It is not easy to acknowledge an ugly truth. A two-part analogy might help. The first is a “cotton picking” reality, i.e. we all labor in a grim, back-breaking field. Secondly, our context is the “Deep South,” a demented region. We are enslaved by both our story and our identity. However, another hard-to-accept aspect of the human condition is that our manumission, our freedom, will be a conscious choice, unlike our unconscious choice to be shackled.
We are more likely to wake up to this reality if we come to understand the influence of the “slave system” in which we are immersed and the details of how and why we chose to adopt the identity of “slave.” Let’s visit the plantation of P-B. You can find both your True self and your false self there but you must first find the courage to open your eyes.
What Is Happiness?
Certainly, freedom from slavery has to be a basic component of happiness. How about money? Filipinos, who live in a relatively poor country, report that they are relatively happy. At this point we should at least try to define happiness, although we will find that to be more difficult than one might suppose. Notice that as we look at the different ways people search for happiness in P-B they often seem more and more desperate as they get older. It is as if the more it eludes them, the more desperate they become because they sense they are not going to find it. And for most of them they are right about that.
Words found in dictionary definitions of happiness include luck, enthusiasm, spontaneity, pleasure, joy, well-adapted, and cheerful. And yet, in this portion of our essay, we will find that Americans are hard-put to define what makes them happy with any degree of certainty. Notice that material wealth was not mentioned in the dictionary but in recent surveys searching for what makes people happy, money is the central theme.
When University of Southern California economist Richard Easterlin published a paper in 1974, he concluded that people do not become happier as they become richer. This so-called Easterlin paradox has not held up over time as new data roll in, except in the U.S.
For the 3 billion people on the planet who live on $2.50 per day, small increases in income can lead to profound changes in happiness. Similarly, most rich countries have reported increases in happiness as they become richer. “There is one strange exception. The U.S. is nearly three times as rich today  as it was in 1973 when Easterlin was collecting his data. According to nearly every survey, though, Americans are not at all happier than we were back then.”
Thousands of books relating to how to obtain happiness ranging from how to get rich, how to use positive thinking, or how to maintain healthy personal relationships, etc., have been written over the last thirty years and thousands more will be written during the next thirty years. Few of these books will touch on the principles of Simple Reality and will therefore be of little help to those who don’t yet know what happiness is, let alone know how to create it.
One thing is for certain, happiness will not be found in the pursuit of the “pleasures” that we will explore in the remaining sections of this essay. Whether those seeking happiness are after money, food, satisfying relationships or just escape from their own anxiety, we cannot escape the reality that their stories are very, very sad.
Can all of these elements be woven together into a compelling story? Of course! But we won’t like it. First we have American children suffering from diabetes, heart disease, increasing signs of hypertension and an obesity epidemic. Secondly we have C.E.O.’s of America’s largest food companies (Kraft, Nabisco, Procter and Gamble, Nestle, General Mills, Coca Cola and Mars) meeting in Minneapolis on April 8, 1999. And then we have the human tendency toward addiction combined with the revelation that some processed foods have a hidden power to make people feel hungry after eating them.
Why won’t we like the facts in this essay, this egregious expression of the sensation energy center of the false self? Because some of our fellow citizens in this poker game called democracy have been dealing cards under the table; read ‘em and get angry. In meetings like the one in Minneapolis, C.E.O.’s are conspiring to spend millions in their food labs developing products that are both physically and psychologically addicting.
Additional millions are spent on advertising that is purposefully misleading if not blatantly false. Children are often the intended targets (victims) and the effects on their health matter far less than stockholder-pleasing profits. None of this is new to the informed American citizen but the details are alarming.
Why is it that understanding “truth” is pretty easy—but illusion can be so complex? For example, Buddha started with the first noble truth, namely, life is suffering. Can we understand why this is so? The second noble truth says, simply, yes. The third noble truth says that suffering is caused by craving and aversion. That’s it! If we could internalize the depth of this paragraph, we would have at least an entry point to address most of the unhappiness that humanity experiences on this planet.
Among the people most highly motivated to find the commercial uses of Buddha’s insights were those producers of our food and beverages. Following is a very brief, but instructive look at the balance between craving and aversion in the American “Big Food” industry. Does this story have any relationship to the suffering caused by addiction? Let’s answer that with a big resounding YES!
Americans did not always eat so much sugar, salt and fat—we were seduced by the products developed by the chefs and psychologists in the labs of Big Food. Sugar was added to almost everything edible until the human guinea pigs said it was just right—the “bliss point.”
Chemists and psychologists were learning about brain behavior and its relationship to food consumption. For example, brain research showed that soldiers were throwing away their M.R.E.’s (meals ready to eat) because their brain had reached “sensory-specific-satiety” caused by strong, distinct flavors that overwhelmed the brain if eaten too often.
Then there is the “mouth feel” caused by a number of sensations with “fat” ranking second to the “bliss point” in predicting how much craving a product will produce. The perfect (most profitable) product for a food producer would be one that would be the most addictive, so why not develop one that had all the tempting, harmful ingredients—sugar, fat and salt.
“In 2011, The New England Journal of medicine published a study that shed new light on America’s weight gain … They found that every four years [beginning in 1986], the participants exercised less, watched TV more and gained an average of 3.35 pounds. The researchers parsed the data by the caloric content of the foods being eaten, and found the top contributors to weight gain included red meat and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and potatoes, including mashed and French fries. But the largest weight-inducing food was the potato chip.”
The psychologists made their contribution in effective but disingenuous advertising: “fat-fried” chips became “baked.” Then the chemists suggested a coating of salt. And the starch that was readily absorbed contained the sugar. The fat content and salt reward the brain and the sugar causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike which increases a craving for more sugar. The potato chip is the perfect snack food for busy Americans who want to gain weight, become addicts and die early.
E- Cigs and the Return of Cancer
Many of us lived through the long struggle to restrict Big Tobacco’s ability to promote and the American consumer’s right to smoke an addictive and deadly product. This explains why we are dismayed to see another harmful product appear on the scene from the same producers who brought us the Marlboro Man.
The product: E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that form a mist which delivers the vaporized nicotine when inhaled.
The dangers: Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, says that the adolescent brain is more susceptible to nicotine.
The concern: E-cigarettes could become a path to smoking among young people who would otherwise not consider using tobacco.
The facts: “The share of middle and high school students who use e-cigarettes doubled in 2012 from the previous year, federal data show.”
The lies: Greed among tobacco producers motivated them to fabricate research data, promote a product their own research indicated was harmful, and lie to the media and investigators over a period of many years. Promoters of E-cigarettes deny they are marketing to young people. “E- cigarettes also come in flavors, which were banned in traditional cigarettes in 2009 and which health officials say appeal to young people.” Did we think that Big Tobacco would ignore a marketing opportunity?
Those of you looking for a long-term investment opportunity dare not overlook tobacco. The U.S. and 11 countries bordering the Pacific Ocean are engaged (2013) in negotiations over a treaty intended to lower tariffs on products including tobacco. “Reducing trade barriers to tobacco, a uniquely dangerous product, would serve to increase tobacco consumption and lead to many additional deaths on top of an already high total. Tobacco killed an estimated 100 million people in the 20th century and is projected to kill 1 billion people in this century unless strong action is taken to mitigate the damage.” Now that is what we would call a growth industry. History reveals that when the human false self is asked to choose between profit and compassion, the corporate stockholders usually hold the winning hand.
Don’t Bother Me! I’m Mainlining the Contents of My Smartphone
“I always have my phone on me. So checking these things is something I do instinctively when I wake up,” he [Eric Witz] says. “That probably makes me a sad social-media cliché, but it’s the truth.”
Like Eric, many of us sense we are immersing ourselves more deeply into a culture that is separating us from one another, that is breaking down our sense of community. Are we unable to resist our addictions or are we using them as a distraction out of the fear that we can no longer cope with where our story is taking us?
“Even the past two years have upended the way we receive information. We’ve moved from merely posting a status update with words to sharing photos and videos taken on smartphones, and we can’t let go.”
Charlene de Guzman, who created a two-minute video about people who ignore real life in favor of their smartphones: “It makes me sad that there are moments in our lives where we’re not present because we’re looking at a phone.”
Not Your Grandmother’s Slots
Many of us look forward to our annual pilgrimages to our favorite gambling mecca. Most people don’t seriously think they are going to make money so most must think they are going to experience some form of happiness. What if they, in fact, find themselves enslaved on a strange sort of plantation, chained to a machine that they must feed? A very hungry machine!
The book entitled Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas by Natasha Dow Schull reveals the purpose of this part of our essay. “What may not be so evident is how a shift in casino gambling to screen-based games contributes to gambling addiction.” Schull, an associate professor in the Program in Science, Technology and Society at M.I.T., offers a look at how digital technology in casino gambling intensifies addictive behaviors in many gamblers, often without their realizing what is happening or how.
Our understanding of the sensation energy center of the false self reveals that our behaviors associated with the seeking of sensations, has to do with the desire to escape taking responsibility for our experience in life by finding distractions, i.e., ways to avoid reality. “She [Schull] met players who told her how they sought to enter a mindless state, a “zone,” in which all else is obliterated, and to stay there as long as possible. You aren’t really there—you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with,” one subject said, describing the zone “where nothing else matters.”
“Speed is one design element of modern gambling machines that helps preserve that zone. When the machines’ gear-driven handles were replaced by electronic push-buttons, the number of games that could be played in an hour doubled. On today’s video slots, played with credit cards instead of coins, players can complete a game in as little as three seconds. There is virtually no pause between plays and virtually no opportunity to process what has just transpired.” That’s what we could call being “zoned out.”
We tend to look at new technologies as friendly making our lives easier or more exciting. We no longer have to endure the lash of the overseers whip in the cotton field. Nor are most of us on the assembly line where the foreman gradually speeds up the line to increase production. Instead, while in Vegas, we are on vacation where something eerily similar is going on. We still wear our shackles but would resist anyone who would offer to remove them.
If we have reached that place in the human narrative where we actively seek unconsciousness, the “game” is over for us. We cannot build a sustainable human community or solve our complex problems by refusing to make conscious and intelligent or intuitive choices. “I don’t think any human being sitting there, two hours in, playing 1,200 games an hour, can be described as ‘making decisions.’”
Just as corporate greed plays its part in the food industry and Big Tobacco, we can expect to find it operating in the world of gambling. Kevin Harrigan, a research associate professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada reveals how electronic machines cause players to think that they have almost won—when they haven’t.
“In a typical multi-line slot setup, a player can bet on up to 20 different pay lines in a single game. If a player wins 9 of the 20 lines, resulting in a net loss, the machine still celebrates the occasion with the sound and video effects.” The bells are ringing and like Pavlov’s dog, we are salivating. “Addiction specialists are concerned that the near-wins and false wins served up by digital gambling technology set off the same reward mechanism in the brain that is activated by actually winning.” The psychology behind behavioral conditioning is well understood by casino management, but for us slave’s laboring in the fields of the vast casino gambling rooms—not so much.
As we continue down the road in the P-B narrative, what will we find up ahead? University of Chicago professor of psychiatry Jon E. Grant: “The gambling problems of the people who are coming in for treatment, or who we see in our research, appear to be more severe than they were 10 or 15 years ago.”
The article by Randall Stross from which the quotes for this portion of our essay were taken is entitled “I’m Losing Money. So Why Do I Feel So Good?” What the mystics of the past 3000 years could tell our psychologists, our gamblers and our government regulators is that pleasure (feeling good) is actually suffering. Since naïve Americans have yet to learn the distinction between emotions (pleasure) and feeling, we can expect to find more of our fellow citizens seeking help for obesity (food addiction), nicotine addiction, gambling addiction and enslavement to our devices (addition to social media). Addiction is indeed a growth industry.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry:
Who Am I? The Second Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Where Am I? The First Great Question Concerning the Nature of Reality
Simple Reality: The Key to Serenity and Survival