For the most part, we tend to think our happiness is tied in with our individual well-being. For instance, I get a new job, or I get a new hot girlfriend, and I get happy. On the flipside, if I discover I’ve got cancer, or my leg gets bitten off by an alligator, I’m unhappy. This is a pretty standard understanding of happiness.
In the past, I’ve referenced some ideas from the realm of evolutionary psychology that would argue our happiness is really determined by how well we meet the needs of our genes. Our genes want to continue their lineage as long as possible. Thus they, using DNA, create brains that reward behaviors that fulfill these goals. Now, for the most part, the goals of the genes and the goals of the individual possessing the genes are pretty closely aligned. If I survive without injury, both I and my genes are happy. If I have sex, both I and my genes are happy — after all, sex is the sole tool genes can use to continue their lineage. (Presuming genes aren’t aware of cloning, sperm donation etc.)
So, loosely speaking, genes and the individual want the same things — to thrive (socially, physically, economically etc.) and to replicate. As a result, behaviors that result in thriving and replicating — behaviors like eating, earning the respect of your peers, and having sex — feel pleasurable.
I’m also always mentioning the main idea of Dr. John Sarno — that a lot of physical pain is really unconscious rage. Now, for the sake of this blog post let’s presume that unconscious rage is generated by the foiling of the shared goals of the individual and the genes. People don’t respect me, therefore I get enraged. I don’t get the job promotion, therefore I get enraged. I don’t get enough sex (hey, who does? HAWHAWHAWHAW!!!) and I get enraged. To follow the Sarno argument, if this rage is mostly unconscious, but threatens to spill over into consciousness, pain will be created to “distract” you.
There’s one problem with these goals of the individual and the genes. Eventually, you will fail to meet them. We all get old, and get to the point where we can no longer really “thrive.” (We certainly can’t have sex.) Are we then doomed to an ever increasing amount of rage as we become more and more impotent? Or, perhaps, does the brain reach a point where it basically says, “okay, I get it, whatever chances we’ve had to thrive and procreate are essentially over, so there’s no point sweating it anymore”? This would explain the fact that older people do seem to generally enter a period where they “mellow out.” They’re happy playing Parcheesi and gardening; they no longer have the drive to aggressively compete. Their rage — unconscious or conscious — seems to dissipate.
And here’s an interesting thing: today I was reading that instances of back pain (the main kind of pain Sarno identifies as the result of unconscious rage) actually decline among people in the 55+ range. If you think of back pain as being a physical ailment, this doesn’t make sense; people’s backs should be getting even crappier as they get older and thus more painful. But if back pain is connected to emotion, and emotion loses some of its teeth as the years go on, a decline is what you’d expect.