The Pin and The Rubber Band of Happiness
What if I told you that the human pursuit of happiness is absolutely futile? That how happy or unhappy you are right now is dictated not by some objective measure, but rather the result of brain chemistry dictated by your genes? That evolution saw it fit to make us neither too happy nor too unhappy, but instead restless and hungry for more?
This argument comes not out of some fatalistic conviction but because scientific evidence points to the fact that both our baseline happiness and the bounds within which it fluctuates are determined by the chemical balance in our body. Imagine a scale with a pin and a rubber band. Though you can move the rubber band with your finger—depending on how tight the band is—the pin stays where it is your entire life. It may sound incredible because it runs contrary to many of our belief systems. Since childhood, we’re taught that we can live a happy and fulfilling life if we work hard, make great friends, find true love, travel the world, have a successful career, buy a big house, and start a family. No mother has ever said to her child, “This is more or less how you will feel for the rest of your life.”
Have a look at your life. Unless something had gone spectacularly wrong on your way here, chances are that some aspects of your life are your younger self’s dreams come true. And yet, I bet that the dreams fulfilled didn’t make you happy and content but rather became the new norm. These days, your gaze is set on the future, hoping for more. You dream bigger dreams.
Achieving your goals has done nothing to change your brain chemistry or your genes. You are still as happy or unhappy, content or struggling, as you were five years ago because your serotonin levels are what they were five years ago. Your life may be different, but you are still you.
Can you guess where I’m headed with this argument?
To strive for more, to pursue—but never reach—happiness is what being human is all about. It stands to reason that five, fifteen, or fifty years from now—if humanity is still around in 2071—your life will again be in many ways better, but no amount of love, money, fame, success will change the fact that you will still be you.
Personally, I value the power of a positive mindset, but no matter how good or bad things are, after a while, I always default to a mildly unhappy state, restless and searching for meaning. My personal experience has also taught me that dreams look better in a diary than on a to-do list.
But where does this leave us?
Even with the pin stuck stubbornly in place, a Hedonist will try to lead a good life by wagging his finger above the baseline as often as he can.
A Buddhist might find contentment by letting go of the desire to move the pin or make the rubber band any looser or tighter than it is, thus reducing the amount of struggling and suffering in his life.
A Stoic might find satisfaction from understanding his pin and rubber band, thus accepting what is, living comfortably within the bounds and without strain.
There is no single good answer since, ultimately, everyone needs to find their own.
Originally published at https://www.sebastianhetman.com on February 3, 2021.