What is happiness?
Not religion, thought both Marx and Rand. Religious institutions have oft been decried as systems of oppression. They can exclude women, undermine opposing perspectives as sinful and cast "The Other" as infidels deprived of human rights. Of course, Religious institutions are also insatiable beasts requiring vast wealth to keep The Word of God in tangible form, or at least to open to door for access and indulgences.
Friends on the political left will tell me that religions are designed to create haves and have nots and therefore are naught but systems crafted by the elite to enforce compliance and extraction from everyone else. Religions have certainly been used for such exploits in the past (and present), but that's the institution and the people within the institution - not the religion itself.
It is worth noting that most of the founders of the world's great religions lived lives of poverty.
Ecstatic practitioners of all faiths equally eschew the trappings of wealth and live simply, close to the earth. As implied by the term - ecstatic - these mystics also live lives dipped in rapture. Is there joy illusory?
What defines happiness, if happiness is the goal? Marx tells us religion is an opiate, an externally applied substance that creates the illusion of contentment. If the wealthy are tricking the poor with cheap bobbles to keep real happiness to themselves, is the implication here that wealth is contentment?
One would think, then, that the wealthy are deliriously happy and without a care in the world. But if they feel an urge to trick the people so as to hold on to their own vast fortunes, the implication isn't happiness, it's fear of loss by competition.
Capitalism is theoretically all about competition; work hard, work smart and you too can be wealthy. God isn't a network, so go forth and create your own, kind of thing. If it's the ability to compete that drives people to succeed, gain wealth and buy happiness, you'd think we have a population that is hard-nosed driven to build their own success and, as a consequence, buy happiness. But happiness through goods isn't all that different from the supposed opiate of God - it's an external substance consumed to create an artificial sense of contentment.
External substances. Manufactured highs. It's known that certain drugs, including narcotics like opiates, can be highly addictive; the highs one reach under the influence cannot be matched in normal life, meaning the drug becomes an escape from one's existing circumstances - it's the escape more than the substance that is addictive, which is now being demonstrated through scientific study
. Are luxury cars, expensive meals or trips to exotic locations any different? Are mansions and vast lawns with high walls any different?
All are variants on the same theme; escaping a heartless world. One would think Marx would have concluded that both the rich and the poor worship false idols in pursuit of happiness, seeking a Final Solution to remove the source of their misery from the world to create a better one.
But why are the poor mystics so damned happy then? Why would folk like, say, the Dalai Lama
continuously dive back into worlds of hardship and emerge even more content, almost childlike as a result?
Let's go back to happiness. What is it?
If you believe happiness is a feeling - light on your feet, a sense of optimism, an opposite to sadness, then what you are describing is a nothing more than a neurochemical state. Hormones like serotoin, endorphin and oxytocin create states that can be described as happy ones. Neurochemicals like dopamine are stimulated by the consumption of narcotics, which is why they are addictive.
So, if true happiness is the stimulation of happy hormones within the body without external stimulation, either in the form of religion, goods or drugs, how can it be achieved in a heartless world?
A world without a heart is a body without a circulatory system, like a jellyfish or a flatworm. Our world is infinitely more complex than that, as is our civilization
. The heart is a selfless muscle, constantly beating, feeding the rest of the body, keeping the system flowing.
We humans couldn't live without it; in fact, we never have. There's been some form of heart throughout our evolutionary process, slowly growing more complex as our own internal systems have grown more complex. It's not often we think about our heart and its simple but essential role, until it or our body comes under duress.
Which brings us back to those happy ecstatics like the Dalai Lama, trying to keep dialogue between conflicting systems, trying to breathe life and hope into the abysmally poor and somehow, finding sustenance for their souls through the process.
There's a funny connection between states of religious ecstasy and mania - which, in turn, is a neurochemical state that has a lot in common with a narcotic high, only produced without the need of external stimulation.
Marx had it wrong.
The world isn't heartless. Despite it's role as a tool for circulation, a full heart is a concept synonymous with happiness; there's a reason for this.
Folk like the Dalai Lama are happy because they have beaten us to the punch, so to speak, and have realized something the rest of us haven't; religion isn't the sigh of an oppressed creature so much as it is a pulse, keeping the system pumping as it evolves, ever slowly, towards something more complex that requires not just a complex circulatory system, but a nervous system as well.
Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power. If you realize that you have enough, you are truly rich.