Fantasy, Species Dominance, and Happiness

Our brains are wired to construct a model of the world, outfit it with precepts, then believe in that virtual world, sometimes fiercely. See How God Changes Your Brain, Newberg & Waldman, 2009.  This propensity for fantasy may be our species’ most significant achievement:  By actually believing in things that are true solely within confines of interacting human brains, we leapfrog over the problem of trusting and cooperating with the 50 to 150 people we can keep track of and observe on a regular basis socially, roughly the local community in the tribes of  human history.  By subscribing to a story — virtually any story, that intrinsically cannot withstand the scrutiny of testable evidence — of who we are collectively, we achieve acts of metacooperation that distinguish us categorically from other species and secure our dominion.  See Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, 2015.

The question arises: What relationship does this feature bear to our potential to be happy?

In A Beautiful Mind, we learn that a mentally-compromised mathematician must teach himself to ignore most of the people he perceives to be in the room at a given moment — because they are not really there. In the act of downhill skiing, the student must teach herself to apply pressure to her right foot in order to turn left.  In acquiring any language, we must crowd our brains with parallel utterances, often with an awkwardness that makes the attempt seem futile.

Similarly, to place ourselves in the position of appreciating the day that is about to unfold, to wish to inhabit the world that the universe — along with our personal fantastic story — presents to us on a given day, may be a route to well being. The choreography of improvisation, like a football running back in a field of constantly-shifting defenders, may be the solution.  Our brain demands meaning, it shops for meaning, then plucks ideas and consecrates them.  It feels like a search for truth, but it is likely anything but.  Happiness, then, may consist in gliding lightly over the totemic physiography of a day of life, that rock is either there or not; that cliff, there or not, that trough, and so on.  The descent itself need not be virtiginous.


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