The Will to Happiness and the Opponent Process: psychological phenomena as world-historical forces
So, what is the Will to Happiness? Well, it's my name - riffing off of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to some extent - for the fundamental drive in all of us - i.e., the drive to attain joy, happiness, bliss, etc. Of course, that our actions are all aimed at attaining happiness is not an entirely new idea. Hobbes seemed to think so, if I read him right, and William James says something to that effect explicitly in The Varieties of Religious Experience. But, the Will to Happiness is my own moniker for it, and it's a drive whose importance, I think, cannot be overstated.
For example, what is the basis of all religion? Answer: the Will to Happiness. This is evident enough if we trace the evolution of religion itself. When religion began, it did so in the fairly primitive form of animism. Early animists would ask tree spirits, river spirits, or what have you, to be generous to them - be fruitful, yield plenty of fish, etc. In time, spirits grew into gods, and gods into greater gods. Thus, the Romans had, for example, the god Neptune, to whom was ceded the entire realm of the sea. Obviously, such a god would be far more powerful, and hence capable of greater rewards, than some lowly river spirit. But eventually, even such gods were set aside for someone better - for example, the One God of Judaism and Christianity, who eventually (ostensibly) offered the be all and end all of all religion: heaven. And what is heaven? Limitless happiness, forever and forever.
So, it is plain enough: religion, from its animist infancy to its culmination in monotheism, is fundamentally about assuaging our desire for happiness. That's what it's all about. Of course, since religion is sheer fantasy, it cannot deliver on its promises. The most it can do, really, is function as a sort of fairy tale for adults, with its very own "happily ever after" ending. And that is all.
Unfortunately, the Will to Happiness remains unsatisfied. We still want a heaven, of sorts - we just know (well, some of us know) that religion is no means to that end. We have to look elsewhere.
Which brings me to the Opponent Process. Why do we have so much trouble attaining happiness, or, more to point, maintaining it after we've found it? Answer: the Opponent Process. But what is the Opponent Process exactly? Well, put simply, it is the evolutionarily engrained tendency of our minds to maintain their equilibrium. So, for example, if someone takes a drug - say, cocaine, which increases dopamine levels - the brain will counteract it by, for example, decreasing post-synaptic receptors for dopamine or increasing pre-synaptic re-uptake of it. And that's an example of the Opponent Process at work. In effect, the Opponent Process counteracts the direct effects of the cocaine.
Unfortunately, the Opponent Process doesn't just work against illicit drugs. Indeed, there is an opponent process for everything. For example, studies have shown that lottery winners are, in general, no happier a year after hitting the jackpot than they were before doing so. Likewise, a new car loses its charm over time, a new gadget loses its shine, etc., etc. Basically, whatever we do to achieve happiness, we are always being pulled back to a sort of set-level of happiness by the Opponent Process. (Incidentally, some psychologists will refer to this whole phenomenon as the "hedonic treadmill"; I just prefer Opponent Process for a number of reasons I won't go into here.)
In effect, we have the Will to Happiness pushing us to seek happiness while the Opponent Process steals that happiness away from us. And this unending battle has had profound impacts throughout history. For example, why, in spite of the burgeoning of science and technology, are many people no happier today than others were a hundred years ago? Well, to put it simply, because of the Opponent Process. Every innovation, from the washing machine that does my laundry for me, to the computer that I type this on, eventually goes from the coolest new thing, to the humdrum everyday. The Opponent Process slowly neutralizes our inventiveness. Indeed, we will go on striving for happiness in the future, but will be similarly frustrated in our efforts by our own brain chemistry, by our own neurology and pscyhology...
So, I put this out there, obviously, hoping some of you folks might care to comment. (I'm new to these forums, incidentally, so I hope I haven't committed any faux pas in the way I've gone about trying to start this discussion.) I should add, though, that I've written a lot more extensively (and probably a bit more eloquently given the time I took) on these topics in a book I've just published on lulu.com. You can go straight to it here: http://www.lulu.com/content/767038 . From there, you can preview the book, download a pdf of the whole thing for free, or even buy a hard copy if you feel like spending the grand sum of around 9 bucks (shipping included). So, yeah, have a look, tell your friends, tell me what you think.
Otherwise, I look forward to any comments you'd care to add here.
A. Penn (this is my "pen" name for the purposes of this forum, btw. Get it? )