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The brain, society and the pursuit of happiness The brain, society and the pursuit of happiness
by Joseph Gatt
2021-03-11 10:56:19
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Happiness can be hard to define. I could define happiness as “the absence of threats” and “enjoying a good social reputation.” These are of course abstract notions, but the absence of threats usually means enjoying physical and psychological safety, and enjoying a good social reputation means that you get a “warm reception” from people.

Because social relations are as much about symbols and tokens as they are about body temperature and hormones. If you enjoy a good reputation, people around you are going to be “warm” and that means their body temperature will be slightly elevated in your presence. Your presence will also cause endorphin rushes among your crowd, and that gives you an endorphin rush as well.

brai00001_400_01But then there's competition, and there are threats. The biggest threat to human beings is scarcity of vital resources like food and water and shelter. So in places where food, water and housing is scarce, people start competing for those. Body temperatures drop, people become cold, and there's an overflow of toxic cortisol invading the brain and the body.

In times of food and water and shelter scarcity, feeding yourself and finding food becomes a big threat. But then there are other threats that you have to face, namely that of fighting competitors who are competing for the same food and shelter that you are competing for.

In times of scarcity, reputation becomes important, because those with the better reputation will tend to be rewarded with food and water and shelter. So there starts a game of destroying other people's reputation to eliminate competitors. In some cases it's social media trolling. In other cases it's school bullying or workplace bullying. In other cases it's drama at home.

But in times where food and water and shelter become abundant, that's when pretty much everyone in the community enjoys a good reputation. People tend to cooperate, and good reputation is shared more or less equally.

So food and water and shelter scarcity can pose several social problems. First, there are those who ignore the food and water and shelter scarcity, and the anxiety that comes with it. They want permanent happiness and euphoria, and tend to resort to using narcotics or alcohol or other addiction that enables them to enjoy a false sense of happiness.

Then there are those who fight. Food and water and shelter scarcity means that people in the community are going to be cold, are going to be aggressive. And if you start enjoying a good reputation, they are going to try to destroy that reputation.

Then there are the “cheaters” who try to move forward in the game of reputation. In times of food and water scarcity, all kinds of people will make all kinds of false claims, from claiming to be rich to claiming to be a prophet to claiming to be an inventor, just to move forward in the reputation game so they can enjoy more food and water and shelter.

In times of food and water and shelter scarcity, the winners are usually those who elaborate “Ponzi schemes.” What do I mean by that? They will be leaders, who will promise rewards in exchange for taxes, and the taxes will be used to protect the leader to pay for the protection of the leader. Then those who protect the leader will be protected by other protectors, and the pyramid scheme goes all the way down to large majority of people who pay taxes but who have no one to protect them.

Then of course there are those who try to organize society in ways to enable better yield of food and water and shelter. People tend to be skeptical of their ideas at first, but then, gradually accept their ideas for social organization, especially in times when catastrophe after catastrophe leads to fewer and fewer goods.

A couple of words on the brain. The brain can usually only focus on a few threats at a time. Let's use this example. For school kids, academic performance is a threat, and they have to counter that threat by studying for tests. But then if the kids perform well on tests and get good grades, that's someone else's loaf of bread that those bright kids will be eating. So jealous kids will bully the kid to prevent the kid from getting good grades, and the kid is faced with a double threat: performing well on tests AND fighting the bullies. And the brain can only focus on one big threat at a time, so the kid will usually shift his or her focus on fighting the bullies.

Then you have short-term survival and long-term survival. A lot of people marry each other to solve short-term survival goals. A lot of companies and organizations hire people to solve short-term goals. And the other person who gets married or gets hired thinks they are in it for the long-term.

Let's take two examples. Example one. A company that struggles to make cash has the CEO threaten the entire staff of dismissal if they don't perform well. So the company hires a couple of guys to impress the CEO. Once the CEO goes back to playing golf and no longer threatens the entire team, those two stellar guys who got hired get fired, because mediocre staff does not want star players on its team.

Example two. A girl gets pushed by her parents to get married as soon as possible, to a rich man if possible. Girl seduces all the rich guys, ends up dating a rich kid and quickly marrying the rich kid. Parents no longer nag her about not being married. And the girl waits for the right timing to get rid of the rich guy.

The same thing could be said about society and politics in times of scarcity. Because you need to feed yourself on a daily basis, and can't “fast” for 20 years before you find the solution to food opulence, a lot of policies and decisions will aim for the short-term, even when they have disastrous long-term consequences. An example of that could be a huge tax hike. That will fill the coffers in the short-term, but in the long-term, people will move to Vietnam where taxes are reasonable.

Finally (so much more could be said but I'll stop here) there is what I like to call “fixing part of the problem and claiming to fix the whole problem.” For example, long working hours are not a problem in society. The social problem is when people work long hours and produce absolutely nothing.

So in South Korea and Japan, the problem is people work 16 hours a day and get nothing done. The South Korean government omitted the “getting nothing done” part out of the equation, and focused on the “working long hours” part as the real social problem. So the South Korean government ordered a law limiting the work day to 8 hours (but with no legal punishment for any boss who forces his or her employee to work more than 8 hours).  

So in politics and in society, to gain reputation points, you might claim to have solutions to chronic food, water and shelter shortages, you might use polished language and put on a good show to claim you're solving those chronic food shortages, and people will believe you. When in fact your solutions are faulty at best. But no one notices the logical flaws.

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