I wrote the following essay for a homework assignment for a class called “Buddhism and Modern Psychology” on Coursera. It’s taught by Robert Wright, evolutionary psychologist an author of The Moral Animal, which is a great book and I recommend if you’re interested in learning more of evo psych.
According to the Buddha, suffering is part of the human existence. The first two Noble Truths of Buddhism spell out that suffering is not only found everywhere around us – it is a part of us. The first truth, dukkha, tells us that suffering is a lack of satisfaction and that pleasures are fleeting and are therefore not a path to lasting satisfaction. The second truth is that because pleasure is fleeting, we cling to these pleasures as our source of satisfaction. We chase their return. I agree with the Buddha that suffering is part of the human existence, and I will give two examples to show this.
The first example comes from principles in evolutionary psychology. We did not evolve to not suffer. Not suffering was never a goal in evolution. Instead, we evolved to survive and replicate. The traits we developed are in some way related to our evolved need to accomplish these two goals. According to Professor Wright in the lectures, feelings of pleasure are among the traits that developed to incentivize people (and our animal ancestors) to survive and replicate. For example, we describe food (survival) as “tasting good” and sex (replication) as “awesome.”
Natural selection doesn’t care if you are happy. If we must suffer in order to accomplish natural selection’s goal of surviving and replicating, then that is still the priority of natural selection. According to evolutionary psychology, it is this natural selection that drives our psychology. When natural selection is what drives psychology, then our default behavior will be whatever most increases our likelihood to survive and reproduce. This is what Professor Wright meant when he said that Buddhism is a “rebellion against natural selection” – Buddhism seeks to end suffering, and that can only be accomplished by not giving in to urges that we are designed to feel.
My second example is a more recent, more practical application of our evolved psychology steering us to suffering. Social media preys on our psychology and leads us to feedback loops of chasing pleasure – these feedback loops which the I argue on behalf of the Buddha that lead us to suffer.
Social media exploits a lot of the behaviors that we developed as ape ancestors way back in the day. To increase our likelihood to survive, we evolved to be tribal – to stick to those close to us and to feel a sense of connection. By increasing the size of his tribe, a man had less enemies and more people to fight off enemies, therefore decreasing the likelihood he would die in attack. We evolved to experience pleasure when we make connection with someone and to seek friendship to encourage us to grow our tribe so we would not die in an attack. Social media exploits this reward for growing our tribe.
Social media exploits the reward for growing a tribe by rewarding an individual with “likes” or retweets if the user posts content that other users find appealing. We get our pleasure feeling when others click “like” or “retweet.” The downside is that, as Wright explained, when pleasure is routine and then removed, dopamine (pleasure sensors) goes negative and we actually feel less happy than our neutral state because we fail to reach expectation.
When a user fails to reach expectation our pleasure expectations, social media users generate more content in hopes they will get those pleasure triggers. It is this clinging the Buddha warned against but on an immediate, constant scale. Social media users, and there are a lot of them, are constantly creating and seeking this fleeting pleasure. Ex-Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya warns against this (link), I warn against this, and the Buddha would warn against this. It is unhealthy to constantly worry about these pleasures inspired by the action (click) from others.
In conclusion, suffering is part of human existence. The very things we are designed to do are sources of our desires that lead us to unhappiness. The need to survive and have children shaped our psychology to seek pleasures, and these pleasures are short-term. We become addicted to the pleasures, like a drug user (which probably also has evolutionary roots).
The Buddha says to acknowledge that these pleasures are fleeting, and that we can end our suffering by removing the search for these fleeting pleasures. This is easier said than done, especially in our modern world where social media creates not only a recurring source of pleasure from “likes” and “retweets”, but also serves as a more common means of finding sexual partners. To be free from the suffering found in seeking pleasure, we must rebel against our default psychology and remove the need for the pleasure that gives reason for us to suffer.