Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Essay: Are People Designed to be Unhappy?

The television presents an interview with a mother in Syria. She claims to have lost two children to famine and national catastrophe. An infant appears almost lifeless in her arms. Existence is so brutal that they are living among terrorists who the mother believes could kill her at any time. But this is where the food is.

A few friends share a link on Facebook. It’s an interview with Darcus Howe in London, someone BBC’s Fiona Armstrong introduces as a broadcaster. He’s a black man with a vaguely Middle Eastern accent. To me, he looks very tired. He derides England’s police system for abusing the young. While he won’t explicitly condone the rioting and massive property damage, his vitriol is for the government that shot an armed young man.

Not five minutes later, I’m sent another video. Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist I hold in high regard, rants on NASA’s budget cuts. He is in what looks like an expensive suit, sitting as one of three guests in an air conditioned studio with an audience that applauds at every pause he grants. To me, he looks very well groomed. He is irate that we aren’t going to the moon anymore. How dare we say it’s too expensive to afford “the only thing that gives people something to dream about tomorrow.”

I watch all three interviews in the same hour. They transpired in the same week. Lumped together, they are irreconcilable. My mind stretches for a simple explanation as to how someone like Dr. Tyson can be unhappy at all, let alone demand space travel when earth-children are starving. It seems insane that Dr. Tyson should say going to the moon is the sole source of hope against the backdrop of global emergencies. You can’t possibly think that Syrian mother or British broadcaster are dreaming of space travel tonight.

But if I’d only been reading astronomy and cosmology, how would I feel? Dr. Tyson and Mr. Howe don’t live in Syria. They see very little of it, and like most people on the planet, think very little of it. When it comes up it’s grave, but then it goes back down. They see and think as little of it as I do. It’s a damning epiphany.

In the next few hours I’m furious with my ISP for sending the wrong brand of router. I have to plug into it to access my high speed internet; there’s no wifi. That’s what preoccupies me. Something small that’s close preoccupies so much more easily than something enormous that’s distant. For Dr. Tyson, who spends so much time on the sky, the moon is closer than Syria.

Is it the condition of humans to always adjust to our circumstances and find something in them that displeases? Is that what makes millionaires go into debt over buying still more yachts? Is that what makes modern atheists compare themselves to African American civil rights pioneers? In their videos, Dr. Tyson appears absolutely as angry as Mr. Howe. I think back to Otakon in Maryland, and to the many miserable-looking people I saw in the hallways of a cartoon convention. And if I prowl Youtube, I’ll find tweens filming themselves in tears over their parents not buying them the latest Apple gadget. This is what preoccupies them.

It’s not a matter of seeking the thing that makes them unhappy. It seems as though people find these things on instinct. Was the evolutionary imperative to constantly seek out threats so strong that we have to be this way? It feels like it shouldn’t be. I’ve observed my behavior and modified for the positive before. But tomorrow, and next week, and next year, what will preoccupy me? How far away will the worst place in the world be?


  1. People are designed to be concerned with themselves and their immediate family/tribe. It takes a higher level of consciousness to get to the point of saying, "Maybe it's not all about me." Empathy is often defined as the ability to see things from another's perspective, to walk in someone else's shoes. It's fashionable to deride organized religion, but at their best, the major religions of the world help to instill in their followers compassion and empathy for other people. These aren't native behaviors; they have to be taught and practiced.

    Thanks for the thoughtful essay.

  2. We humans are the masters of discontent. Some will complain when kicked with a new boot. But, every once in awhile we expand our vision beyond the narrow scope of our own selfish focus. Nice job doing so here John!

  3. Tony, I didn't want to make this essay too long, and so one of the items I avoided was the focus of the three interviewees dismay. The Syrian mother is afraid for herself, but also her children; Howe was outraged primarily for strangers in London who most people don't empathize with; and while Dr. Tyson's work would benefit from more space spending, he almost certainly would never go into space himself. All three cases of unhappiness were at least partially external. In the Syrian mother's case selfishness would be entirely warranted; she is not eating, surrounded by danger, in a country in violent turmoil.

    Harry, I'd probably begrudge any sort of kicks, from old or new boots. Something immediate, close and emergent usually brings a rise, right?

  4. Enjoyed, nothing intelligent to add, but thank you for writing it.

  5. I think these three people are at different places on the hierarchy of needs. The woman in Syria is right at the bottom, looking for food, shelter. She's not even at a point where personal security ranks that high. For Howe, the need is for justice, employment and personal security for those he identifies with. Tyson is way up near the top of the pyramid - he takes food, security and corporeal contentment for granted. He's now looking for achievement and fulfillment on behalf of himself and other astronomers. Extending that to "giving us what we want helps the rest of society, too" is a stretch, since it's one of the easiest (and most common) rationalizations in the world.

    Maslow's hierarchy deals with the needs of an individual or a cohesive group. One of its limitations is that there's very little room for empathy or altruism, whatever the source of the impulse.

  6. This is an excellent essay, John. I have thought much about how people surround themselves in their own world of complaints and displeasure, and sometimes I find myself caught up in it too.

    I agree with Tony about the pyramid structure of needs, and the higher you are, the more disconnected you are from the basic needs of living, until life kicks you in the knees, but sometimes even then, we still don't realize how much we have.

  7. John, you ask great questions. I wouldn't presume to be able to answer them, but I uphold the value of asking such questions. Particularly, since you are a writer of fiction, I think acknowledging and comparing such things as these three videos is important.

    Again, this is not an answer, but I have felt for a long time that pain is relative in the sense that no one can really gauge the particular experience of someone else's pain. There are too many factors involved (both cultural and pertaining to the person's subjective experience & history). It seems to me that it is precisely because of this uncertainty that we should all be as tolerant of one another as possible. For example, if someone acts in a way that I don't understand (especially if I don't like it) it wouldn't hurt to try and learn about where they come from and why they are acting this way.

    Awesome post; much to mull over.

  8. Excellent essay, John. Your ending thoughts are spot on: "But tomorrow, and next week, and next year, what will preoccupy me? How far away will the worst place in the world be?"

    I don't guess I've ever thought of people as looking for unhappiness, but you are correct in our propensity for finding it. Perhaps it is how we cope with the disparity around the world about which we may feel helpless?

    For example, when I encounter people who are truly destitute or abused I realize that my world is pretty good. Unfortunately, I don't always know what to do to help. I hate that feeling. Griping about how I had to watch ESPN without sound doesn't compare, but it does get my mind off to something that may be more within my area of influence. I don't like when I do that, but I still find myself doing it.

    As I said, excellent post. I'm sure I'll be thinking about this one for the rest of the week.

  9. Fantastic essay, John. I'm with Tony in that human are inherantly selfish. Obvioulsy in the case of the Syrian woman, it's acceptable, but I'd wager that 9 times out of 10 it's not. Carlos and I were just talking the other night about the money going to NASA. It's not that they haven't developed somw wonderful technology (aluminum foil, Tang), but shouldn't our focus be a little more global?

  10. I'm intrigued by your approach to this idea of world, and of modifying your own behavior when you find it unseemly. I worry sometimes we live in a culture where it's not okay to feel certain things, and while ultimately choosing to change yourself because of that comes down to personal choice, I'm always curious what outside forces or societal pressures might influence that choice.

    I suppose it's not much different from prescription culture - "Oh here, your life's not that bad, take a pill." I've always granted people the benefit of just because there are starving people in Syria, that doesn't mean there isn't something legitimate about them having a bad day. I mean, one supposes for happiness to be a right and proper way of feeling, unhappiness would have to be too.

    I suppose I'm just ruminating and rambling now. Very thoughtful post.

  11. Carrie, thank you for the stopping by. I can't blame you keeping a little mum. It's an intimidating prospect.

    Tony, certainly we can ascribe a hierarchy (or value pyramid) to these folks. I think what Howe represents is a lot more complex than justice, particularly as the motives of many rioters may seem unjustified and the police shooting itself is controversial. But even if as we go up the hierarchy we find less rational, religious or ethical justification for anger, I remain preoccupied with why each appears at least to rival the others in magnitude of emotion. I don't think I can settle for the notion that Dr. Tyson is just pampered and privileged, though those things likely come into play for everyone in the first world. It's hard not to think of the London rioters in such a light, being so furious over conditions still so much better than Syria that they burn strangers' stores.

    Erin, I'm certainly caught up in needless negativity from time to time. The apparent needlessness of others actually helps correct my attitude, at least semi-frequently. A hierarchy knee-kick, as we may put it, much nicer than realizing I needed surgery and could not afford it.

    Mark, I don't presume to answer all these things either. I purposefully left most of these questions open because if I hazard an answer, it's liable to me too simple. Saying everyone is selfish, or humanity sucks, or negativity is a mental virus - no way is that the whole story. And yes, as a fiction writer I do grapple with expressions of these themes. Some of it pops up in the book I'm polishing right now. Too big a part of life to ignore.

    Chuck, so one of the possible answers you posit is that trivial unhappiness preoccupying us gets our minds off of greater ones? Certainly that's part of the truth. Heard too many people bitching about the lives of tabloid stars to not think it doesn't have escapist and entertainment value, though I do worry about the parasitism of such things.

    Danni, I'm not even opposed to space exploration. Especially with the way our species populates and runs through resources, expansion is going to become necessary eventually. And the entire astronaut program is both a source of great science and great wonder. It was the particular anger Tyson displayed, rivaling that of Howe and dwarfing the mother, over a subject that is far less vital in the immediate scope, that struck me into thinking about this.

    Randall, I don't know if there exists a culture where it is okay to feel absolutely anything. I've certainly yet to encounter one culture, or even one subculture, that embraced absolutely all thoughts, opinions and behaviors. Wouldn't such a culture require total ambivalence? Or monolithic uniform enthusiasm?

    Then there's the topic of whether I can actually change, but we've beat that one to death in private.

  12. I suppose I can think of some feelings that even I would consider to be "wrong" but then I wonder if said feelings didn't spur action forward, should it be vilified? And even if we did, sort of as a society, decide whole emotions were not okay to feel, I think "unhappiness" is probably universal enough that it would make the cut. Maybe.

    I don't know. Those are damn good question you ask though.

  13. Fantastic essay John. And the discussions afterward are very interesting too. I don't know that humans are designed to be unhappy or to specifically seek out the bad in situations. I just think it's easier. It's easier to recognize things that irritate or anger us than things that make us happy. Happiness is a choice that takes effort. You have to seek out and find things to be happy about, the bad seems to find us.

    It's videos like the one of the woman in Syria which help to remind me how good I have it and that I need to not take that for granted. We all need those wake up calls now and then.


  14. For me, the answer the the question 'Are people designed to be unhappy' is simply: Yes.

    By that I mean that we are built with a drive to survive the next attack, find the next source of food, crest the next hill... whatever the task is, we are built to conquer.

    When the basics are taken care of (shelter, food, water) we re-orient that drive. It's what got us to the moon in the first place.

    The problem (as I see it) is that so many of us have reached a point where not only the basics are taken care of, but we have such an abundance of resources (money) that even the 'wants' and 'desires' are accounted for, meaning there is nothing left to focus that 'drive' on so it either gets turned inward, or turned into what makes people (kids, teens, adults) whine about every little thing. They didn't win enough in the lottery, they didn't get the newest gadget, or the purple one, or Johnny got his first... etc.

    Out default setting it not to be content but to seek the next adventure.

    Hopefully this made sense :)

  15. This is a very thoughtful and interesting essay, John. In my opinion, people are NOT "designed to be unhappy," but, as Tony said,
    "People are designed to be concerned with themselves and their immediate family/tribe." Self-preservation is foremost in our natures, as it is in all living creatures. Mankind's larger brain enables him to conjure up desires beyond simple self-preservation, and once we have our basic needs fulfilled, we engage in self-indulgance. This is often accompanied by a feeling of entitlement. "Hey! I'm an American! I should have everything I want. Why should Mr. Rockefeller have caviar, when I have to eat canned tuna?" It's too easy to ignore the fact that much of the world's population has almost nothing to eat.

    I grew up poor, but determined to better myself. Now I am comfortable, except for a nagging sense of guilt for not sharing my hard-won means with other, less fortunate people, outside of my "immediate family/tribe." I rationalize my selfishness by reasoning that I could give away every cent I have and, unless I gave it to just a few people, it would make no difference whatsoever to the world, and it would leave me destitute. For some reason, this "logic" comforts me. I do have "compassion and empathy" for other people, but not enough to do anything about it. I have vast awe and admiration for those more evolved people who DO do something about it, however.

  16. Relativity is powerful in the eye of the Media - and sadly, the ones with the most power are heard above anyone, regardless of the cause they shout about. Sad world we live in.

  17. Good essay. Definitely a lot of food for thought, here.

    I think people are naturally dissatisfied because of our creative nature. Our ability to imagine the world being other than it is has served us well: we've developed our civilization from it. But it means we're always imagining something else, so we're never quite satisfied. Even the Dalai Lama. Heh.

  18. I think self absorption is a modern disease - and the catch phrase you so often hear in life is "me."

    I think also it is a human tendency to think about what they don't have rather than what they do, to search for happiness outside themselves rather than within.

    Something I think if we are honest all of us suffer from to some degree. :)


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