Mini-Feature: What is Happiness?

Is happiness just chemicals flowing through your brain or something more?

Since happiness is the goal of human life, this is a vital question. The moronic boomer take is that traditional morality somehow stands against happiness, or seeks to repress or stymie it due to arbitrary or authoritarian rules. The truth is that morality itself was understood to be ordered to human happiness. If you merely seek the happiness that arises from chemicals flowing through your brain, you quickly discover that the quest often leads to deep unhappiness. The purest example is drug use, which is most direct'—ingesting chemicals to manipulate the chemicals in your brain—but one could say much the same about sexual gratification as Hunter S. Thompson said about drugs.

That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary's trip. He crashed around America selling 'consciousness expansion' without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel.

Who or what ought to be tending the Light? And how does one reach it? The mere manipulation of chemicals itself often leads to sadness and depression, never mind worse disasters. Something more is needed. This ought to be known as common sense because it is common sense. And the beginning of philosophy, the pursuit of wisdom, and a mature desire to understand religion.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind


What does "just chemicals" mean? The prevailing answer is not that we are pure material, or, as Sarah Silverman puts it, "we're all just molecules, cutie." That may be a satisfying or rewarding posture to adopt in today's dominant culture. But it is not enough for people practicing the dominant kind of science. In that slice of society, the prevailing answer to the mere-chemicals question that chemicals are building blocks of nature that can be removed from their natural context, abstracted artificially in isolated form, and repurposed for reintroduction into a natural context to do unnatural things. 

Specific to happiness, that means we can and should reduce happiness to its chemical composites, isolate them in the lab, and reinsert them into our brains and/or bodies in order to achieve an unnatural degree of pleasure most akin to the general or comprehensive one that we associate most with happiness. In fact, doing so probably gives us access to a type and level of happiness that we can't achieve without this scientific artifice. Natural happiness is not good enough for us; realizing this and failing to solve the problem will make us constitutively unhappy. 

This is one potential "problem statement" concerning happiness. There is another. "Natural happiness is not good enough for us; but the problem that makes us unhappy has to do with the scientifically verifiable condition that natural happiness is an irreducible mystery: one which science can't break down into material parts, much less isolate, mass produce, and reinsert into our pleasure receptors." 

In this case, there is no solution, only amelioration. The isolation of chemicals conducive to the pleasurable feeling of general well-being is a practice of medical science, the production of salves for that which has no cure. Perhaps a good enough salve will actually be powerful enough to more than compensate for the "problem" itself. But the risk of overcompensation is always there, so much so that it might actually be a guarantee of dangerous overcompensation in a statistically significant share of cases. In which case the medical science of therapeutic treatment for addiction to fake happiness and overdose on fake happiness must be perfected and institutionalized...

Why do we do these things, as we clearly have already begun to do? Why do we plow with seeming helplessness toward these options? Why this immense dissatisfaction and spirit of satisfaction in accomplishing a reversal of fortune against nature? What secret lurks within the suspicion implicit in these projects that the true happiness, the last happiness, is defeating the curse of nature...? 

Questions, I think, that only a religion can answer. 

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind

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Absolutely no human experience can be usefully described as “just” chemicals flowing through your brain. Obviously our biological knowledge has gained immensely over the past 150 years in terms of precision and accuracy. New discoveries in neurochemistry have given us astonishing capacities to effect change in ourselves and others. But the reason why we use those capacities in such fumbling and often horrific ways is: as a totalizing philosophical account of human emotion and perception, synapses and hormones are miserably inadequate. They are no more sophisticated as conceptual tools for explaining how we feel and think than primitive humorism

If anything, our new reductionist descriptions of what happens “inside” us—"I had an ‘adrenaline rush,’” “she was on a ‘dopamine high,’” or, in the words of John Mayer, “I’ll be dreamin’ of the next time we can go / Into another serotonin overflow”—represent a stunning retrogression from the days of blood, bile, and phlegm. At least everyone knew in those days that physical description was only one half of the picture, incomplete without reference to “something else,” however understood. The “something else” amounts to what it is like for us to have experiences such as joy or happiness, about which the molecular structure of dopamine can tell us precisely nothing. 

A standard Christian account of the relation between what happens to our bodies and souls simultaneously is that our joy “inheres” in the chemical happenings of the brain, but does not amount to it—just as meaning inheres in a word but does not boil down simply to the letters of that word. A major advantage of this account is it rids us of the “ghost in the machine” fallacy. But it also enables us to distinguish between a serotonin rush caused by, say, a drug, and one caused by, say passionate lovemaking: same chemical, different qualitative and inherent experience. Thus it is a distinction which saves us from speaking like dimwitted children, as materialists do. 

Anyway there are other options, all of them older and better than the “just chemicals” model—if indeed it amounts to a model and not simply a lazy habit of mind. For what it’s worth, there are Greek words that get at what materialists grope for when they reduce happiness to chemicals: terpsis means just the physical fact of pleasure tout court, considered in abstraction from its rational or spiritual properties. Eudaimōnia means the rich and joyous flourishing which takes our whole person into account—this is what we are all going for, though we have been thoroughly hobbled in the pursuit by maundering, third-rate philosophers. 

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind