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Why I Question Academic Research on Happiness

And you should too

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I spent most of my life in academia, so I know the research process first-hand.  I know how a person can believe in their own objectivity even as they filter their findings through the lens of a belief system. I did it myself.

The belief that unites academia is now known as “critical theory.” It rests on the presumption that “our society is the problem.” If you stay inside this thought framework, you can survive in academia. You can get credentials, funding, and respect. If you violate the presumption that  “our society is the problem,” you are ridiculed and shunned. Critical theory is rarely spoken of directly because anyone who has survived the credentialing process has learned what gets rewarded and what risks career suicide.

When academics study happiness, we get lots of evidence that “our society is the problem.” Of course researchers strive to make useful contributions, but only within the bounds of critical theory. Conscious intent to dissimulate is unnecessary because it seems obvious that “our society is the problem” when the information around you always fits. Let’s see how our knowledge of happiness is shaped by this brand of “critical thinking.” 

Happiness is not valued by critical theory. Unhappiness is valued, as the motivator of change and the glue that binds victims of oppression. The only way to happiness in critical theory is to “fight for change.”  In that context, rage against the machine is useful; contentment is not.  This view lacks appeal to some audiences, so allowances for happiness are made as long as they come from outside “our society.” The pleasures of Denmark, dried seaweed, and the Dalai Lama are welcome relief from the relentless focus on suffering required to be a good person in the eyes of critical theory.

How can academics be sure we’ll all be happy once “our society” is transformed to their liking? They believe nature is all good: animals are good, children are born good, traditional societies are good. So stripping away “our society” is a return to all-good. Research to support this belief is produced in large volume by the social sciences, so conflicting views become unthinkable. Yet we are surrounded by evidence that animals have abundant conflict; unsupervised children have abundant conflict; and traditional societies had abundant conflict. The infelicities of nature, children, and traditional societies are easily documented, but doing so makes you a bad person in the belief system that surrounds us. Few people dare.

Why would so many people of good will bind themselves to a belief system instead of trusting their own observations? Like a drug, critical theory stimulates positive brain chemistry in the short run, even as it impairs you in the long run. Dopamine is stimulated when you expect a reward, and critical theory builds huge expectations about the rewards of “social change.” Oxytocin is stimulated when mammals find safety in numbers, and critical theory builds the impression of solidarity among millions of victims of the bad system. Serotonin is stimulated when you feel superior, and critical theory assures you of moral superiority if you oppose “our society.” Endorphin is only stimulated by physical pain, but artificial endorphin (opium derivatives) is viewed as a reasonable response to “our flawed society” by critical theory. If things go badly for you once you start taking drugs, it’s not your fault: our society is the problem.

Essential facts about happiness are ignored when your attention is focused on “our society.” The brain chemicals that make us happy are inherited from earlier animals. They evolved to reward behaviors that promote survival, not to flow all the time. We’ve inherited a brain designed to make you feel good when you take steps toward meeting your needs. After each step, your happy chemicals dip and you have to do more to get more.

In short, bad feelings are not evidence that something is wrong with our society and our world. Bad feelings are key to nature’s operating system. A bad feeling motivates you to take steps to promote your survival in order to feel good. It’s easy to see how this works in animals because they don’t expect social policies to bring effortless happiness.

Dopamine surges when a lion sees a gazelle within reach, and a monkey climbs toward ripe fruit. Dopamine makes you feel good when you expect to meet a need. Then it dips so it is ready to turn on again when you see another way to meet a need. Critical theory asserts that capitalism causes our focus on our own needs. It insists that good feelings only come from meeting the needs of others, and we should expect our own needs to be met by “our society.” Thus, academic research ignores dopamine, except in the disease context such as schizophrenia, addiction, or Parkinson’s. It even ignores the obvious fact that self interest is the goal of the brain built by natural selection. I am not saying we should focus on narrow self-interest and refuse to cooperate. I am saying it’s hard work to manage this brain we’ve inherited, and that work is undermined by misrepresentations.

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Serotonin spurts when a monkey asserts itself socially, whether in pursuit of a mango, a mating opportunity, or a more desirable position in the troop’s seating arrangement. Serotonin makes you feel good when you gain a one-up position. We often hate to see this in ourselves, though we easily see it in others. Animals curb their assertions because conflict leads to fatal injuries in the state of nature. But a creature who never asserted would not keep its genes alive. Natural selection built a brain that continually compares its strength to those around it, and rewards you with serotonin when you do what it takes to survive.  The mammal brain alarms you with a bad feeling when you see the critter next to you get the one-up position. I’m not saying we should obsess over getting ahead; I’m saying we do obsess over it, and we can control it better when we know why. Critical theory blames capitalism for this impulse, but it strives to inflame this animal urge instead of teaching us how to moderate it. Academics promise constant happiness in the world of equality they propose, but the flaws in that belief are obvious if you study the history of revolutions, practical experience with cooperative living, decades of research on social dominance in animals, and the in-fighting among academics and social-change advocates. But studying the flaws of the “critical” view gets you ridiculed and shunned by “educated” people.

Oxytocin flows when a gazelle is surrounded by its herd or a monkey grooms a troop-mate. Oxytocin is often called the “love chemical” or the “bonding hormone” because it makes you feel safe in the company of trusted others. You can relax and lower your guard when surrounded by a herd because the burden of vigilance is spread over many eyes and ears. But life in a herd is not all warm and fuzzy. Bigger herd-mates shove you away from desirable rewards. You long to take off for greener pastures, but your oxytocin falls when you distance yourself from the herd, and your mammal brain makes you feel like your survival is threatened. The greater the predator threat, the more tightly mammals stick together despite the inevitable internal conflict. It’s easy to see how humans strengthen social bonds by pointing at common enemies. Oxytocin causes the kind of in-group/out-group behavior we know so well from history and personal observation. Critical theory applauds social bonding and blames “our society” when the oxytocin urge turns ugly. Yet academics rely heavily on accusations about predatory bad guys to cement social bonds. Of course I am not advocating in-group/out-group behavior; I am advocating emotional honesty about it.

Endorphin creates a euphoria that masks pain, which helps an injured animal run for its life. Endorphin only lasts for a few minutes because pain is essential survival information. A cave man who broke his leg had a few minutes of oblivion to seek help, and then the pain would inform him to protect his injury. We evolved to feel our pain, not to mask it with oblivion. The brain is designed to anticipate pain in order to avoid it, and the bigger the brain, the more distant pain it can anticipate. We humans can construct internal threat singals that feel real enough to trigger cortisol, the chemical that alerts animals to external threats. But you don’t get endorphin just from thinking about pain. As a result, our efforts to avoid pain leave us full of cortisol. Distraction can relieve it by interrupting the internal activation. Distraction cannot protect you from a real lion, but if you’ve imagined a lion, a distractor gives you the great feeling that you’ve saved your life. This is why consciousness-altering habits are so appealing. Animals do not have consciousness-altering habits because they die if distracted from real needs and threats. Humans can have survival-threatening habits when our needs are met by others. 

You have inherited a brain that makes you feel good when you step toward your needs. Critical theory undermines those steps by training you to see yourself as a victim of forces beyond your control. In the short run, it’s comforting to hear that nothing is your fault. It feels good to blame your frustrations on “the system,” your genes, or other people’s “insensitivity.” But in the long run, it feels bad to believe you are powerless except when you “fight the power.” Oppositionalism actually decreases your power by locking you into a position determined by your adversary instead of weighing your best course for yourself. When the disempowerment of critical theory leaves you miserable, academics offer two solutions: engage in political action or “get help.” Both solutions keep you focused on other people’s power instead of your own. Indeed, academics now insist that free will is an illusion. They believe you are powerless, except when engaged in political action. This view empowers political actors, but it is not a path to mental health for them or for you.

I’m not saying it’s all your fault and you should blame yourself for everything. I’m saying you don’t need to keep score. If you are bitter about the advantages you presume in the lives of others, you might someday discover that their lives are as hard as yours, and by then you would have wasted years in bitterness. Defaulting to anger at “the system” does you no good.

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You may be wondering how a theory you’ve barely heard of could wield so much power over the information available to you. A few facts about the brain’s information-processing equipment are illuminating. The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. When your electricity flows easily through your well-developed pathways, you have the sense that you know what is going on. Inputs that fit these pathways feel true because electricity flows effortlessly, not because you’ve applied logical rigor. You can redirect your electricity to different neural pathway, but that takes a huge energy investment. And you feel unsafe when you depart from your old neural pathways because they were built from real experience with rewards and pain, and because the effort depletes the bandwidth you have to scan for potential threats. This is why we’re inclined to “go with the flow” and trust our old neural pathways when they light up.

How your old pathways got there is fascinating. We are all born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. Those connections build from repetition and emotion. Repetition builds pathways slowly as synapses develop and strengthen. Emotion builds pathways quickly because the brain is designed to learn from rewards and pain. But the super-highways of your brain are built in youth, because that’s when your brain has a lot of myelin, the fatty substance that coats neurons the way insulation coats a wire. Myelin makes neurons super-fast conductors of electricity. Whatever you experienced repeatedly and emotionally in your youth built the superhighways of your brain.

If a teacher tells a young person they are a victim of powerful forces beyond their control, this flows in easily because it fits a child’s reality. Teachers can be popular with students by propounding the “it’s not your fault” view of life. Political leaders can be popular with young people by propounding the “fight the man” view of life. This does not necessarily help the young person or “our society,” but it helps the teachers and politicians who embrace the strategy. Critical theory comes easily to young people and gets built into the brain through the rewards and repetition of education, entertainment, and journalism. 

Research bias is subtle.  Academics praise the methodology of studies that fit the “our society” template, and they critique the methodology of findings that fail to support the belief system. It all sounds like a polite discourse on methods, but it succeeds at filtering your information.

I have trained myself to question studies that fit the mold. Like anyone else, I would rather blame my problems on external forces, and I would rather have the protection of the herd.  But I give myself permission to see what I see and feel what I feel instead of giving my power to a belief system. I know it’s better for me in the long run. (I could say it’s better for “our society,” but then I’d be projecting my feelings onto "the system" instead of taking responsibility for them.)

It’s hard to trust your own perceptions when those who generate the studies have expert status. But once you see the pattern in the information they give you, you may be inspired to invest energy in alternatives.

Perhaps you’ve read this far and think, “but our society IS the problem” or “I AM a victim of unjust powers.” It’s hard to think otherwise once those neural pathways are formed. Here’s a thought experiment to illuminate. Imagine you drive over the speed limit and get caught. A police officer pulls you over and you think “This is so unfair. Everyone was speeding. I just got caught.” Critical theory trains you to start with the blame and back into the facts. If you consider alternatives, you realize that you benefit from living in a place where speed limits are enforced. Perhaps you’ve exceeded the speed limit many times and didn’t get caught, which caused you to miscalculate the risk. Now you’re stuck with a flawed prediction model, which feels scary. It’s easy to blame law enforcement for that fear. Instead, you could tell yourself, “Traffic police cannot catch every speeder, but once I make the decision to speed, I volunteer for the penalty. It would be nice to live in a world where speed limits are enforced against others but not against me, but that’s not a realistic expectation. I can just be happy there are limits to reckless driving.”

It’s comforting to think “it’s the system’s fault,” but that’s the child’s view of life, and it limits your adult power. Your energy is better invested in managing your brain than in fighting enemies defined by a theory.

More on this in my new book, The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry