Friday, March 1, 2019

On Sustainable Happiness

It was a wonderful synchronicity that the day I gave a sermon about how consumerism has given us all a skewed sense of where happiness comes from that we also , in our environmental justice class happened to watch 'The Story of Stuff'

It will take you 20 mins and some of the info is dated now, but it's certainly worth the watch.  And in our discussion afterward, many of us noted the parallels in messages.

For me, something very interesting happened:  Rather than feel pounded down by the heaviness of our environmental crisis like I often am when I watch these sort of videos, I felt motivated and inspired.

I felt this way because I had just given a talk the same morning with the main take-away being that happiness is actually not increased by more "stuff".  It's not just a religious thing, or something that meditators will tell you, it's a fact borne out by research.  There is a type of happiness ("hedonia") that comes from the thrill of novelty or consumption, but when left unchecked, that type of happiness can actually lead more toward addiction than fulfillment.  There is another type of happiness ("eudaimonia") that is somehow more pervasive and fulfilling, which comes from our connections with others and our sense of meaning in our lives.

The Sunday sermon links these types of happiness to aspects of the neurotransmitters Dopamine and Serotonin, and you can watch it here:

What inspired me was reflecting on how people just don't know this.  Here we are destroying our only planet to the tune of power accumulation for the wealthiest, and we don't know that this won't make us happy!  Our possessions, waste, and things-to-do accumulate every year, but our happiness decreases.  So if we look, we'll find that all we're doing is trading the delicate balance of the ecosystem that keeps us alive, for unsatisfying addictions.

The main take-away from my talk (in case you haven't time to watch it) is that we're regularly accepting analogues for real happiness.  We take something that looks like happiness, but just provides us momentary stimulation and no long-term satisfaction.  It's much like how sugar tricks the brain into rewarding you as if you're being nourished, but actually leads to ongoing craving for more sugar - and deleterious health effects downstream.

When you combine this knowledge with that presented in the 'Story of Stuff', showing how the cost of this constant consumption is outsourced to the most marginalized communities, you can start to see how this is not only self-destructive, but ethically deplorable.  In exchange for the Christmas-morning feeling of buying something new, we destroy the homes of people and animals in the "Third World", where extractive policies chew up cultures and people.  Perhaps we'll wake up as global climate change brings some of the issues home to "first world" consumers.

But why exactly does this inspire me?  It sounds pretty depressing!  I'm inspired because I understand that we humans all just want to be happy.  The reason we're in the situation we're in economically, environmentally, politically, is because we want to be happy.  But we've let our reward circuitry be hacked and accepted addiction to consumption in exchange for real happiness.  But real happiness is available!  That's the good news.  In my talk I mentioned how the dopamine-reward "hedonic" type happiness is not a bad thing, it just needs to be balanced out by the serotonin-contentment type happiness that comes from a sense of meaning and connection.  Eating a good meal, having a delicious coffee, crushing it at your job, these are all fulfilling in the short term, and what staves off the feelings of depression and isolation that might come in the long term is having a sense of purpose, a group of good friends, a code of ethics.

The great news is that the "eudaimonic" happiness of connection and meaning is pretty much free!  I mean, it's not great news for advertisers and colonial war-machines, but it's great news for the rest of us and for our planet earth!  Because it means that if we figured this out, we could drastically cut the waste we produce, the natural resources we consume, and the harm we inflict - with no loss of happiness.  The research shows our happiness would actually increase!

So what do we do?  Well, today I'm writing a blog about it, because I see the big problem as people's ignorance about where happiness comes from.  There's an entire advertisement machine built to keep the church of consumerism running and funded, but there's little information about how to hold one's loved ones close, create beloved community, meditate, and garden - and how these things are the real cause of the satisfied feelings we want.  I believe this information needs to be out there - I believe that the revolution we need starts from within, with our priorities and worldview.  I believe that if we start this conversation it can only lead us in a good way!  What do YOU believe?