Hawking Happiness, Risk-Free Religion For Our Vacant Consumer Society

It's for sale
It's for sale
Ana María Cano Posada


BOGOTA — Happiness, as beguiling as it is evasive, is now very much a product, one that is ubiquitous and marketed everywhere from newspapers to websites to your local supermarket. There is no shame these days in peddling it, in all its manifestations.

Today's happiness hawkers aren't so much witches as they are gurus of a modern religion, a religion involving managers, trainers, public speakers and text editors, all increasingly worming their way from personal therapy into the world of commerce. Clear the shelves of cheese, meat and juices, and make way for the latest faith!

The experts selling us heaven on earth aren't philosophers, as they were in ancient Greece, when wise men like Plato and Aristotle believed humans could change their perspective on life and left their pupils with questions to reflect on. That, after all, would be too risky. What they offer instead are infallible answers and formulae. And with so many religions in disgrace, they're able to set up shop in what has become a no man's land, a spiritual void that is for grabs and ready for exploitation.

This caravan of carpetbaggers comes in all shapes and sizes, from therapists, to sects that graze their flocks on weekend exercise, to serenity merchants, clad in the garb of Oriental wisdom, out to soothe all the bodies battered by the gym and other excesses.

The new joy preachers lack all scepticism or distance from their congregations. They are here to feed credulity, not break it. After Paulo Coelho and his ilk with their millions of blind followers, self-help is tightening its grip and expanding its sway to include not just the angry and insecure (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown) but also firms and their employees. Corporations too need someone who can lead them to the heavens. What once required bloody altars is now, in the never-ending present, within everyone's reach. Today's promises come in the form of simple rethoric and remedies that can be applied as needed to ease life's many anxieties and quell our thoughts of mortality.

Coelho has some answers. Photo: NRKBETA

How does one compare philosphers, and their discretion, with the modern opportunists living off the instability of our times? Something — was it their ability to write? — made the thinkers find and keep so many followers. They could set off an echo in people's hearts and minds.

Generations past found an appropriate irony in Bertrand Russell. Others saw their constant living pains reflected by Kafka, Sartre or Camus. Some saw their own visions of the sacred in the theology of Teilhard de Chardin. These were reflective heavyweights who seemed to share people's personal discernment and doubts. They tolerated no sect or prefab theories about them, unlike the successors who are dishing out bottled thoughts to eager patients.

Self-help is a byproduct of the consumer society, a mess of a stew with few philosophical ingredients but enough soothing propositions floating within to make a person feel that this is just the right recipe. How can anyone be dissatisfied when we can all live so happily? That would be its first commandment, one that is silly enough to merit its proponent a sock in the face for helping idiotize the "congregation."

While the gurus entertain and console, eternity remains intact and happiness keeps smiling, out of reach as always.

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Saving The Planet Is Really A Question Of Dopamine

Our carelessness toward the environment could be due, in part, to the functioning of a very primitive area of our brain: the striatum.

Ad scuba-diver and brain coral

Stefano Lupieri

PARIS — Almost every week, a new scientific study alerts us to the degradation of the environment. And yet, we continue not to change anything fundamental in our systems of production and habits of consumption. Are we all suffering from blindness, or poisoned by denial?

In his popular books Le Bug humain (The Human Bug) and Où est le sens? (Where is the Sense?), Sébastien Bohler, a journalist in neuroscience and psychology, provides a much more rational explanation: The mechanism responsible for our propensity to destroy our natural environment is in fact a small, very deep and very primitive structure of our brain called the striatum.

This regulator of human motivation seems to have been programmed to favor behaviors that ensure the survival of the species.

Addictions to sex and social media

Since the dawn of humanity, gathering information about our environment, feeding ourselves, ensuring the transmission of our genes through sexual intercourse and asserting our social status have all been rewarded with a shot of dopamine, the 'pleasure hormone.'

Nothing has changed since then; except that, in our society of excess, there is no limit to the satisfaction of these needs. This leads to the overconsumption of food and addictions to everything from sex to social media — which together account for much of the world's destructive agricultural and energy practices.

No matter how much we realize that this is leading to our downfall, we can't help but relapse because we are prisoners of the dopamine pump in the striatum, which cannot be switched off.

Transverse section of striatum from a structural MRI image

Lindsay Hanford and Geoff B Hall via Wikipedia

Tweaking genetics 

According to Bohler, the only way out is to encourage the emergence of new values of sobriety, altruism and slowness. If adopted, these more sustainable notions could be recognized by the striatum as new sources of dopamine reward. But there's the challenge of promoting inspiring stories that infuse them with value.

Take the photo-collage exhibition "J'agis ici... et je m'y colle" ("I'm taking action here... and I'm sticking to it"), a collection of life-size portraits of residents committed to the energy transition, displayed on the walls of the French coastal city of La Rochelle.

Backed by the French National Center for Street Arts, photographer Martin Charpentier may be employing artistic techniques, but he's also tinkering with neuroscience in the process.

Les Echos
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