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Life Arts    H3'ed 11/18/19

How much of our thinking about happiness is culture-bound?

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"For most of human history, life was solitary, poor, brutish, nasty, and short"Food was scarce; health was poor; a day of work was long, and when you got up in the morning, your entire To-do list was trying not to die today."
- Daniel Gilbert, in a World Minds video

".And yet, by the close of the colonial period, very few if any Indians had been transformed into civilized Englishmen. Most of the Indians who were educated by the English-some contemporaries thought all of them-returned to Indian society at the first opportunity to resume their Indian identities. On the other hand, large numbers of Englishmen had chosen to become Indians-by running away from colonial society to join Indian society, by not trying to escape after being captured, or by electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded them the opportunity to return home.
- James Axtell

[Benjamin Franklin told a story about this, but Google won't find it for me. Perhaps you will comment below if you can locate it. Thanks!]

Daniel Gilbert may be the world's foremost expert on happiness, but the picture he paints of the lives of hunter-gatherers is badly out of step with what anthropologists have learned from present-day hunter-gatherers in New Guinea, South America and Africa. More basically, his recommendations are valid only within the context of modern Western society, and, even his concept of happiness seems culture-bound.


Before agriculture, people were less numerous and more dispersed. Food was plentiful, and on average, pre-agricultural peoples spent much less time than we spend obtaining the necessities of life. More important, their work was not onerous or demeaning. They didn't have to stuff down resentment of the boss or frustration with traffic. Can we even imagine what it would be like not to be alienated from our work, to experience no separation between what we are moved to do from moment to moment and those activities that support our existence? Maybe happiness is feeling whole, feeling integration between what we find it natural to do and what sustains ourselves and our communities.


(Image by AfricanExponent.com)   Details   DMCA

It may be that the Native Americans were not hunter-gatherers but engineers and stewards of a rich and completely sustainable ecosystem, which they maintained almost effortlessly with well-timed fires and plantings of fruit trees and food plants in synergistic combinations, within natural ecosystems. While the Europeans developed expertise in the short-term efficiency of monoculture, American Natives were wisely intuitive ecologists, experts in a traditional brand of permaculture. I have heard this often enough that I begin to believe it.

Gilbert's reference to the "to-do" list is just a quip, of course, but it betrays his prejudice that ties happiness to activities of some particular types. He imagines that because pre-agricultural people were less secure against weather and disease they must have lived in fear. But the opposite is almost certainly true. It is we whose cortisol levels are chronically high, we who live in anxiety about whether we will lose our jobs and our homes, we who listen every day to reports of random, insane violence, and perk up our ears when the terrorist threat level goes from red to orange and back to red.

To Thomas Hobbes's famous "nasty, brutish, and short", Gilbert curiously adds the adjective "solitary". He knows from his data that lonely is miserable, and relationship is the most important factor in individual happiness. But he doesn't seem to know that Western culture has torn us asunder, framed our relationships as transactions in a zero-sum game, and devalued the cooperative relationships that contribute so much to a fulfilling life. He doesn't seem aware that contemporary America is the most pathologically individualistic, isolating, alienated culture in the history of humankind.

We live in a transactional economy, carrying the existential fear that maybe we have nothing to offer, or that tomorrow's robot will make us obsolete. Our forebears lived in the grace of a caring extended family, in which a place was assured for everyone without calculation of the balance between what they offered and what they received. We live on an earth that we are transforming into products in a one-way dive toward global ecosystem collapse. They lived as animals in nature, trusting the bounty of Mother Gaia to provide their needs. We have power and control. They had faith and relationship.

We live under the shadow of a belief that our precious selves are products of the nerve impulses in our brains, and that oblivion awaits us when those nerves cease to fire. They knew (instinctively and culturally) that the short lives of their bodies are woven into nature's cycles, and that their core awareness will cycle into another birth and yet another.

More speculatively, hunter-gatherers had senses which, in us, have fallen into disuse. We have learned to focus on the outer five senses, shutting out, suppressing or fearing mystical experiences, out of tune with our intuitions and the transpersonal messages that animals and less "civilized" humans experience every day. Gilbert knows that people are happier when they are surrounded by nature, because it has been documented and quantified (most famously by Gilbert's Harvard colleague, E.O. Wilson, who popularized the term Biophioia). But does any one of us know-can we even begin to imagine-an unshakable sense of wellbeing that is deeply grounded in a life in communion with nature?

Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreath├Ęd horn.

- Wordsworth wrote this in 1802! What would he make of the alienation which we routinely tolerate today?

Our Western culture and the science that undergirds it have brought us knowledge and a richness of possibilities unimaginable to our ancestors; but I would not count happiness among the boons of a 21st Century Western lifestyle.

 

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Josh Mitteldorf, a senior editor at OpEdNews, blogs on aging at http://JoshMitteldorf.ScienceBlog.com. Read how to stay young at http://AgingAdvice.org.
Educated to be an astrophysicist, he has branched out from there to mathematical (more...)
 

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Meryl Ann Butler

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Great article, thanks, Josh! The book that opened my understanding to the fact that progress might actually be regress is The Continuum Concept by Jeanne Liedloff, have you read it?

Submitted on Monday, Nov 18, 2019 at 2:23:12 PM

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nelswight

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Josh, you and I (and all those others) have been looking for

Happiness, perhaps even Diogenes with his lantern. At times

we may have discovered Mr, GoodBar, likely not in the right

locus. Too often we accept triviality, never really achieving

the playful jocularity we enjoyed when children. I'm still

looking expectantly here on my farm (but the table corn

didn't make it to maturuty this year). C'est la vie!

Oh, thanks, too, for the good view w/Wordsworth's howl!

Submitted on Monday, Nov 18, 2019 at 4:12:38 PM

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And just remember Jonestown, Guyana, coming up for its 41st anniversary.

Did we call it Kool-aid Massacre or 900+ Suicide? I met the son/nephew

of the two brother undertakers from Georgetown who worked at cleaning up

the putrefaction in Jonestown. I wonder who reached Nirvana then; this fellow Bob I worked with in Anchorage (we called him 'The Black Prince')

doubted if any made it; in 1979, he and his wife left Guyana and came to Alaska.

(sorry to interfere in your soliloquy)

Submitted on Monday, Nov 18, 2019 at 4:31:17 PM

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Al Hirschfield

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Yes, really terrific, Josh. I always wondered why the Neanderthals' brains were bigger than ours. An odd kind of "evolution" I would think. And they managed to survive 800,000 years, while we're already trying to figure how to not wipe ourselves out.

Just the other day I happened upon a spot on the Delaware where we are told that thousands of years ago, many different Native American tribes would assemble each year for a few days, before moving on to a trek up the river to (what are now) various cities. The moment I found myself on that beach, I could quite distinctly feel the unique, peaceful and quite sacred energy that permeated this particular spot. I could well understand how ancient peoples would be drawn there and feel compelled to remain until "further instructed." I experienced (to a relatively limited degree) an actual shedding of a lot of 21st century baggage and had a (however brief) insight into what life must have seemed like under pre-modern technological circumstances. A kind of primordial integration of nature, body and spirit. But the fact of the matter is that we can't go back, and probably shouldn't have to want to. I'm convinced that there is a way of integrating all of our technological advances with the truest sense of our basically spiritual natures. There are an awful lot of people working on just this right now, and I think we shall prevail in the long run.

Thanks again for a wonderfully thought provoking piece!

Submitted on Monday, Nov 18, 2019 at 6:15:13 PM

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Stan Crawford

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"American Natives were wisely intuitive ecologists, experts in a traditional brand of permaculture." When native tribes got together for Social PowWows,the game in the vicinity was obliterated, the flora trampled and vegetation stripped for fires. It would sometimes take years for areas to repair the damage done. In some places wood was carried over 10 miles due to deforestation in the 4-Corners area before much of it was abandoned.

Buffalo herds were run over cliffs, to wipe out the entire group, and many instances of meat left to rot from the overkill. The lifestyle of Native American's had much less impact upon the environment, but to say they lived in "harmony" with nature is mistaken.

As for happiness, I have seen western kids become upset that they did not receive the toy they desired, throwing tantrums that defy the reason. I have seen kids in 3rd world conditions be most content with a stick and hoop, pushing along the ground for hours to the thrill of laughter. I think one is conditioned by their surroundings to be happy, with the majority of westerners seeking happiness through material possessions and those without the means finding happiness in less intrinsic value items and situations. Thankful my happiness does not need much money or others to fulfill it.

Submitted on Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019 at 1:32:31 PM

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Josh Mitteldorf

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Stan - Thanks for the counterpoint on Native Americans' relationship to nature. None of our simple stories does justice to the richly complexity of the real world. There were many tribes, spread over two continents. It's likely their cultures varied even more than the different cultures of Europe or Asia.

Submitted on Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019 at 3:19:52 PM

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Al Hirschfield

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Reply to Stan Crawford:   New Content

I wouldn't doubt that our image of Native Americans might be somewhat idealized. But it's probably also a mistake characterize and entire race by individual excesses. We're all only human, and no one is (or probably even required to be) perfect. George Washington owned slaves, Aristotle thought insects were created from mud and Socrates walked funny. But that doesn't mean they were bad and stupid.

To say that Native Americans were living out of touch with nature because some occasionally ran buffalo off cliffs I think is simply not grasping the much bigger picture.

Submitted on Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019 at 5:19:01 PM

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Reply to Al Hirschfield:   New Content

"To say that Native Americans were living out of touch with nature" That was not said, the article presumed Native American's were in harmony with nature. I was just pointing out that they also had their excesses that took nature years to restore.

Submitted on Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019 at 6:57:25 PM

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Al Hirschfield

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Reply to Stan Crawford:   New Content

To be frank, your comment didn't say anything about "excesses", and certainly gave the impression that the whole notion of their living in harmony with nature was a myth. But thank you for the clarification.

Submitted on Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019 at 8:59:51 PM

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"And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? none is good, save one, that is, God".

Luke 18:19


And I'm Jewish...

Submitted on Tuesday, Nov 19, 2019 at 5:27:48 PM

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