Friday, 1 June 2012

Is Happiness the only Good?

This is a recording of my two minute broadcast on BBC Radio Humberside on Tuesday 17th April. I didn't intend it to sound so gloomy! Here is the script:

The humanist Robert Ingersoll once said “Happiness is the only good. The place to be happy is here. The time to be happy is now and the way to be happy is to make others so.”  But what do we really mean by happiness? Many of the most gifted writers, artists, scientists and philosophers have lived lives of great value whilst enduring neurotic misery day-to-day. Surely we must separate feeling joy in the moment from the idea of a life lived well. The scientific discipline of evolutionary psychology offers a fascinating insight in to the evolutionary function of happiness in the sense of subjective wellbeing and why finding lasting happiness is so elusive. Other emotions such as fear and disgust are easily explained in terms of an evolutionary pressure to avoid the things that would threaten our survival in the environment in which our brains evolved such as the venomous spiders and snakes that were plentiful in Palaeolithic Africa. They each prompt different reactions to specific threats. The function of happiness appears to be that it helps us to strive for the goals that evolution has built in to us, such as finding food, finding a mate and spending time with our children. There are fewer positive emotions because they prompt us to keep doing what we were doing and there is only one way of not changing anything. For this system to work, our feeling of happiness has to be reset each time we obtain the desired outcome, whether it is receiving a pay rise or promotion at work, winning the lottery or your football team gaining promotion to the premier league. The feeling of happiness soon wears off but natural selection has programmed us to still keep thinking that lasting happiness is in our reach. Thinking about this helps us to cherish the moments of joy experienced in life whilst accepting their transitory nature.

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