An Excerpt from Sapiens

10 Nov 2016

I recently read the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind and I found it really enjoyable. It delves into how we, as humans, got here. One excerpt really stood out to me, so I’m keeping it here as a reminder of lessons I’ve learned in the past. It reminds me that throughout all human history, we have come up with elaborate systems and ideologies (like religions and politics) to trick ourselves into happiness.

If happiness is based on feeling pleasant sensations, then in order to be happier we need to re-engineer our biochemical system. If happiness is based on feeling that life is meaningful, then in order to be happier we need to delude ourselves more effectively. Is there a third alternative?

Both the above views share the assumption that happiness is some sort of subjective feeling (of either pleasure or meaning), and that in order to judge people’s happiness, all we need to do is ask them how they feel. To many of us, that seems logical because the dominant religion of our age is liberalism. Liberalism sanctifies the subjective feelings of individuals. It views these feelings as the supreme source of authority. What is good and what is bad, what is beautiful and what is ugly, what ought to be and what ought not to be, are all determined by what each one of us feels.

Liberal politics is based on the idea that the voters know best, and there is no need for Big Brother to tell us what is good for us. Liberal economics is based on the idea that the customer is always right. Liberal art declares that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Students in liberal schools and universities are taught to think for themselves. Commercials urge us to ‘Just do it!’ Action films, stage dramas, soap operas, novels and catchy pop songs indoctrinate us constantly: ‘Be true to yourself’, ‘Listen to yourself’, ‘Follow your heart’. Jean-Jacques Rousseau stated this view most classically: ‘What I feel to be good – is good. What I feel to be bad – is bad.’

People who have been raised from infancy on a diet of such slogans are prone to believe that happiness is a subjective feeling and that each individual best knows whether she is happy or miserable. Yet this view is unique to liberalism. Most religions and ideologies throughout history stated that there are objective yardsticks for goodness and beauty, and for how things ought to be. They were suspicious of the feelings and preferences of the ordinary person. At the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, pilgrims were greeted by the inscription: ‘Know thyself!’ The implication was that the average person is ignorant of his true self, and is therefore likely to be ignorant of true happiness. Freud would probably concur.

And so would Christian theologians. St Paul and St Augustine knew perfectly well that if you asked people about it, most of them would prefer to have sex than pray to God. Does that prove that having sex is the key to happiness? Not according to Paul and Augustine. It proves only that humankind is sinful by nature, and that people are easily seduced by Satan. From a Christian viewpoint, the vast majority of people are in more or less the same situation as heroin addicts. Imagine that a psychologist embarks on a study of happiness among drug users. He polls them and finds that they declare, every single one of them, that they are only happy when they shoot up. Would the psychologist publish a paper declaring that heroin is the key to happiness?

The idea that feelings are not to be trusted is not restricted to Christianity. At least when it comes to the value of feelings, even Darwin and Dawkins might find common ground with St Paul and St Augustine. According to the selfish gene theory, natural selection makes people, like other organisms, choose what is good for the reproduction of their genes, even if it is bad for them as individuals. Most males spend their lives toiling, worrying, competing and fighting, instead of enjoying peaceful bliss, because their DNA manipulates them for its own selfish aims. Like Satan, DNA uses fleeting pleasures to tempt people and place them in its power.

Most religions and philosophies have consequently taken a very different approach to happiness than liberalism does. The Buddhist position is particularly interesting. Buddhism has assigned the question of happiness more importance than perhaps any other human creed. For 2,500 years, Buddhists have systematically studied the essence and causes of happiness, which is why there is a growing interest among the scientific community both in their philosophy and their meditation practices.

Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes occurring within one’s body, and not from events in the outside world. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions.

According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with pleasant feelings, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel, craving to experience more and more pleasures, while avoiding pain. Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether scratching our leg, fidgeting slightly in the chair, or fighting world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings.

The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment, like the ocean waves. If five minutes ago I felt joyful and purposeful, now these feelings are gone, and I might well feel sad and dejected. So if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them, while driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again, without ever getting any lasting reward for my troubles.

What is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises? According to Buddhism, the root of suffering is neither the feeling of pain nor of sadness nor even of meaninglessness. Rather, the real root of suffering is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings, which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, restlessness and dissatisfaction. Due to this pursuit, the mind is never satisfied. Even when experiencing pleasure, it is not content, because it fears this feeling might soon disappear, and craves that this feeling should stay and intensify.

People are liberated from suffering not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, but rather when they understand the impermanent nature of all their feelings, and stop craving them. This is the aim of Buddhist meditation practices. In meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them. When the pursuit stops, the mind becomes very relaxed, clear and satisfied. All kinds of feelings go on arising and passing – joy, anger, boredom, lust – but once you stop craving particular feelings, you can just accept them for what they are. You live in the present moment instead of fantasising about what might have been.

The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!

This idea is so alien to modern liberal culture that when Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into liberal terms, thereby turning them on their head. New Age cults frequently argue: ‘Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside. People should stop pursuing external achievements such as wealth and status, and connect instead with their inner feelings.’ Or more succinctly, ‘Happiness Begins Within.’ This is exactly what biologists argue, but more or less the opposite of what Buddha said.

Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings.