Homeostasis and Happiness

Tantalus, eternal hunger and thirst

An American doctor, Siddhartha Mukherjee, recently wrote about returning to India to be with his dying father. His touching essay, “My Father’s Body, At Rest and In Motion” in the New Yorker magazine, was as much a meditation on the concept of homeostasis as it was an account of his father’s passing.

It turns out that the word homeostasis is a modern coinage. In the late 1920s physiologist Walter Cannon hitched the Greek homoios (similar) to stasis (stillness) and added homeostasis to the dictionary. Drawing on his experiences treating Allied troops during the First World War, Cannon argued that the capacity to sustain internal constancy was an essential feature of an organism. He had been inspired by the work of predecessors, such as 19th century French physiologist Claude Bernard who wrote that “the constancy of [an organism’s] interior environment is the condition of free and independent life.”

Mukherjee presents temperature as one example of the body’s obsession with homeostasis. The healthy human body maintains a very narrow range – between 97 and 99 degrees – despite wild variations in the external environment. But the example at the center of Mukherjee’s touching essay is his father at the end of his life. Homeostasis kept slipping in the father’s failing body. His body and mind mustered all their fading resources in the fight to sustain homeostasis but the battle was eventually lost. Death – an organism’s ultimate anti-stasis – ensued.

The concept of homeostasis has broad application beyond medicine. “Cells, cities, societies, even political institutions – all have the capacity to steady their states through the actions of self-regulated and counterpoised forces,” Mukherjee writes. He describes how Indian hospitals constantly fight to maintain organizational equilibrium in the face of inadequate resources, especially compared to the American hospitals where the author works.

A ready example of homeostasis is body weight. We read innumerable accounts of obese people losing weight, sometimes with the help of radical stomach surgery, yet the body’s insistence on homeostasis often results in the lost flesh eventually finding its way back into the body.

What about happiness and sadness, the article made me wonder. Are they not another example of homeostasis? Despite America’s claim in its Declaration of Independence that our inalienable rights include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we seem to each dwell in a fairly narrow band on the happy-sad axis. Even if Eeyore did try to pursue happiness we know he wouldn’t find it because, well, Eeyore is Eeyore. Granted, he is a British donkey but he would be no happier on this side of the Atlantic. Anyone who’s spent much time around an Eeyore knows what a futile utterance is “it’s not really so bad.” Only a fool tells Eeyore, “Cheer up, you fool.”

Many psychologists hold that each of us has a happiness “set point.” Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor and author of the 2008 book The How of Happiness, estimates that 50% of our default happiness level depends on genetics, 40% on our internal state of mind, and 10% on external circumstances. In the non-genetic half of her model, Lyubormirsky finds enough space for happiness to be modified: “Despite pessimism from the current literature that the pursuit of happiness may be largely futile, my colleagues and I believe that durable increases in happiness are indeed possible and within the average person’s reach.” She is presently researching the efficacy of five strategies: (1) regularly setting aside time to recall moments of gratitude; (2) self-regulatory and positive thinking about oneself; (3) practicing altruism and kindness; (4) affirming one’s most important values; and (5) savoring positive experiences.

I confess to some pessimism about this sort of optimism. It’s not that I doubt these strategies can be useful for some individuals, nudging their set-point a little higher on the happy-sad axis. It’s that I question the very goal of happiness.

In Greek mythology, Tantalus was a son of Zeus who behaved badly and got himself thrown out of Olympus. His eternal punishment was to stand in a pool of water, under the branches of a fruit tree. Whenever he reached for a fruit, the branches would rise out of reach. When he bent down to sip water, the waters of the pool would recede. (Hence our word tantalize.) It seems to me that happiness, if and when it does appear in our lives or souls, arrives from an oblique direction, as a byproduct of our morally good actions; actions that we did not take for the express purpose of making ourselves happy. If we take dead aim at happiness, our target will be like Tantalus’s fruit and water. It will remain beyond our grasp.

The academic study of happiness includes the concept of hedonic adaptation, also known as the happiness treadmill. It refers to our tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level (homeostasis) of happiness despite major positive or negative events. According to this theory, as a person makes more money or acquires new things, expectations and desires rise in tandem, resulting in no permanent gain in happiness.

Did America, by giving such prominence to the pursuit of happiness in its seminal document, introduce a serious flaw in our national psyche? Is there a connection between the primacy we accord that inalienable right and America’s excessive consumerism and materialism? Even if one manages to forestall disappointment following material acquisitions, disappointment eventually arrives in the form of our death.

The third leg of France’s national motto, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” embodies more wisdom than America’s third inalienable right. In fraternité is found a vital, if oblique, source of durable happiness – belonging to and participating in community, helping our neighbors, particularly those less fortunate. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of our country’s increased polarization of recent decades is that social bonds have weakened, we have become alienated from each other. We have hunkered down into tribes and have turned our backs on the larger idea of America. Fraternity is in retreat between our unhappy shores.

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One Response to “Homeostasis and Happiness”

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  1. Mary Lou Enlow says:

    This is welcome and very good, I think. Louis always took the pessimistic stance in order to avoid disappointment. He found sudden negative experience easier to take than disappointment. He avoided positive expectation. At the end of his life, however, he claimed satisfaction and gratitude for the good things.
    We all want to think we can manage with our personal slant on things, which we always think is “realistic”.

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