buddha didn’t warn his followers against pleasure, he warned them against desire.
Oxytocin, the Drug that Binds
Oxytocin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It is produced in the hypothalamus, stored and released by the pituitary gland. As a hormone it travels through the blood stream. However, hormones do not act directly on the brain, since fluids cannot pass directly from the blood to the brain, due to a factor known as the blood/brain barrier. Neurons connect directly to pick up oxytocin and transmit it to several places throughout the brain, especially the amygdala (a stress or panic center)where it has a calming effect, and the brainstem.
Oxytocin is associated with sex. Oxytocin levels rise in women throughout sexual arousal. Vasopressin is active in men’s arousal, working through nerve centers related to aggression. As climax approaches, vasopressin levels drop and oxytocin levels rise. Oxytocin works against aggression.  It is often called the “cuddle hormone” since high levels of oxytocin are present during post-coital cuddling. Oxytocin has been shown to increase substantially the level of trusts between humans. It makes us more willing to accept the risks that are necessarily involved in personal relationships. Oxytocin is associated with the general feeling of well-being in a relationship.
Oxytocin is associated with life-long bonding. Prairie voles are one of the 3% of mammal species that mate for life. Once bonded, they avoid seeking other potential sexual partners, and they aggressively guard their mate. If oxytocin is blocked in the prairie vole, their sexual relationships are as fleeting as that of other rodents. Oxytocin functions in other social bonds. A rat that has never given birth will, when given oxytocin, care for another rat’s babies as if they were her own.
Oxytocin functions not just between sexual partners. It is part of all social behaviors. We produce oxytocin whenever we engage in affectionate contact with someone we care for.
Humans tend to grow accustomed to experiences, particularly pleasant experiences. Dopamine is driving us to discover the Next Big Thing. Oxytocin, on the other hand, weakens our tendency to become habituated to positive experiences, so that we enjoy sticking with the current Big Thing. Since sex is the greatest stimulant of oxytocin, this is evidence enduring sex is an aid to enduring love.
Serotonin and Contentment
Our genes, with the encoded memory of competition and scarcity, keep telling to strive, giving us the illusion that there’s some bigger happiness out there that we’re missing out on. This is the great joke that evolution is playing on us.
Other neurotransmitters drive us toward something. Dopamine can direct us to just about anything as long as it’s new and possibly status enhancing. Opoids signal fleeting pleasure in a specific activity. Oxytocin binds us in specific relationships. Serotonin, on the other hand, serves to calm down the anxiety centers and appreciate the good situation we are in. Dopamine says, “Roses, I must have roses.” Serotonin lets us stop and smell them.
Serotonin is produced in primitive areas of the brain, the medulla, pons and midbrain, all located at the top of the spinal cord. Even mollusks produce serotonin. It disengages the system of negative emotions, reducing fear, panic and worry. It activates such emotions as sociability and cooperation. Serotonin calms the centers of the brain that react to stress, reducing our reaction to stress both on a psychological and a physiological level. In complex social situations where stress could trip us up, people with high levels of serotonin rise more easily to the challenge.
Serotonin allows us to value what we have, giving us a feeling not so much of pleasure as well-being. Evolution doesn’t demand anything more from us than that we reproduce and raise children who themselves are able to reproduce and raise children. It doesn’t demand the best schools, the better job, the newer car, the bigger house. Most of all, it does not demand that we’re happy. It just demands that we go after the things that allow us to reproduce and raise children. But our genes, with the encoded memory of competition and scarcity, keep telling to strive, giving us the illusion that there’s some bigger happiness out there that we’re missing out on. This is the great joke that evolution is playing on us. If we’re stable, if we enjoy friends and family in relative security, we probably shouldn’t look for much more happiness than this. Primates are social beings that need a network to survive. When we have our network and our family then we have done what evolution is trying to accomplish. Our brain should regularly flush with serotonin. We experience satisfaction, deeper happiness. This is the truth that the Wizard of Oz showed Dorothy: “If I ever go searching for my heart’s desire again, I know I don’t need to search any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never lost it in the first place.”
Serotonin and dopamine are related to learning. The newer areas of the brain, the areas of the cortex, change rather quickly while the more primitive areas of the brain change only slowly. We have all seen the wiz kid who can fix the computer but can’t manage the pipe wrench when the faucet needs fixing. In either case, as we start to work on something, neurotransmitters are released, causing information to be carried along neurons. With repetition, new connections form. The pathways along the neurons form new spikes, new synapses. New bridges develop in the brain and a new experience is rooted in memory. Memory and learning are linked to repetition and practice. The neurotransmitters that carry the message along are dopamine and serotonin. Learning and happiness are linked. Without learning, nerves are not exposed to growth factors. Eventually they die.
Serotonin is linked to social status. Lower ranking monkeys have higher levels of stress and lower levels of serotonin than higher ranking monkeys. Serotonin allows the higher ranking monkeys to spend more time in social activities such as grooming. The life of the lower ranking monkeys is considerably less secure. They need to devote more of their resources to immediate threats. Their stress hormones allow them to do this. If they rise in social rank, their serotonin level will likewise rise. In these cases, low levels of serotonin are not a pathology but an adaptation to the situation. In a situation rife with threats, a strong sense of well being is a dangerous illusion.
The word serotonin is a bit of a misnomer. Originally it was presumed to have a function in the blood (serum), perhaps toning the blood vessels. In technical fields it is more commonly called 5-hydrosytryptamine or 5-HT. This name indicates its chemical origin—formed from the essential amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is found in such foods as bananas, pineapples, plums, various nuts and milk. It is perhaps most widely known for its presence in turkey, contributing to that feeling of mellow contentment after Thanksgiving dinner. Because tryptophan is an essential amino acid, we need to consume it in order to produce serotonin. A patient given a large amount of neural amino acids but no tryptophan will begin producing protein, but will soak up available tryptophan. The result is an 80% reduction in serotonin in five hours, and in some of the patients—depression.
Comparison and Happiness
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear’s daughter Cordelia contented herself with the love she shared with her father. Her sisters sought to succeed into his estates and throne. Goneril and Regan compared their current happiness with the happiness they imagined they would have ruling Britain. Instead of achieving greater happiness, they brought down ruin on their entire house.
The dopamine system drives us to strive for the marginal advantage. Montaigne observed that people not only want to be happy, they want to be happier than others. The difficulty with this, he claimed, was that we imagine others to be happier than they really are.
Money and its accoutrements offer an easy yardstick for comparison. What makes people poor is often not that they have little but that they have less than those thought to be the dominant group in their society. In the U.S. a family of four with an income of $35,000 occupying a two bedroom apartment and driving a twelve year old car are likely to consider themselves poor, and to find their low status stressful. In most of the world they would be solidly middle class, with shelter, electricity, clean water and certainly enough food, if not the best food. Likely they would find contentment in their relative security.
How far you see I cannot tell.
Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.
--Albany to his scheming wife Goneril in King Lear
Measuring oneself by the transient yardsticks of wealth and fame diminishes happiness. People who value good looks, for whom success, money and fame are important are less satisfied than those who develop their personal relationships and become involved in social causes. Highly ambitious people are more likely to experience anxiety and depression.
People measure their status not just by their own situation but by the situation of their group. People build self-esteem on the contention that “my group is better.” They develop this belief by unearthing ever more obscure differences that favor their group. I am predominantly Irish by ancestry. Immigrants among my ancestors—ignoring the probability that their Protestant neighbors saw them as a bunch of micks, all cut from the same cloth—made the sharp distinction between the shanty Irish and the lace-curtain Irish. Some who were not lace-curtain distinguished themselves from the shanty Irish, creating the category of bicycle Irish. Such distinctions may be more or less harmless, but distinctions among various religious sects in Europe led to decades of bloodletting, most notably the Thirty Years War, diminishing the population of western Europe by as much as a third. To move beyond such bloodlust, one of the reforms of the French Revolution was to make it illegal to ask someone’s religion or to wear outward indications of one’s religion.
The suffering of many is the consolation of jackasses.
Evolution reinforces this focus on minimal differences. Evolution cares nothing for objective excellence. Evolution recognizes only relative advantage. If I have only a minimal advantage, if my group has a minimal advantage, in evolutionary time that’s enough to dominate, just as Las Vegas builds opulent casinos on the winnings of slot machines, even if they pay out ninety-eight percent of their take in prizes. (Evolutionary time is hundreds or more often thousands of generations. Genetic evolution itself has little to do with the changes that have taken place during recorded human history.)
Just as monkeys low in their social hierarchy have less serotonin, humans low in the hierarchy have less control over their jobs, and experience more stress with all its consequences. Repeated studies have shown that money does not buy happiness. In Britain within a social class there is almost no correlation between money and happiness. However, if you control for income, there is a strong correlation between social class and happiness in Britain.
So called “reality television” has turned out to be more popular than its progenitors imagined. While we vicariously share in the happiness and success of the winners, we enjoy just as much the public humiliation of the losers. In the various talent searches people whose estimation of their own talent is totally disconnected to reality are humiliated in terms that most of us would never use to another’s face. In the various iterations of “Who wants to marry…?” some blushing suitor will be rejected every week and leave in fully documented tears. We may now perceive our own lot as relatively better than that of these women at the peak of their youthful beauty. We have a term for such perverse feelings, but out of delicacy we cannot say it in English: Schadenfreude—happiness in another’s misery.
The Hedonic Paradox
Pursuing an illusion of happiness we miss the happiness at our feet.
Humans are driven by a theory of what will make us happy. If we are pursuing something that we think will make us happy, chances are that the dopamine system is in the driver’s seat. However, what we think will make us happy is often at odds with what in fact will make us happy. Our evolutionary heritage pushes us toward a general type of behavior which, in a harsher environment, might slightly have improved our chances of reproduction. Our minds tease us along with the promise of happiness, but evolution doesn’t care about our happiness at all. Evolution cares only about reproduction.
We have lots of theories about what makes us unhappy as well: other people, the state, capitalist greed, religion, moral decay. However, it’s more likely that the cause of unhappiness is a mechanism within ourselves: the tyranny of wanting over liking. Wanting is designed to enslave us. Throughout the evolution of vertebrates, the alpha male who dominated the most females passed on his genes. Negative emotions are supposed to overpower us. Those who did not fight off competitors lost everything. Our genes are still engaged in struggles obsolete by tens of thousands of years. By pursuing what we suppose will make us happy, we may fail to enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life (opioid system), we may fail to nurture our most significant relationships (oxytocin system), and may fail to focus on living a meaningful, satisfying life (serotonin system). Pursuing an illusion of happiness we miss the happiness at our feet.
Blowing off Steam
One of the great inventions in the history of parenting is the time out. The child moves from misbehavior to inactivity. During this inactivity, the child has little to do but think. Commonly the problem arose because the limbic center got caught up in the moment and lost contact with the reasoning centers of the prefrontal cortex. During the time out, the cortex can reassert control.
The time out serves the imposing adult as well. The child’s misbehavior can make the adult angry. If the adult goes down the path of anger, the feeling is reinforced. Any expression of that anger is also training the brain to respond the same way next time. The sharp word, yelling, spanking, or worse all get programmed into the brain with each repetition. A time out or similar strategy stops the adult from going down the path of anger and brings reason back in command.
Hatred is a failure of the imagination.
The Power and the Glory
Nineteenth century psychological views used to encourage letting off steam. The metaphor portrays the brain as a pressure cooker needing a release. This view of emotions—that they have a life of their own to which we must submit—is as dangerous as it is wrong. Acting out negative emotions prolongs their life. Over forty years of study have shown that fits of rage are more likely to intensify anger. Tears can deepen our depression.
Emotion in men is more likely to activate a physical response. Women’s emotional response tends more toward the verbal. The differing emotional response of men compared to women might be characterized as: love me, hold me/love me, talk to me. Hate me, fight me/hate me, argue with me.  When aroused by anger, men need to avoid doing things they will later regret. Women need to avoid saying things they will later regret. In the short run, any calming technique will help return reason to its position at the helm, whether it’s counting to ten, deep breathing, or listening to calming music. Just saying the words, I’m angry, I’m upset about … stimulates an area of the prefrontal cortex to define the feeling, giving it the power to calm the amygdala.
Another form of self-reinforcing anger is righteous anger. As social animals we enjoy enforcing social norms, even if we otherwise gain nothing personally from the enforcement. Brooding about fairness in social relations is one of the mind’s favorite pastimes. Brooding has the advantage of calling up the intellect to nurture and grow its negative emotions. It even bears the illusion of virtue in the light of the real or imagined wrong to which I or my group has been subjected. Anger is rarely righteous. Anger points to problems with only occasional accuracy. The longer righteous anger festers, the more it becomes angry and the less it becomes righteous.
Depression and its Remedies
As I delve into realms that touch on pathology and its treatment, let me emphasize that I am a Doctor of Philosop
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