Why aren’t Westerners happy?


With minds that think and bodies that move, we humans are well equipped for getting our needs met and our desires fulfilled. In theory, we should spend the majority of our lives in self-satisfied bliss. Instead, ‘the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation’, to quote Henry Thoreau. What are we doing wrong?

As self-determining organisms, our modus operandus is always about getting our needs met. We are always attuned for: opportunity and threat; and we react accordingly. The former utilises our thinking function, the latter both our thinking and our physical functions. The manner in which we react depends on the learned content of our minds (ie, what we understand about the world we inhabit).

The environment we inhabit has two aspects: physical and social. Our interaction in these co-existing environments is shaped by how safe or unsafe we understand/perceive them to be. If we feel safe, we tend to be relaxed; if we feel unsafe, we tend to be vigilant.

Since most of us in the West are pretty comfortable physically, it is our understanding/perception of our social environment that is more of a determining factor re happiness vs suffering.

In the West, our social environment is characterised by a framework of reward (pleasure) and punishment (pain). We chase pleasure and flee pain. Sometimes the two are the same thing; ie, the ‘reward’ is the avoidance of punishment, so that we chase the avoidance of pain rather than seek pleasure – in other words, our pleasure-seeking actions are motivated by expectations of pain (so you can see how sado-masochism gets in, can’t you?). That doesn’t sound like a recipe for happiness, does it?

And it is a perpetual race in the mind of a person conditioned with the reward/punishment matrix of social reality because there is always a reward to be sought and always a punishment to be avoided and this results in a cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof way of being. How do we escape this rat race/merry-go-round/treadmill:? By detaching ourselves from desire for the reward and fear of the punishment.

Children learn how to survive the social environment of their families by managing their own behaviour in order to maximize the opportunities for: getting reward (opportunity for pleasure) and avoiding punishment (threat of pain).

And, rather than their environment being akin to a playground for exploring in the care of loving, protective angels (heaven), the average Western toddler finds themself in an obstacle course for negotiating at the mercy of unpredictable giants who have the habit of mysteriously turning hostile* (hell). The smart toddler susses it is they who are the cause of the hostility (it’s no good explaining about adult stress factors to a toddler) and their response is to figure out what they need to do to prevent attack, and so begins the merry dance designed to control others’ moods. That’s a big ask for a little person, especially if the matrix they have to negotiate is made up of more threats of pain than opportunities for pleasure.

(* This is not unusual in Nature, but we humans have the wherewithal to create a heaven for ourselves and it’s really rather dumb of us to consider such a situation as ‘normal’ and unavoidable – we don’t have to resign ourselves to hell!)

Thus, personal needs for self-fulfilment get ignored or distorted in a constant focus of attention on: DANGER. That is: on SURVIVAL. For most of us, our lives are focused on avoiding or escaping pain, not on seeking and finding pleasure. And, thus, we become varyingly dysfunctional in the utilisation of our self-determination faculties.

That, I believe is what is wrong.

How can we change this state of affairs?: Well, a full explanation of my point of view would require another blog post, but – essentially – it means understanding what has happened to us and UNlearning (or relearning) how to perceive our environment, including our internal environment, so that we can feel differently about it: safe and relaxed instead of unsafe and vigilant*, so that our modus operandi are motivated by a consciousness of pleasurable happiness instead of miserable pain.

(* Okay, so some people are not living in safe environments, however in the West we have the wherewithal to remove ourselves from unsafe environments.)

image: I don’t know the copyright but it came from here and – delightfully – this post is relevant to my post:  http://beyondthedream.co.uk/2013/01/30/you-were-born-happy/




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