Risk Factor: The Pursuit of Happiness

The Epicureans say the highest good is happiness. Thomas Jefferson enshrined the right to pursue happiness in US law. Our society considers happiness the ultimate goal for every citizen. Think about the messages we receive. Prescription drug ads that promise perfect health. Sponsored posts on Facebook the one little secret that will make you seven figures. Your teachers telling you that this particular career will set you for life.

But there is a catch. It’s called the hedonic treadmill. The more happiness you achieve, the harder it is to get. So you do more to get what you felt before. Buy a more expensive bottle of wine. Get a flashier car. Try to get more money beyond all reasonableness. It’s like tolerance in a way. I wonder if that’s why the abuse of power is present in all walks of life. That initial rush when you finally gain power eventually fades. Now you must do more things, even heinous things. And you keep on doing them even if it harms you.

But what if you fail? What if you become one of society’s “losers”? That’s what most people think when they see addicts. Disasters whose only source of happiness is a bottle or a needle. Stress abounds as the universe shrugs its shoulders. And so they are on another treadmill, one that brings them ever downward.

Ah, you might object. “I’ve never abused my power when I got a promotion. I never got drunk when times were tough. Not everyone succumbs.” You would be right. There is a certain percentage of people, a minority, that will fall into the constellation of behaviors that define addiction. But think about the ways you could easily be caught in that trap. Perhaps you had familial support. Perhaps you had resources to nip the problematic behavior in the bud. Perhaps it was just the grace of God.

What if everything’s fine, but that first hit of heroin permanently turned on your dopamine reward pathway? Sure, we may mock the “Just Say No” campaigns, but there are a certain number of people who initially experiment and then are hurtled down the road to addiction. Was it their DNA? Was it just part of their personality? Who knows? Maybe it’s a combination of all risk factors.

I digress. That part of the brain that wants and likes, that generator of happiness, has a dark side. So what? Does that mean that everything we do is meaningless? That it’s pointless to pursue happiness? Well, that is a long debated question that won’t be answered anytime soon. But maybe it’s better if we realize that the good life and happiness may not be so similar as we think.

Summary: One risk of pursuing happiness is addiction. We should reflect on what the good life actually means.

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