Can you trust your feelings?

A few paragraphs from Robert Wright’s new book Why Buddhism is True.

  1. Our feelings weren’t designed to depict reality accurately even in our “natural” environment. Feelings were designed to get the genes of our hunter-gatherer ancestors into the next generation. If that meant deluding our ancestors — making them so fearful that they “see” a snake that isn’t actually there, say — so be it. This class of illusions, “natural” illusions, helps explain a lot of distortions in our apprehension of the world, especially the social world: warped ideas about ourselves, about our friends, our kin, our enemies, our casual acquaintances, even strangers. (Which about covers it, right?)
  2. The fact that we’re not living in a “natural” environment makes our feelings even less reliable guides to reality. Feelings that are designed to create illusions, such as seeing a snake that isn’t there, may at least have the virtue of increasing the organism’s prospects of surviving and reproducing. But the modern environment can take various kinds of feelings that served our ancestors in this Darwinian sense and render them counterproductive in the same sense — they may actually lower a person’s life expectancy. Violent rage and the yearnings of a sweet tooth are good examples. These feelings were once “true” at least in the pragmatic sense of guiding the organism toward behaviors that were in some sense good for it. But now they’re likely to mislead.
  3. Underlying it all is the happiness delusion. As the Buddha emphasized, our ongoing attempts to feel better tend to involve an overestimation of how long “better” is going to last. What’s more, when “better” ends, it can be followed by “worse” — an unsettled feeling, a thirst for more. Long before psychologists were describing the hedonic treadmill, the Buddha saw it.

I’m enjoying the book so far. Here’s The New Yorker on it, and The New York Times — one, two —  and here’s a piece Wright wrote about meditation for The Atlantic almost five years ago.

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