In order to understand the relationship between emptiness and happiness, and also in order to find out the reason why the people in Patagonia’s “Worn Wear” film looked so fulfilled by their worn and torn clothes, we must first revisit the definition of “satisfaction.” It is important to remind ourselves what we are actually seeking when pursuing happiness.
According to Sigmund Freud, “People want to become satisfied and to remain so. This endeavor has two sides, a positive and a negative aim: an absence of pain and displeasure, and experiencing strong feelings of pleasure.” So, satisfaction is a function of two inversely correlated factors: pain and pleasure. We feel more satisfied when pain is reduced and pleasure is gained.
Conceptual Relationship of Pain, Pleasure and Satisfaction
We usually assume that satisfaction levels continue growing in a positive direction as civilization progresses and society improves its abilities to shield/decrease pain, and accelerate productivity to increase pleasure. As productivity increases, our society becomes more abundant and affluent, and people feel more satisfied and happier.
Let’s test if this assumption is correct – does less pain and more pleasure always increase satisfaction?
Happiness or satisfaction are subjective notions and difficult to quantify. So let us look at animals in order to remind ourselves where and why we started our journey to pursue happiness.
The priority of all the creatures on Earth, including humans, is to increase the odds of survival and reproduce. By nature, we are programmed to feel satisfaction when our odds of survival and the prospect for reproduction increases. Eating is supposed to be a pleasure because it provides essential nutrients to maintain life.
However, in nature, there is more pain – predators, harsh weather, disasters, diseases and so forth – and less pleasure: food is limited and has to be fought for, and reproduction can often lead to death. It is reasonable to assume that it is difficult for wild animals to constantly feel satisfied. They must instead be feeling stress and anxiety all the time.
Conceptual cognitive state of natural animals
However, animals are not like humans. Even if they live in a harsh environment where survival is not guaranteed at all, they don’t have the capability to improve their conditions by altering nature in their favor. They just have to accept it as it is. If they were to reduce pain and increase pleasure, the only tool available to perform the task would be their own bodies. Therefore, they always stay alert. Some animals even sleep standing up so that they can deal with danger – which happens very often in the wild – even when they rest. And once in danger, they immediately mobilize their abilities to the maximum, whether it’s sensory (e.g. smell), physical (e.g. flight) or cognitive (e.g. vocal communication). Each and every skill is constantly trained so that it can be deployed at any time to improve their odds of survival. Individuals with inferior capacities are swiftly eliminated, and denied a second chance.
Whereas some animals in the wild don’t sleep laying down, animals out of nature do sleep in this way.
For example, at the zoo, the animals are not alert. They know that they can relax since threats are removed and pleasures are guaranteed. The amount of pain and pleasure goes in the opposite direction compared to the wild environment: pain is down, and pleasure is up. Happily giving up being hyper-alert, they are now busy enjoying the once-impossible luxury: sleep as much as they want. And sleeping animals are what visitors see most of the time. It is extremely rare to come across zoo animals that are on guard or in flight. They look totally different from the animals in the wild. What has happened to them?
We now tap in to the Yerkes-Dodson Law. The Yerkes-Dodson Law is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance. It assumes that humans tend to perform best when they are moderately aroused: not too bored, not too stressed. Take your hearing as an example. You may feel too relaxed to get to work if slow and melodious classical music was played in the background (your cognitive status: sleepy or bored). On the other hand, some uplifting music with decent volume would brighten your mood to focus on your work (your cognitive status: optimal). However, you would be distracted and stressed if someone was blasting loud music (your cognitive status: stressed).
Using the Yerkes-Dodson Law, we could explain what has happened to the animals in the zoo.
In the wild, the animals always have to be alert and aroused to prepare for the unexpected and emergencies. They have incentives to stay so to increase their odds of survival. Their arousal level might always be beyond the optimal point toward stressed and anxious.
But once in the zoo, the incentives to stay alert suddenly disappear, because there are no more threats to decrease their odds of survival. Their arousal level drastically shifts towards a lowered state of alertness.
Conceptual State of Animals in Nature vs. Zoo
Next to “mildly alert” on the curve is “boredom”. Does this mean that the animals in the zoo are bored?