Circumstances don’t seem to have much effect on happiness.
As the previous essay more than hinted at, most of humanity behaves as if they live in a delusional virtual reality, a reality that is imagined; a reality that is a product of a panic-stricken false self. Not only are our various communication and entertainment “devices,” which are products of an impressive technologically sophisticated intelligence, not relieving our stress in the 21st century, they are contributing to our nausea and neuroses. Simply put, and more broadly conceived, the energy centers (security, sensation and power) of the false-self survival strategy, leading to the ever-more frantic pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power, are only intensifying human suffering. Let’s take a look at why this is so.
Are we being a bit melodramatic in our somewhat gloom and doom prognostication about the failure of community in America? We will put forth our facts and opinions along with other analysts and reporters and you be the judge. “In 2002 the World Mental Survey found that Americans were the most anxious people in the 14 countries studied, with more clinically significant levels of anxiety than people in Nigeria, Lebanon and Ukraine.” And that is just for starters!
Throughout human history, in the West at any rate, happiness has loomed large as a measure of success in a given community. Aristotle thought that happiness in ancient Greece consisted of being a moral or virtuous person. Followers of Epicurus felt that a good life would consist of the pursuit of pleasure within reasonable limits, of course. Along came the Christians and the regulation of those pleasures became much more severe. In fact, Christians felt that pleasure should be avoided altogether “… and regarded pain as the more useful path to, if not a happy life, then a sort of divine union in the afterlife. That desired state could not be attained in life on earth, but only as a gift from God, in heaven.” Nothing profound so far, let’s follow the evolution of Western thought vis-à-vis happiness.
The Renaissance saw the search for happiness return to earth, a much more realistic and fruitful place to continue our search for human happiness. It was in the American colonies during the Enlightenment that happiness was conceived of as a political “right.” This unalienable right was tied in with property and the emergence of what was once known as the Protestant Ethic but is understood in the context of P-A as a more universal expression of the false-self pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. Americans have long valued having, doing and knowing and it is not proving to be a source of happiness.
“And unlike the work-shy Greeks of antiquity [and perhaps today as well], we are assumed to find happiness through work and by being productive. We are required to curate our market value, manage ourselves as corporations and live according to an entrepreneurial ethos. When no sin is greater than being unemployed and no vice more despised than laziness, happiness comes only to those who work hard, have the right attitude and struggle for self-improvement.” Ah hah! But which self, there are two you know. But perhaps we don’t know that. In which case, no wonder we are having trouble. Oh well, onward and uhhh—not upward—unfortunately because we are headed for that other place.
Security and Materialism
Our myriad strategies for escapism and self-medication are as old as humanity itself and have only gotten more complex and obsessive over time. Do they work? Do they assuage our fears? Do they relieve our stress? Do they increase our happiness? Unfortunately no!
The virtual reality or what seems to be true is that Americans are better off today than in the past in terms of prosperity. “If you made a graph of American life since the end of World War II, every line concerning money and the things that money can buy would soar upward, a statistical monument to materialism. Inflation-adjusted income per American has almost tripled. The size of the typical house has more than doubled.”
Measuring happiness then in America in roughly the last half century one would expect that, given a more prosperous population, we would be a happier community. “In polls taken by the National Opinion Research Center in the 1950s, about one-third of Americans described themselves as ‘very happy.’ The center has conducted essentially the same poll periodically since then, and the percentage remains almost exactly the same today .” We need to take a closer look at the connection between happiness and prosperity or more accurately, security and materialism.
It is not that money and happiness are not related but rather that income as a source of happiness has its limitations. The median annual income of a U.S. household in 2005, the year that TIME magazine took its poll, was $43,000. “TIME’S poll found that happiness tended to increase as income rose to $50,000 a year. After that, more income did not have a dramatic effect.”
Why are so many of us not able to find greater happiness and security with greater prosperity? It seems to be that our focus is not on our improved circumstances but rather on how well our neighbors are dong relative to our success. This keeping up with the Joneses phenomenon sociologists call “reference anxiety.”
Edward Diener, a University of Illinois psychologist, interviewed members of the Forbes 400, the richest Americans who should be happy if money is a measure of happiness, right? Diener, however, found those with great wealth only slightly happier than Americans as a whole. “Because those with wealth often continue to feel jealousy about the possessions or prestige of other wealthy people, even large sums of money may fail to confer well-being.” Well, too bad, it looks like money is not going to be able to relieve our existential fear.
Sensation and Escape
Sometimes when would-be sociologists are examining human behavior they may think that the goal of those behaviors is material wealth (money) and emanating from the security energy center of the false self when in fact that is only ostensibly true. What people are actually seeking is an escape from anxiety and or ennui. They want the “experience” of say gambling, the “process” of playing poker or pulling the lever (now its pushing a button) on the “one-armed bandit.” Winning any money at these games is incidental to the self-deception that can lead to what can be called process addiction as opposed to substance addiction.
These behaviors place our seekers firmly in the arena of the sensation energy center of the false self which is running full tilt away from terrors most of us can only imagine. In fact, they only “sense” their demons since they are for the most part unconscious or imagined. What we all need to realize is that we are all engaged in similar delusions and in this general way we are all creating our own reality.
What does this look like specifically? Americans must be having more and more trouble with boredom and fear of late because gambling is a burgeoning industry. Let’s pay a brief visit to the “sports book,” a large two-story room with 31 cinema-scale screens in the Las Vegas Hotel & Casino showing myriad races and games. “Dogs and horses sprinted around tracks, men and women ran up and down basketball courts, football players launched themselves into one another.”
To be sure, money was being made by the insiders in the room and elsewhere, but not by the masses all across the U.S. and abroad betting on every imaginable contest and game epitomized by the noise, glamour and intoxication present in this room. Take a shallow, excited breath and go numb (that’s what it’s all about in gambling resorts) and pretend that this senseless, mind-numbing activity is providing happiness and excitement.
More and more American lemmings are running as fast as their little legs will carry them hell-bent on hurling themselves off the “Cliffs of Dover,” a self-destructive, insane behavior by any definition. “One in five American men polled by researchers at Fairleigh Dickinson University (and nearly one in 10 women) said that they bet on sports in 2012. In Nevada, where it is legal to bet via licensed bookmakers, the industry collected $3.4 billion in wages in 2012, nearly twice as much as a decade ago.”
One way to measure the increasing fear in America is to look at the proliferation of casinos. “‘In the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states,’ a report from the Institute for American Values notes this year, ‘nearly every adult now lives within a short drive of a casino.’” Whether it’s Americans seeking escape and distraction from anxiety and boredom or capitalists and politicians seeking plenty and power, the gambling industry can expect ample support. “The spread of casinos has been more of a top-down phenomenon driven by states seeking revenue and an industry that’s free with campaign contributions.”
The most dysfunctional communities in the global village tend to victimize women, children and the elderly disproportionally. The American community exhibits this callousness. “Women and the elderly have become more likely to gamble in recent years, partly because of a preference for nonskill slot-machine gambling.”
Simple Reality relies on profound insights into the psychology of human behavior. So does the gambling industry. A person addicted to gambling can bet as little as a penny on the “slots.” Why does a casino bother with such small fry? Don’t be puzzled. The casinos know now to cater to their victims’ neurotic yearnings. Dollars are just a lot of pennies. “Most regional casinos are essentially slot parlors. Slot machines are nowadays sophisticated computerized devices engineered to produce continuous and repeat betting and programmed by high-tech experts to encourage gamblers to make multiple bets simultaneously by tapping buttons on the console as fast as their fingers can fly.”
We’ve already noted that the goal of the gambler is not to win but to enter into a mesmerized state that blocks out their existential suffering. Natashsa Dow Schull, an anthropologist at MIT who studied the design of gambling machines noted that “… as gamblers deepen their immersion, they become less interested in winning itself than in simply continuing to play.”
Now we penetrate more deeply into the diseased mind of the gambler. Unlike hand-grenades and horseshoes, a near miss in a slot machine is rewarding. “One way these computerized pickpockets milk their customers is by generating “near misses,” whereby the spinning symbols on the machine stop just above or below the winning payline. The feeling of having come oh so close to a win prompts further play.”
Since it is the American false self that drives our behavior, we know it behooves us to look for the dark side of all self-medicating behaviors and all such behaviors flow freely from our unconscious “shadows.” “Casinos tend to lower property values and weaken social capital [undermining long-term social welfare] in the places where they’re planted, they’re more likely to extract dollars from distressed communities than to spur economic development, and their presence is a disaster for the reckless and the addiction-prone.”
Transitioning from process addictions to substance addictions we find even conservatives like Milton Friedman questioning our policy-makers who fail to understand the conditioned behaviors of those of us who identify with our false self. “Friedman became a hero to many good citizens who did not care to stand between a drug addict and his fix. To Friedman, the war on drugs was not a moral crusade. It was just plain stupid.”
Both process addictions and substance addictions, which more and more Americans are willing to legalize, are reflected in changing attitudes toward marijuana. Not only are more of us are willing to accept pot as harmless or beneficial but also as a tempting source of much needed revenue. “The permissive turn on marijuana has been a more (if you will) grass-roots affair—driven by activists and artists, influenced by empathy for the terminally ill, and hastened by public exhaustion with the drug war.”
Failure to understand why we behave the way that we do has the American community bewildered as our institutions continue to descend into chaos. With local and state governments lacking needed revenue, politicians willing to do and say anything to win votes and the private sector seeking to please shareholders, a P-B coalition has emerged to profit from a universal human weakness.
Common sense and Simple Reality could go hand-in-hand in crafting a response to substance abuse that would be more effective than current policies which are indeed stupid because they cause problems rather than solve them. Friedman wrote a letter to Bill Bennett, the drug czar under George H.W. Bush revealing a more profound understanding of false-self behavior than prevailed in that administration. “Your mistake is failing to recognize that the very measures you favor are a major source of the evils you deplore … Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces so that they are starved for resources to fight the simpler crimes of robbery, theft and assault.”
Friedman was a member of the Marijuana Policy Project which wanted to make marijuana a regulated and legal product like tobacco and alcohol. “One study suggests that ending the U.S. prohibition against marijuana could produce savings of nearly $8 billion a year and generate over $6 billion in tax revenues. Friedman and about 500 other leading economists endorsed the findings.”
Froma Harrop, intuiting the obvious, argued in her column in 2006 for legalization of drugs which only now in 2015 has begun with marijuana. “Put the drug dealers and narco-terrorists out of business by providing free drugs to our addicted populations. That way, we know who the abusers are and can offer them treatment. And those who persist in their addictions wouldn’t have to prey on the rest of us for their drug money.” Harrop was robbed at knifepoint of a flute she was carrying on the subway, from someone who might have been desperate for the $40 a used and battered flute could be fenced for.
We close this arena describing how the false self seeks pleasure (sensations, affection and esteem) with one last major problematic behavior colloquially known as the munchies. Ha! Ha! Ha!—but wait—there is nothing funny about this addiction or this obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). The annual global cost of obesity ($2 trillion) is almost equal to smoking or to armed violence, war, and terrorism combined. By 2030 The McKinsey Global Institute predicts that almost half of the world’s adult population will be overweight or obese. That’s up from the current 30 percent.
The facts above are not what interests most people because most of us already know compulsive eating is a problem. Many of us use food to help us feel better. What we should have the courage to admit, however, is first, that we must be suffering a lot to use food in this way, secondly, it doesn’t work and finally, it’s getting worse. Is this what we want? We obviously think it is because many of us choose it—but probably not consciously. What other destructive conscious and unconscious behaviors darken our future?
Power and Happiness
The three energy centers of the false self can overlap and a single unconscious activity can involve the pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power simultaneously. More bang for the buck as it were. The process of betting on sports can bring a delusional escape from suffering but so can attending sports contests and experiencing a vicarious sense of power especially if our team is the winner and more-so if our team is a big winner. “It was the clear crushing of an opponent that most elicited this tendency to wear clothing that announced your association with the team. It’s about power and superiority.” This is one way to create a sense of community but it is not going to be a sustainable community, not a healthy community.
Remembering the American cities used as symbols of each of the illusions we use to deny reality, New York the seat of Wall Street (plenty) and Las Vegas (pleasure), we conclude this essay with a brief look at Washington D.C., the symbol of power. Although many Americans persist in their beliefs that material wealth can bring them security and that pleasurable sensations can ease their suffering, they don’t appear to have faith that their representatives in Washington can be counted on to provide the leadership to create a sustainable community. Not that the Washington-based military-industrial-corporate complex is without power, it’s just that said power is not being used on the behalf of ordinary Americans. (After all, in 2012, 90 percent of the House members and 91 percent of the senators who ran for re-election won.)
Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik published this assessment in Politico. “He cited a Gallup poll in late June  that showed that Americans’ faith in each of the three branches had dropped to what he called ‘near record lows,’ with only 30 percent expressing confidence in the Supreme Court, 29 percent in the presidency and 7 percent in Congress.” In truth there is no authentic power in Washington or anywhere else in P-B but that is the subject for another essay.
Many of the essays in the Simple Reality Project advocate the expression of compassion as the most satisfying behavior for an individual and the most effective way for a community to achieve sustainability. In the U.S. today, most Americans are supporting exactly the opposite behaviors. No compassionate society would allow the existence of payday lending businesses, rent-to-own stores, subprime credit cards, auto title loans and loans based on anticipated tax refunds. All of these extract unconscionably high profits from defenseless vulnerable low income groups.
Having the most powerful military in the world, a gun in every closet, taking drugs to self-medicate, using gambling as a distraction and a community-wide denial of reality, no matter how assiduously all these behaviors are pursued can only provide the illusion that we are not engaged in the process of self-destruction. We have taken only a brief glance at human behavior but have seen enough to conclude that Americans and by inference, the rest of the world which follows our lead, however reluctantly, are becoming less healthy and more dysfunctional. Given that we could be making radically different choices in creating our community, this is indeed a sad state of affairs.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in the Simple Reality books:
Where Am I? Story – The First Great Question
Who Am I? Identity – The Second Great Question
Why Am I Here? Behavior – The Third Great Question
Science & Philosophy: The Failure of Reason in the Human Community