Norwegian biologist Bjørn Grinde is a “happy” guy. I’ve never met him, so I don’t know how happy he is person. But he’s given a lot of thought to the topic, and he believes that happiness should be the ultimate goal in everybody’s life.
To live a happy life, Grinde says, you need to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. He doesn’t mean that you should shirk responsibility and gratify every impulse. Quite to the contrary, he acknowledges that self-indulgence often leads to more pain than it's worth. And there’s no use in self-denial, as that only leads to lots of pain and little pleasure. Instead, the goal should be contentment.
This view of a good life hearkens back to the Ancient Greek philosophers. Aristotle distinguished two types of happiness. One he called hedonia, meaning sensual pleasure. Hedonism, or the pursuit of sensual experiences, can certainly be pleasurable for a time, but inevitably it leads to even greater misery. Good food, good wine, and good sex are all components of a happy life. But taken in excess, they lead to overweight and diabetes, hangovers and memory loss, STDs and unwanted pregnancies. Instead, Aristotle advocated for eudaimonia. This is the inner joy that’s obtained from pleasant companionship, learning new things, and being productive in life.
Grinde is a biologist specializing in the evolution of the nervous system. Clearly, he knows far more about the brain than Aristotle did. But Grinde says Aristotle was onto something that neuroscientists are just now coming to understand.
As you go through your day, your mood is constantly fluctuating. A coworker gives you a compliment, and you feel a flicker of pleasure. Later, you make a faux pas, and you feel a twinge of pain. Oftentimes you don’t even notice these vacillations of feeling. Nevertheless, they’re always there, running in the background and motivating your behavior.
We humans experience a wide array of emotions, but they’re all built from two basic affective states. On the one hand, we experience a positive state, or pleasure, when we’ve done something good for ourselves—that is, from an evolutionary perspective. In a sense, our brain rewards itself for making the right decision, and this reward then increases the chance that the brain will choose this behavior again in the future.
On the other hand, we experience a negative state, or pain, when we’ve done something that wasn’t good for us. We often think of pain as a signal that we’ve done damage to our bodies. For example, you touch a hot stove, feel pain, and pull your hand away. But Grinde points out that you pull your hand away even before you consciously feel the pain. Rather, the experience of pain comes afterward, to teach you an important lesson: “Don’t touch the stove!” Thanks to the stern taskmaster that is pain, you only have to burn yourself once to learn never to burn yourself again.
Grinde views pain and pleasure as two dials that the brain turns up or down. So what do you get when pain is dialed relatively low and pleasure relatively high? Contentment. In fact, Grinde maintains, contentment is the brain’s default state—not too much pain, not too much pleasure.
If this is true, then we should all expect to be content most of the time. And when humans live in their natural state, they generally are content. Modern humans evolved from a line of hunter-gatherer hominids going back some two million years. Obviously we can’t know directly about the emotional states of our Paleolithic ancestors, but we have observed everyday life in the few hunter-gatherer societies left on the planet.
Hunter-gatherers are generally content in their lives. They work hard for a living, but it isn’t drudgery. Some days are not so good—the failed hunt, nothing but bland roots and tubers for supper. And some days are great—plenty of meat for everyone, with berries and honey for dessert. They have their sorrows and joys. But they aren’t hedonistic: The environment simply doesn’t present sufficient opportunity to overindulge on a regular basis.
There’s also an exceedingly low rate of pathological depression and anxiety among hunter-gatherers. So what accounts for the high rates of psychological disorders we find in modern society? As Grinde and many other evolutionary scientists point out, we no longer live according to our nature. That is, we evolved for life on the African savannah, but we now live in concrete jungles.
The answer isn’t that we should all revert to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. As Grinde points out, there’s just too many of us now to do that. Besides, modern civilization has its perks. The key then is to find a way to meet our human needs within the new environment we’ve created for ourselves. This means getting plenty of exercise, eating a healthy diet, enjoying the company of family and friends, and avoiding stress as much as possible.
It also means not overindulging in the hedonistic pleasures that abound in modern life. You don’t need to be on your cell phone while you’re driving—it’s just too stressful. And do you need to drive those few blocks to the store, or could you walk and get some exercise?
In the end, we’re faced today with the same question Aristotle asked 25 centuries ago. Do we choose hedonia, chasing after short-term sensual pleasures that lead to long-term misery? Or do we aim for eudaimonia, finding contentment in the simple pleasures that make life worthwhile?
Grinde, B. (2016). The Evolution of Consciousness: Implications for Mental Health and Quality of Life. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.