This morning, as I listened to the news, such as it is today; I heard part of a story that championed the significant advances in life and longevity due to the public health movement. While no one would even a tertiary understanding of public health could deny the enormous advances made in the past 125 years that have drastically improved the health of Americans; from clean water and sanitation to environmental protection (much of which is currently under attack) and vaccination (which is also under attack). Public health it is said works best when no one knows about it. Public health has made significant inroads into preventing communicable disease and now focuses on chronic illness and accidental death. The story ended with the statement that public health has doubled the life expectancy of Americans in just 100 years. Well, this is not an entirely accurate statement.
I understand the statement; it is one primarily aimed at lay audiences, and while public health has undoubtedly lengthened average lifespan, it has done so by removing many of the ailments and conditions that, for much of human history, had limited the maximum age that the average human could expect to reach. And while we can read how longevity tables for average lifespans have increased (for example, in 1900 it was 45 years or so), that does not mean that people born in 1900 lived shorter lives. It merely means that, on average, communicable disease, accidental death, and war were more likely to limit their chances of reaching maximum human age. We might even imagine that old age in the 1880s was 50, yet even a tertiary review of history points to many persons who lived well into their 80’s or 90’s. That would be of course if they were to avoid the communicable diseases and the chronic conditions, accidents, and other harmful impacts of longevity that claimed the lives of the vast majority of persons.
Generally speaking, the life expectancy in the United States today is thought to be about 75. While this is probably not the upper end of the lifespan for those born with excellent genetics, they have not succumbed to infectious disease, have not experienced accidents or environmental impacts, and more importantly, have had the personal wealth that afforded good food, clean water, and excellent living conditions. For these people, a tiny percentage of the world’s population, we might imagine an upper limit of lifespan to be around 100 years, give or take. But what if we could, like futurist Dr. Ray Kurzweil, computer engineer, or Dr. Anne Lise Kjaer, founder of London-based trend forecasting agency Kjaer Globa, address chronic conditions (often associated with aging) to extend human lifespans to perhaps a few hundreds of years? Would this not be a future worth creating? Who wouldn’t want to live longer? It sounds like the perfect solution to everything. But is it?
Epicurus, a major Hellenistic philosopher, believed that one of humanity greatest fears is a fear of death. Epicurus thought that this fear was often based on anxiety about having an unpleasant afterlife; anxiety that is dispelled once we realize that death is annihilation. Why concern ourselves with the philosophy of an ancient Hellenistic thinker? Because the way he lived his life was reflective of his view, and because that ethos flies directly in the face of immortality. Epicurus wrote that pleasure is our first and ultimate good. It was the starting point of every choice and every version we made. In fact, he would say, we work to increase pleasure and to avoid unhappiness. Such a hedonistic philosophy certainly seems archaic and ancient, but is it wrong?
If we unpack Epicurus’s teachings, we can identify even today with some stark realities. The first of which might be just that the aim of life itself is happiness. I know a few people who would argue otherwise. Further, that unhappiness or misery is not necessarily bad things, but the unpleasant emotions that we experience biochemically as we relate to these things. An example I once used with my Sensation and Perception Psychology students went something like this:
Your best friend, “Lucky” the beagle, has been with you since you were seven years of age. You grew up together and raised him as a puppy you received from your favorite grandparent on your birthday. Lucky seems to be in good health despite his 15 years. For your 22nd birthday, your parents send you on a trip to London. Unbeknownst to you, after your parents return home from dropping you at the airport, they found Lucky at the bottom of the driveway. A passing car had hit him. So as not to spoil your trip, your parents thoughtfully agreed to keep the news from you until your return, and so on the drive back home from the airport, your parents broke the news about your beloved pet.
Learning this news, how would you feel? Where would that feeling come from? From the event itself? That had occurred over a week ago. What you are experiencing is the biochemical response, a very unpleasant emotion that is associated with the fact, but not caused by it.
Let us imagine that somehow we have achieved, if not immortality, then a very long life of say 500 or even 1,000 years. Would we be any happier? The answer may surprise you.
A recent television series in the Marvel Universe, The Defenders, is the unfolding story of four, often-reluctant superheroes, which come to the aid of New York as it is infiltrated by a band of immortals, which, as we might expect, will do anything to keep living forever. They refuse to take risks, as they are apparently subject to death by injury or violence. We learn by the end of season one that some are so preoccupied with eternal life that they have taken all of the remaining “substance” (we are never told what that is) and used it to restore the body of a warrior who in theory will take he risks for them, so they may have time to search for a new supply.
I suspect, as one who has had studied people from a psychological viewpoint for decades that they would not be satisfied with just another 1,000 years, and the feeling of immortality once tasted, would be their driving force. As we might imagine, the warrior, raised from the dead, wreaks havoc on the immortals. Would we not respond much the same? Having tasted immortality for 200, 500, or even 1,000 years, witnessing the progress of society, and watching as countless millions are born, live and die, would be a constant reminder that life is fleeting. Would we dare even cross a busy street?
The Christian apologist, novelist, and Oxford don C. S. Lewis once wrote “The delight that never fades, the bliss that is eternal is only yours when that which you most seek, is just out of reach.” In other words, having a thing never feels as good as wanting it. But having been children, we know this all too well. I remember when my brother and I saved our birthday quarters and tooth-fairy dimes and sent away for a pair of X-ray glasses we had seen featured in the back of a friend’s comic book. We talked for days about all the things for which we would be able to use them. We excitedly waited for every day for the postman come, and were greatly let down when they didn’t arrive on the second day! When the finally arrived, they were simply a pair of plastic glasses with some cardboard lenses with pinholes in the lenses with red circles and the words “X-Ray Glasses” printed on them.
After we had lost interest in them (which did take nearly an hour), we decided to take them apart. We discovered that a feather of some sort had been glued between the layers of each thin cardboard lens. The vanes of the feathers were so close together that light was diffracted, causing the wearer to see two very slightly offset images. Where the images overlap, a darker image is viewed (interference fringes), sort of like a shadow. Thomas Young discovered this effect in his Double-slit experiment while attempting to prove that light was comprised of waves, in 1801. Einstein and Bohr later used the same test to establish the duality of light both wave and particle, ushering in a new science: quantum mechanics. Even as children, the illusion created by the diffraction was not particularly convincing.
The real lesson and one that was not lost on a forward thinking 9-year-old or his eight-year-old brother were that we had enjoyed making all those plans that would come to fruition as soon as the glasses arrived. One might suggest that the imagined and the reality of the X-ray glasses were hardly comparable. And they would be correct. Of course, we were soon on to a new adventure and a new desire, one I believed that involved either a BB gun we had seen at the local Western Auto shop window or the always sought after jackknife. Of course, once my brother and I obtained the BB gun, I believe it was Christmas in 1971, and the jackknife was finally obtained (my grandfather gave me mine when I was 13); the reality of these most desired objects that would ensure the highest levels of joy, like the X-ray glasses, were soon relegated to the closet or the windowsill. I have noticed that the same can be said for most adults. They never seem to be happy and are always looking for the next thing. But is it an immature, distracted culture to blame? Or is it biochemistry?
In the 1950s, two psychologists, James Olds and Peter Milner devised an experiment based on B. F. Skinner’s Skinner box. In the original experiment by Skinner, in the 1930s, psychologist B. F. Skinner designed a method of testing his Operant Conditioning hypothesis by constructing a box in which a lever pressed by a Pigeon or a Rat triggered either a reinforcing stimulus (food pellet or water) or a negative stimulus (shock). Skinner found that rats placed in a Skinner box rapidly learned to press the food reward lever, and not the shock-producing lever). Now, Olds and Milner modified Skinner’s experiment, by replacing the shock-lever with one that direct deliverer stimulation to electrodes implanted in the pleasure centers of the rat’s brain.
The resulting experiment revealed one of the most dramatic results in neuroscience; the rats in the experiment would press the pleasure lever continuously, one rat pressed the liver 7000 times in an hour to stimulate the pleasure center of his brain. Compared to the lever for food or even water, the pleasure lever was pressed to the point of exhaustion. The researchers have discovered that pleasure, at least for these tests were powerful than food pellets and even water. Some of the rats are said to have died of dehydration while still pressing the pleasure lever.
Humans are a bit more complicated. While we have the same basic brain structures as other mammals, we have those structures that allow us to manufacture perceived pleasure (joy, contentment, happiness), although we receive the pleasure in our current state, the target of the reward is in an external time and place (the future). As with the x-ray glasses (BB gun, jackknife), our pleasure was current, but as it turned out was purely perceptual and not based on the actual physical possession of the glasses, which turned out to be an abject failure. But without the brain structures that allow us to perceive eventual joy and reward in the present, there would be little possibility of the construct of hope. Of course, much of this is organic, but a surprising amount is learned.
Our brain is comprised of a group of neural structures that are responsible for virtually everything that makes us human. Part of this collection of structures is referred to as the reward system. This system is responsible for motivating us through want, desire, craving, and is associated with positive and negative reinforcement, classical conditioning and operant conditioning, as well as determining the level of joy or happiness (or contentment) that we experience at any one time. While we know that experiments with mammals support the understanding that reward is a stimulus that invokes behaviors related to appetite (this reward may be an object, activity, event, or situation that allows us to experience a perceived benefit). The reward may be a perceived pleasurable experience or the removal of an unpleasant experience (negative reinforcement).
The underlying process demands that the result is at least perceived to be pleasurable. Many have argued that if sexual congress and procreation were not pleasurable, given the immediate effect on the physiology (rapid increase in adrenaline and heart rate, increase in blood pressure, slowing of digestion), the human species would have died out long ago. It is perhaps because of the activation of the reward centers (endorphin surge, pain receptors are less active, levels of oxytocin increase) and the feeling of satiation that has kept humans from becoming extinct. After sex now are the general feelings of emotional bonding, and along with ease, lowering your blood pressure and decrease activation in the HPA axis (a network in the brain that controls stress).
There are of course other rewards, and those are virtually universal among humans and even some higher primates and include such primary rewards as those that guarantee the survival of one’s genetic material through offspring. Although wanting one’s child to be successful may have less to do in some cultures with genetic survival as the vicarious achievement. There are intrinsic rewards that we may find inherently pleasurable, for example, the internal pride at a job well done or perhaps achieving a painful milestone. Frequently though, once completed, the pleasure tends to fade rather quickly. Extrinsic rewards, for example, money or social recognition may also elicit joy, however, these emotional highs maybe even more fleeting. And what about Epicurus?
Epicurus believed the following claims about happiness to be self-evident; joyfulness and happiness are pleasurable. We do all things for the sake of the pleasurable emotions that we associate with them. Just as negative feelings were not pleasurable, they need not be real to have an adverse affect (Epicurus labeled such ideas false beliefs). He believed that of the desires that humans faced, many were necessary and some were unnecessary. Essential passions so far as Epicurus was considered include being free from bodily pain, experiencing happiness, and positive emotional states. Unnecessary desires, for example, owning more land, a more extensive home, or eating more expensive meals, were more likely to produce unhappiness. In the end, Epicurus suggested that people do not seek pleasure as such, but rather the absence of pain; a state he referred to as ἀταραξία or ataraxia, which translates from the Greek as being in a state of inner, serene calmness.
Epicurus and the Buddha have much in common in this regard, and not surprisingly, both believed true happiness could only be achieved through this inner peace. In both Epicurus’ teaching as well as the writings of the Buddha place happiness internally, and that real joy can be experienced, not through the pursuit of physical pleasures, but through inner peace and contemplation. For both the meaning of life is happiness. And yet, if we look at our first world societies, where many of the social ills of other nations have been primarily eliminated, we continue to experience such unhappiness and misery? Could it be because we continue to seek happiness and contentment through the possession of things? If we are biochemically and neurologically fulfilled, even if temporarily, through exciting endeavors (motorcycle riding, waterskiing, parasailing, cliff diving), how can we rationalize taking such risks while trying to live a very long life? Even if science could somehow lengthen human lifespan to 500 years, how long would it take the average person in America to grow utterly bored with it all? And would they be willing to take the risk of parachuting when they could shorten their life by such a drastic measure?
Considering the high percentage of Americans today who take prescription medication to treat depression and anxiety, imagine if lifespans were 500 years? Never mind the adrenalin-charged hobbies we may enjoy today, would we feel comfortable even crossing a busy street? Would any of us with the promise of virtual immortality (barring accidental death), be willing to take any chance at all?
Until we learn to live according to the principles of Epicurus or the teachings of the Buddha, we will continue to seek happiness externally. And we will remain an unhappy and discontented society, no matter how long or short our lives.