In what at least one journalist called “the strongest evidence to date that spiritual thinking arises in, or is limited by, specific brain areas,” Italian scientists in 2010 showed how certain surgical procedures—in that case, the removal of tumours from specific parts of the brain—could induce a sense of “self-transcendence” in the days following the operation. From this they concluded (not surprisingly) that spirituality was ultimately reducible to brain activity. The next step, they said, was to discover whether self-transcendence, a state characterized by “losing oneself in the moment, feeling connected to other people and nature, and believing in a higher power,” could be induced by stimulating specific parts of the brain in healthy subjects. One can only assume they'd never tripped on mushrooms or LSD.
Sam Harris, arguably the most evangelical of the proselytizers of the so-called New Atheism, has devoted a lot of thought to the idea that religion must be replaced by “rational mysticism,” which he deems to be the proper object of humanity’s spiritual aspirations. If enlightenment is an objective neurological state that can be induced chemically, Harris argues, then we should do everything in our power to explain and control the experience of enlightenment so as to make its “benefits” more widely accessible. In a world where depression is reaching epidemic levels, this would seem to make perfect sense. If happiness can be reduced to a particular configuration of neuronal activity, then it all but goes without saying that the magic pill able to turn us all into Laughing Buddhas should and must be the holy grail of neuroscience. This is the line of thinking that seems to underlie the above-mentioned research project, and probably others since. In the brave new world of universalized management many a bold utopian dreams of, the social conditions that are conducive to happiness would be irrelevant. Theoretically, even a person living under conditions that could drive the unmedicated crazy could dwell perpetually in a chemically induced la-la-land.
Once in Toronto I saw a bus emblazoned with the following message, courtesy of a local atheist association: “There is probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” This commandment, “enjoy your life,” exemplifies a notion of happiness that has come to prevail today. It holds that happiness essentially amounts to the absence of anxiety, regardless of circumstance. It perceives happiness as a feeling of contentment and reasonable cheerfulness that depends largely on one’s ability to detach oneself from external conditions. It is the “peace of mind” promised to us by banks and insurance companies. According to this view, the proper aim of life should not be to create the conditions where contentment arises naturally, since the conditions of modern life are invariably presented as non-negotiable. Contentment, rather, is the extent to which you can adapt to conditions that impose themselves as inalterable facts. It has more to do with material comfort and psychic coping than with fulfilment of any kind.
The exemplar of mental health today is the calm, balanced individual. A happy person is someone who has managed to “adjust” psychologically to the circumstances. Adjusting the circumstances to your hopes and ideals is only allowed insofar as these hopes and ideals are deemed “realistic,” meaning that they do not call into question the basic tenets of the specific social contract that governs our lives. So, for the have-not’s and not-enough's who make up the majority of people, adjusment means embracing servitude and resignation as the cost of societal participation. For the have’s who run the system, it means developing enough mental acumen to detach themselves psychologically from the moral consequences of their actions and lifestyle.
Jiddu Krishnamurti famously said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Whether or not out society is profoundly sick may be a matter of debate. Yet there is no denying the signs that, whatever sickness our society already displays, it is moving in a troubling direction. These signs aren't limited to the passing of authoritarian legislation, the attempts by governments to defend and cover up the practice of torture, or the maniacal proliferation of surveillance and control in every area of modern life. They also include the rise of an ideology in which happiness finds its perfect summation in the smiley face, as in Alan Moore’s Watchmen. The smiley face, just like the atheist slogan cited above, does not want you to change the world. It wants you to stop fussing and be pleasant. "Don't worry, be happy."
It is true that no one can be happy until they accept certain inalienable truths, the eventuality of death being the most important one. Happiness has a lot to do with not banging your head against brick walls. But what the contemporary neurological equation of happiness leaves out is that, individually and collectively speaking, there are things that can change, and at least a few that should change. The reason the French still revere the members of the Resistance as heroes is that these people refused to resign themselves to the fate imposed by the Vichy government in order to fight for changes they believed were possible and necessary. By refusing to conform to the fascism of the status quo, they postponed the basic material comforts that collaboration would have assured them. They did this in order to live a more meaningful—viz., a more ethical—existence.
In a similar way, when Socrates was charged with "corrupting the youth," he refused the option of exile that was dangled in front of him and accepted a sentence of execution by suicide. Exile would have been the natural recourse for anyone who holds to the neurological notion of happiness. Socrates, however, chose to defend himself before the Athenian jurors knowing full well that he would end up dead. He did so in accordance with the dictates of his daimon, his soul, which told him that the right thing to do wasn’t always the fun or reasonable thing to do. The right thing to do presents itself only when we recognize that life has meaning beyond mere survival, mere "happiness." There is a telos in the human heart that shoots past the limits of fear and desire. There is force in us that works against all systems that seek only to manage and maintain, to cope and control. Let's hope it's still with us when the chemicals wear off.