Your Happiness Immune System and Set Point

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What I take from this TED talk:

  • Live your life bravely and ethically because, regardless of what happens, a year from now you’re likely to be more or less as happy as you’ve always been.
  • There are two surprising links between an excess of ambition and an excess of fear: (1) both come from the same emotional place (“I’ll be far better off in one future than another”); and (2) both lead to unwise, extreme, and even immoral behavior (“I’ll be far better off in one future than another, and I’ll do anything to avoid a bad fate, including lying, cheating, manipulating, killing, stealing, and being cruel and cowardly“).
  • Once we know that, combined with our human power to map alternative futures in our brains, we also have a compensating happiness set point that alleviates the pangs of bad fates and bad choices, then we can embrace the brave and ethical sides of ourselves more fully.
  • When Scarlett O’Hara declares with rage, in Gone with the Wind–“If I have to lie, steal, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”–she was certainly setting herself up for a life of cowardly and unethical actions–and illustrating the link between the ambitious brain, the fearful brain, and the temptations to cowardice and immorality to which they can bring us.

In short, because less is at stake than we imagine, we can more readily say yes to living a brave and ethical life, and not act like Scarlett O’Hara.

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Three more quick observations:

  • The scientific discovery that each human brain possess an internal Buddha–a happiness set point–brings an interesting dimension to philosophical and theological debates surrounding the problem of suffering and the existence of God: while suffering is real and appears quite excessive in the world–and frequently makes us wince with horror when we are its spectators and not its victims–the individual experience of suffering may not be quite so terrible or traumatizing over the long-term as to make the idea that God exists an outright obscenity. Contra Theodor Adorno, maybe we can write poetry after the Holocaust–and even still believe in God.
  • Might knowledge of the happiness set point itself tempt us to reckless behavior and give us an excuse not to have concern for the unfortunate?
  • Nietzsche would have liked this TED talk, I think, because he argued that suffering is something to embrace, not treat as an evil to be resented and avoided at any cost. It is grist (grain) for the mill of one’s creativity; the lemons for one’s lemonade (so long as those batches of grist and lemons don’t, you know, kill you): “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Nietzsche probably would have also treated his knowledge of a happiness set point in the brain as yet another reason to think “beyond good and evil” and focus instead on his own creative projects, not the happiness of others.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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