Another nail has been driven into the coffin of faith-based thinking. Watch this short video, Low Expectations = Happiness, that outlines how we shoot ourselves in the foot through expectations born of wishful thinking.
This is not to say expectations aren’t useful or natural. Indeed, considered from a symptoms point of view, I realize they help stabilize us cognitively, but so does science. The question is, which path more likely leads to happiness?
I regard Buddha as history’s greatest scientist. His four truths speak to the human predicament in the most rational and succinct way I’ve seen… period! Thanks to MRI technology, Buddha’s truth of suffering hypothesis is finally becoming testable. This is similar to the testability delay of Nonlocality. (Quantum nonlocality refers to what Einstein called the “spooky action at a distance” of quantum entanglement.) “Spooky action” had to await sufficient advances in technology to make the Bell test experiment possible.
While the confirmation of Nonlocality is awe-inspiring, it doesn’t really affect our daily personal life. However, MRI and other technologies now make it possible to peek into ‘spooky action’ in human biology. I’d imagine that proving Buddha’s hypothesis true would greatly influence one’s personal life, Does it? Does knowing the evidence actually make it any easier to utilize? One reason it may not, lies in how expectations drown out reality. The emotion behind our expectations creates ‘the blind spot’, as John Cleese calls it.
If we could scientifically prove God truly existed and that as a sinner I would burn in hell, I would be extremely motivated to always do right! As it stands, all I hear is faith based word of mouth ‘evidence’. The ‘evidence’ I hear are simply stories that echo in various degrees the believer’s projected fears and needs. Clearly, pre-belief is a prerequisite for accepting the ‘evidence’. My lack of pre-belief is likely due to the weakness of my social (tribal) instinct. Even so, I’ve found that the religious faith of many believers goes only skin deep despite their fervor. Indeed, the symptoms point of view tells me that they fervently need each other to reaffirm the ‘evidence’ to maintain their collective faith. If what people believed was in reality true, belief would come easy for most everyone — and the world would be drastically different than it is!
Buddha’s truths, on the other hand, are an invitation to look within you. They don’t required faith; all they require is whatever proof you can find in your personal life experience. As life experiences add up, I find my faith pulled deeper, and with that a natural inclination to live accordingly. This means lowering my expectations. Life feels happier now, even as old age whittles me down. Seeing why this is so scientifically, is just icing on the cake. No, it’s more than that. Having scientific corroboration of Buddha’s four truths increases the proof in the pudding of my experience, and with that a deeper urgency(1) to ‘always do right‘ (e.g., Right comprehension, Right resolution, Right speech, Right action, Right livelihood, Right effort, Right thought, Right state of peaceful mind).
Happiness in a bottle or puff of smoke
This research into expectations does help simplify my understanding on other matters. It offers the best reason yet why alcohol and other intoxicants can be so appealing. Intoxication takes the edge off both positive ‘happy drunk’ and negative ‘angry drunk’ expectations. Intoxication allows us to feel more loosely ‘in the moment’, and exist without expectations.
Food and other sensual pleasures, including addiction to tobacco’s nicotine, also deliver the promise of more ‘happiness’. The sense of happiness here is the result of engendering a need, an expectation, a desire, and having it fulfilled in a timely manner. Of course, the happiness is fleeting, and we return to a sense of need, loss, or boredom, etc. Our expectations soon return and pull us to satisfy them again. I imagine this revolving door of pleasure – pain underlies all habitual activity.
In the wild, most of this would play itself out in a balanced way. Civilization’s prime objective has always been to enhance our ability to meet and ‘hopefully’ exceed our expectations. Loss of natural balance is the consequence and casualty of this blind quest. What’s worse, we press on under the illusion that more progress will solve our problems, which are often the result of previous progress. This reminds me of that aphorism, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, i.e., Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Science and the collective human experience nourish “Right Comprehension”. With that, I assume humanity will gradually regain much of its lost equilibrium. Even if this turns out to take 10,000 years, that is not long. Just think, the Agricultural Revolution that upset the equilibrium was just an ‘evolutionary moment ago’ — 10,000 years ago.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
See the PNAS report, A computational and neural model of subjective well being, for an in-depth look at the research. Here is a taste…
A common question in the social science of well-being asks, “How happy do you feel on a scale of 0 to 10?” Responses are often related to life circumstances, including wealth. By asking people about their feelings as they go about their lives, ongoing happiness and life events have been linked, but the neural mechanisms underlying this relationship are unknown. To investigate it, we presented subjects with a decision-making task involving monetary gains and losses and repeatedly asked them to report their momentary happiness. We built a computational model in which happiness reports were construed as an emotional reactivity to recent rewards and expectations. Using functional MRI, we demonstrated that neural signals during task events account for changes in happiness.
Happiness (t) = w0+w1∑j=1tγt−jCRj
+ w2∑j=1tγt−jEVj + w3∑j=1tγt−jRPEj
(1) Note how urgency (urge) parallels the sense of necessity conveyed in Buddha’s Forth Truth (below). The more certain I am of a danger, the greater my urge to do Right. I don’t need to burn my hand more than once to urge me to keep my hand out of the flames. Expectations ‘burn’ indirectly, so we have trouble connecting the dots. Indeed, the emotional drive behind expectations also blinds us to any unintended consequences. The value of science lies in making us aware of less tangible phenomenon. Once we ‘connect the dots’, modifying behavior becomes much easier… a no brainer, really!
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Middle Path that leads to the cessation of suffering. There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty. He who is wise will enter this path and make an end to suffering. Eight steps on the Middle Path are:
|1. Right Comprehension [*]||5. Right Living|
|2. Right Resolution [*]||6. Right Effort|
|3. Right Speech||7. Right Thought [*]|
|4. Right Action||8. Right State of Peaceful Mind [*|
[*] Four of the eight steps encompass cognitive characteristics. To me, this underlines the urgency of chapter 71’s observation, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.
Buddha wraps this up saying, “….whose sole desire is the performance of his duty“. I regard desire as simply need + thought. Right Thought and Right Comprehension help me redirect survival instinct — need — away from external object oriented gain, and toward an internal qualitative gain in how I approach life. I can’t rid myself of the natural instinct (need, fear, etc.), but I can redirect it to what is most beneficial once I know the Right direction in which to aim.
Appreciation pushes back on expectations too. However, it’s not a fair fight as expectations merely require instinctive need or fear to evoke (i.e., need + thought = expectations, etc.). Appreciation, on the other hand, is not instinctive, and so requires Right Comprehension and Right Thought to evoke. Naturally, it is best not to expect too much from appreciation. 😉