The Real Meaning of Happiness
During the aftermath of the Terror Attacks in Paris there have been several TV programs presenting panels of experts, including psychologists, attempting to explain the reasons why young men from Europe or America join ISIS. The obvious reason, for most of the media, is that they are psychopathic killers with a lust for power and mayhem. That is true for the fanatic leaders and many of their immediate followers but the surprising explanation, however, is that the general recruits are joining in pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. Yes, you heard me right, happiness.
To understand how this works we have to look at the definition of happiness and figure out what happiness really is.
The meaning of words change over the centuries but modern words are changing faster than we, as a society, can keep up. I look at words we use every day and realize that in some cases we are using words incorrectly. Happiness and Teaching are two of these misunderstood words. Technically the dictionary meaning still applies but it is the context in which the words are presently being used that confuses the true meaning or intent of the meaning. I am using these two words as examples because in any definition of each of these words they must be explained together in context of each other. And only together can you understand the real reason many young men are throwing their lives away for all the wrong reasons.
We are all familiar with the United States Declaration of Independence including the phrase Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
The phrase gives three examples of the “unalienable rights” which the Declaration says has been given to all human beings by their Creator, and for which governments are created to protect.
To a select few of the philosophers of Thomas Jefferson’s day these three things went together although happiness was sometimes implied by making the third tenet the Protection of Property. The implication being that if you had property (wealth and/or estate) you could live comfortably and be happy. What Jefferson realized was that this tenet (argued by John Locke) excluded most of the American citizens of the time. All men could not be considered equal if only those who owned property could realize happiness. What Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin both understood, moreover, was that owning property (wealth and/or estate) did not make someone happy. So what makes us happy?
The Instinct to Point
Studies in sociology prove that human toddlers (age 1-4) instinctively try to teach others and that they experience joy in doing so. Although animals and humans both learn by association and observation, only humans instinctively teach. Kittens can mimic their mothers to learn how to climb trees. Mother Bears can force their cubs to climb a tree or show them how to climb a tree but they don’t teach them. Kittens and cubs climb instinctively.
Humans do not have the instinctive ability to climb trees but they have the instinctive desire and ability to teach. We can be taught to climb a tree. I know because I taught my preschool-age sister to climb a tree. I enjoyed the experience of teaching my little sister something new although I didn’t enjoy the earful I got because I didn’t know to teach her how to get down again. Bear cubs don’t need to be taught how to climb down a tree but humans do. I believe she was up there for a while.
How do you know when a toddler is trying to teach you something? They point. Humans are the only animals that point with the aim of teaching. Not to be confused with pointing for the purpose of showing someone that you desire something. Chimpanzees and Bongos can learn to point – usually to sources of food. Toddlers, however, use declarative pointing with the intention of showing you something either new or different; like a new puppy in the room.
Having you discover the object of their attention (not the object of their desire) brings toddlers joy. Not because they got something for themselves but because they discovered something for you. They pointed to teach you something. They will lose interest, however, if you don’t react with a declarative statement. They expect a response. They expect you to say “Well look at that. It’s a puppy!” Declarative pointing is a form of human communication and toddlers expect you to interact in both the learning and the teaching process.
The Joy of Teaching
In addition to the development of speech and language, teaching was essential in human evolution because of the amount of information a human needs to survive. The ability to communicate together with the joy of teaching and learning enabled humans to happily pass on information on how to control crops such as wheat, squash, potatoes, rice, barley and corn and domesticate animals such as dogs, cattle, sheep, chickens, horses, pigs, goats and eventually rats. (Cats were never truly domesticated but alternatively learned to live among domesticated humans but I won’t get into that.) Without any of the above (except for cats) we would not have civilization.
Our evolutionary ability to teach created the tipping point in our growing society – from extended families, to towns, to cities, to city states and now nations – that enabled humans to populate and exploit almost the entire surface of the world.
My point (excuse the pun) with the word teach then is that we can only really use it when it applies to human endeavors and that it implies an instinctual desire for humans to bring joy to someone else. Teaching is win-win scenario where the teacher experiences altruistic joy from teaching and the student experiences joy from learning.
In my tree-climbing-sister experience both my mother and my sister remember the experience as being positive. It was a thing of joy to be celebrated and therein lays the path to happiness: teaching and learning.
The Pursuit of Pleasure
In the pursuit of happiness people often misinterpret the meaning to be In the Pursuit of Pleasure. Happiness is not synonymous with pleasure. Pleasure is what you get from experiencing something sensual. Happiness is what you get from experiencing something cognitive or what most people associate with the term spiritual. (Spiritual is another misunderstood word and in this context is not associated with religious spirituality but cognitive realization.) Remember, happiness comes from learning something new and from teaching someone something new.
You can experience pleasure from the rush of chocolate’s love drug (phenylethlyamine), from the first alcoholic blush of crisp cool Sauvignon Blanc, or the climax of making love to your best friend’s wife but those things will not necessarily make you happy. Why?
Because all three of these events are self-indulgent acts of sensual pleasure and may have negative consequences depending on circumstances. Going into diabetic shock, suffering an acute hangover or anguishing the shame and guilt of cheating on your best friend (or all three in sequence) will definitely not make you happy even after the sensual pleasure each brought about. Chocolate, wine and love making can make you happy but it depends on the circumstances and not specifically on the associated pleasure drug.
Happiness experienced from sensual experiences is about giving pleasure rather than getting. That is different than happiness experienced from teaching. Happiness from teaching is about sharing life’s spiritual experiences. Spiritual happiness happens in the mind and is not necessarily connected with physical experiences. It can only be felt on an intellectual or cognitive level.
The Strange Truth about Happiness
The strange truth about Happiness, however, it that it can show up in the most bizarre and inexplicable circumstances. You cannot pursue happiness. The Declaration of Independence is still correct in that it would be wrong to say Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Pleasure. But the context is wrong. If you think you can pursue happiness, by eating a carton of chocolate ice-cream or drinking a bottle of wine, for example, and it hasn’t happened because you gained weight or said something you regret after you got drunk then you may think that you are a failure.
On the contrary you may have lost 30 lbs and enjoyed a small scoop of chocolate ice-cream or a glass of white wine on your birthday and felt happy because you realized that you no longer have the urge to eat an entire carton of ice-cream or finish the entire bottle of wine. You are satisfied with who you have become through learning to eat or drink in moderation. That end result can make you happy. Happiness isn’t something you can plan, it just happens.
Happiness, moreover, is not necessarily associated with something good. You can experience extreme pain and then experience happiness that the pain has ceased. Case in point is the ISIS recruits. Eliminate the psychopaths (preferably with smart bombs) who join ISIS to inflict pain and suffering and you still have thousands of unexplained (non-psychotic) recruits. Average kids become brutes and savages. Doesn’t this ring a bell? Strike a note? This is classic Lord of the Flies.
Lord of the Flies – Author William Golding’s adventurous tale about a group of boys marooned on an island is more than an action story. It is a commentary on the darkness that exists in all mankind. The evil in every soul that seeps through when humans are unsupervised, uncivilized and driven to madness.
I don’t believe, however, that we are inherently evil. If that was true democracies would not exist and autocracies would be the rule of the day. The second tenet of the Declaration of Independence is liberty. I guess that is a circular argument where you have to have liberty to have independence, but the point is that freedom is one of our natural and inalienable rights. You cannot be happy without being truly free. But freedom from what? Freedom from laws and legislation and big government? Again that is where many conspiracy theorists get it wrong. No because, and this is spelled out in the Canadian Parliamentary system as peace, order and good government, good governance is essential to human freedoms not contradictory to it.
Without the rule of law and protection provided by good government in the form of fair judiciary and unbiased police and military, freedom cannot exist. That is why power vacuums, such as those recently created in Libya and Syria by the Arab Spring, lead to Lord of the Flies scenarios. Without strong governments the psychopaths can rise to the top through recruiting and brainwashing, cult fashion, the vulnerable, marginalized and disenfranchised youth of their immediate culture and those of transplanted cultures; the immigrants who recently moved to Europe and America to get away from terror and despair but never really fit into the new cultures.
What does ISIS offer to their new recruits that Europe and America does not? The joy of belonging. The joy of learning. The joy of being worthy of the teacher. The joy of employment. These recruits are told, as in any cult, that they will be part of the bigger extended family and that they will belong to a worthy cause.
Much like the classic Nigerian 419 money scams where you are promised millions as long as you follow along with these easy steps the ISIS recruiters, through emails and chats, promise possible recruits a happier more fulfilling life. To the naive recruits they send videos and pictures showing a “perfect” society where everyone, men and women, are happy. ISIS’s media division fabricates videos shot in colorful playgrounds alive with sunshine, music, giggling and laughter and showing elderly grandfather figures in full beards, dressed in fatigues and carrying AK47s, gently pushing happy children back and forth on the swings. Any psychologist can tell you that these images are used, universally, to evoke the memories or longing of happiness.
ISIS also promises to teach the recruits the “true” interpretation of the Koran (as Anderson Cooper calls it “Koran for Dummies”) and how to fire a weapon, and how to make a bomb. The recruits will experience the thrill of gaining wisdom or learning a skill especially if it is something forbidden in their previous society. They explain how, in using these skills, the recruits will be able to contribute to building a nation state. Equally important to the fulfillment of happiness, the ISIS recruiter promises them a job. No advance payment, no tuition, no student loans. The training is free. The end result of joining ISIS is gainful employment for life.
What they find when they show up for work, however, is a different story. Classic bait and switch. During and after the training, the leaders will push the recruits to the breaking point physically and mentally, with the intent of brutalizing them into subjugation and humility until they are no longer civilized. They not only teach them to fight and kill, like most soldiers, but they also teach them to murder. The end result is, again like any cult, full loyalty to the leaders no matter how ruthless or how in-humane. The disciples are now just robots, devoid of sympathy or empathy, in the war against western civilization’s pursuit of pleasure. All is extinguished by the brutal subjugation process except for the one spark that keeps them lit. Happiness.
The bait and switch tactics switched the happiness of childhood memories of children laughing with the happiness experienced from eagerly carrying out commands from their superiors. Misplaced and inappropriate as it sounds, these ISIS recruits are motivated by the false happiness they now experience from carrying out what they were taught. Murder and rape is what they are expected to do. It’s not a sensual pleasure but a result of what they were taught. That is why the killers in Paris appeared so disassociated from their victims; the result of humanity being beaten out of them during the cult-like indoctrination and brutal training. This is no different than any Charles Manson or Adolf Hitler style cult.
Several years ago I read a book by a young African boy who was abducted by the local army to become a child soldier. At the time he felt no empathy for the victims he killed. But after he was rescued and rehabilitated by UNICEF he was finally able to understand what he had been part of. I believe for some (not for those who have already committed heinous crimes against society) of the ISIS recruits it would be the same. They need to be freed, rehabilitated and taught how to be useful members of our society. Being taught and being part of something is the operative terms for rehabilitation. To do this, however, we have to completely annihilate ISIS’s leadership to the very core and bring the survivors to justice just like we did to end the reign of Nazism during WW ll.
Most importantly before rehabilitation (and before the complete annihilation of ISIS) we have to have prevention. In other words, we can only prevent young men from signing up if you can fight false happiness with true happiness. If these young men are not marginalized in the first place then they would not be vulnerable to psychotic recruiters. They need to have skills and gainful employment to feel included in our society. If you strip away the religious labeling then all of us, whether we call ourselves Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian, Jewish or Atheist, are just people. We all need to understand that we have the right to pursue happiness and that happiness is best spread and experienced through teaching, learning and being enabled to contribute to our society.
To finish on a happy note I will say two positive things.
Happiness is unlimited and the more we spread the joy of teaching the more we spread the joy of learning. Happiness is the end game of our lives and the best part is that it is best enjoyed with others. Happiness alleviates depression and nothing brings about happiness quicker than having achieved something new and challenging. Learning, under supervision, encourages us to focus on and live for the present. We become mindful of our actions and concentrate our thoughts in order to achieve the teacher’s and our objectives. The harder the challenge the more joy we feel when we achieve these objectives. Whether is it to build a web page or a house the end result is personal satisfaction.
If you want to test this theory go out and get your pilot license, if you have a pilot license get your float plane endorsement, learn to scuba-dive or para-glide or take a yoga class. See if you don’t feel better about yourself. If you are looking for a job learn to weld, fix cars or drive transport trucks. Learn to code html, php and asp. Learn to cook organic meals or make micro-brewery beer. There are eager teachers and instructors waiting to help. It might not come easy. You may have to endure sweat and tears, doubt and uncertainty, or even pain but in the end, when you succeed, you will experience joy and happiness.
More importantly go out and teach even if you have never taught before. Give your time to help the vulnerable, marginalized youth of your community. Help the less fortunate and disenfranchised feel included. Replace the false happiness of terror with the fulfilling happiness of getting a proper education, learning a trade and being employed. You will be all the happier for it.
Secondly, my sister did make it back down the tree and is still living a long and happy life.