Americans are the most voracious consumers in the world. It can easily be said that we focus on money, rather than true health, to define our personal happiness.

At the same time, our politics, beliefs and fears tie into our individual and collective perception of safety and the stressors that we face. We’re resorting to mental and physical health prescriptions more than ever. Our behaviors, thoughts, fears, aspirations, memories and beliefs, and their associated health issues, are largely a result of social, physical and mental patterns.

Social scientists have long explored the causal links between physical health and economic security. We’ve talked about these links at length in this book in terms of the social determinants of health. The fact is that the more economic security we have, the healthier we tend to be, which means that this money-health connection has its foundation in reality.

The opposite is also true. According to the WHO, stress-related disorders will be the second leading cause of disabilities by the year 2020.1 As WHO explains it, stress impairs physical and mental functioning, which results in more work days lost, increased impairment at work and a high use of health care services. The disability caused by stress is just as great as the disability caused by conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and arthritis.

We know that many Americans experience an immense amount of stress. In fact, the APA shows that 76 percent of Americans are burdened with financial stress.2 The US Department of Health and Human Services states that 35 percent of middle-class Americans have dealt with a physical symptom of stress such as anxiety, changes in weight, sleeplessness, low energy and irritability.3

What if we believed we could be well? What could the US look like if we decreased our level of stress, strain and mental illness? We can decrease our reliance on Big Pharma and on a system that tells us that we are constantly unwell. Good news doesn’t sell ad space. A lot of the most surprising and life-changing findings from leading scientists are hidden because our health care system emphasizes how it can make money, rather than how it can change our daily habits and incorporate basic shifts in what we eat and how we move.

We need to find ways to heal ourselves that are based on evidence from medical research, but we have to start by looking critically at what actually makes us happy, rather than what we think will solve our problems.

What is happiness?

There is a fundamental adaptability within the human experience that lends itself to feel the full spectrum of happiness.

The idea of happiness, or subjective well-being, is linked to a number of life factors.4 To researchers, happiness is called hedonic adaptation. Ultimately, we all live at a neutral level of happiness; adaptation allows us to weather the natural ups and downs of life.5 In other words, there is not one point at which happiness is optimal for all people. We don’t all love the same things, and we won’t become happy if we achieve specific goals. There are a series of challenges and benefits that cause a human to feel more positive and more negative. People either have or lack the ability to adapt to these issues and boons as they come.

Hedonic adaptation is related to social contexts as well as to actual events that happen in a person’s life. These social contexts and differing cultural norms have an effect on how people view their experiences and values. Although it may be obvious that social factors are important to our perception of happiness, what may be less obvious is the fact that negative experiences are also important—sometimes more so. When there are equal numbers of positive and negative experiences in a relationship between spouses, for example, we are likely to believe that the relationship is a negative one.6 Just like the media, we tend to focus on the bad news rather than the good.

Another component of happiness linked to perception is that of the memories that we create from our experiences. People are likely to create memories to fit old experiences based on new points of view. This is a common way of thinking about the world. We have a propensity to want to see ourselves in the best light, so we will develop a filter for what we believe about ourselves and our experiences to achieve that goal over the long term.7

What seems to be true about life is that it is never altogether happy, even at our most pleasant moments. We have a propensity to look for what might go wrong or who might not have our best interests in mind, even when we are enjoying success or having a wonderful day. An example of this is a situation where an individual has received a promotion at work. Although that person has probably worked very hard for the promotion and has received recognition and possibly a raise in salary, they may also feel like they are a target for jealousy from their colleagues or even their family members. The individual may feel that people will go out of their way to distance themselves because of their new social status. This example demonstrates both the idea of hedonic adaptation and the idea that negative experiences are important to our perception of happiness.

Age can also have a direct effect on happiness, in my opinion, and this impact can change over the course of a life. When we are young, we may be happier because we have fewer responsibilities, but we may also be less happy because we have less power and agency. As we grow older, we may face very specific hardships based on being in school or in trying to get a job, or in dealing with the death of family members. We have specific life experiences that are related to our age group as individuals and as a cohort living in a generation.

There is also a connection between the early social experiences we have as children, happiness factors and how we perceive the value of social experiences once we arrive at adulthood. Over time, we can begin to appreciate the link between the depth of the social relationship and how we feel, both positively and negatively. We assess what we will do with the information we receive from our interactions with others.

Social contexts are invariably connected to economic, personal and environmental factors, so it is not simply the existence of relationships that matters. For example, if someone were to lose their job and become unemployed for a long period of time, this would affect not only how they felt about themselves but also how others would tend to think about them. The change in social context based on this economic factor would likely have an effect on the relationship.

The underlying theory behind these kinds of social changes is linked to what are called affective events.8 In other words, people have a tendency to shift their emotional self-concept when they are in specific situations, which can impact their relationships and the way that they see themselves as valued by social connections and by society as a whole.9

At what price happiness?

When we talk about happiness, therefore, we can see that there are many different factors at play, but that our jobs can play a big role in how we perceive ourselves and our relationships with others. Here in the United States, the more that we work, the more that we garner the approval of others. The more that others like us, we think the happier we’ll be.

But why is that? And what does all of this have to do with CBD?

In the United States, our hedonic adaptations, the source of our happiness, can be linked to our cultural connection with capitalism. This means that money comes first: before our health, before our well-being and before any other happiness factor.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to something we talked about earlier: the Protestant values upon which our country was founded, and that work ethic that we share as Americans. Our founding fathers intended the United States to be a democracy like no other. We had escaped the hierarchical, theocratic controls of our English ancestors, and we wanted to do something entirely new: create a republic where people would have the freedom to vote as they chose. At the time, what was to become the US was inspiring to others around the world. At the end of the French Revolution in 1779, which was not much different from our own, France ended up mired in another form of dictatorship, albeit one without a regent, in the form of Napoleon Bonaparte. Even England suffered through massive internal reforms with respect to the powers of Parliament under George IV at the beginning of the nineteenth century, eventually giving way to a true democracy.

The US, however, was going to be different, and the difference that people believed set it apart was, strangely enough, religion. While the separation of church and state is a tenet that our founding fathers may have held dear, the reality was that the US was profoundly influenced by religious belief.

Let’s unpack this claim. The French political pundit Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in the decades shortly after our constitution was settled, suggested, using the US as an example of a great democracy, that it was necessary to pursue a religious life in order to ensure a high rate of democratic intent and practice in a community.10 The rationale for his argument that religion was an essential component of democracy is that it allowed for a decrease in what he termed individualism. As de Tocqueville writes, when people are too focused on their own needs and desires over those of others, they are less likely to become part of a democracy. As well, even when a democracy was in place, as de Tocqueville explained, people would be more likely to be interested in the aim for material wealth, simply because, without an aristocratic hierarchy that guaranteed wealth, there would be a need for its acquisition for human security. To this end, he writes, religion, especially if it were organized, would serve as a way to provide a counterbalance to materialism, and it would also decrease religious fanaticism at the same time. This is because, at the heart of the matter, de Tocqueville believed that religion would force people to consider the needs of others over their own needs, and therefore a search for goods or money would become secondary. An American democracy, to de Tocqueville, was one in which the population wasn’t interested in consumption or wealth at all.

Here’s the challenge: de Tocqueville may have been completely wrong about the United States. An entirely different perspective was offered by Max Weber, a German economic sociologist, about a century later.11 An American democracy, to Weber, was one in which the population was entirely interested in consumption or wealth. As Weber argued, the reason that capitalism, in its present form, existed in the United States in such extremes was because of what he called the Protestant work ethic. When the Puritans came to what is now the United States and founded their colonies, they did so to escape what they believed was religious persecution in Britain. These were the religious extremists of their time, and they believed that the ability to gain access to capital, whether goods or money itself, was an outward representation of God’s approval of their life choices.

Money provided proof that God wanted Protestant values supported—values such as hard work, frugality and thrift. When someone was rich, Weber suggested, it meant that they were in God’s grace, because they followed God’s law. People who were poor, therefore, were those who weren’t protected by God because they were intrinsically bad people.

The political mandate of democracy and the religious mandate of the Puritans became conflated. These mandates came to be associated with the acquisition of goods and financial wealth, as noted by Weber, even if this was not explicitly stated. At the same time, what was evident from the sixteenth century onward was that, in both Protestant Europe and what became the United States, there was an increased polarization between the rich and the poor that was predicated by the tacit rules of the Protestant work ethic.

Weber’s point of view is one that reveals the true nature of what we can see is the focal point of the American Dream: to make more money. This focus has led to more extreme forms of materialism and religious fanaticism over time, rather than less.

This is one of the means by which capitalism is dysfunctional. Its essential meanings have been distorted over time because people assume that our current capitalist economic system is a natural economic system grounded in our biological function as human beings, i.e., we acquire goods to feel safe and protected. This view exposes capitalism’s unique nature, which is private, exclusionary and for profit. These concepts are new and not natural to human society. In other words, personal happiness is not necessarily best achieved through capitalism, even though we are likely to believe this to be true in the present day.

Cash reserves, health reserves

If it is so problematic, why do we do equate happiness with making money? Why do we use capitalism as a primary political and economic tool when it leads to such blatant inequality? Why do we continue to think that it is good to acquire things, rather than focus on our psychological and physical health?

Ultimately, our ideals, bound up in the American capitalist democracy, have global effects. Mass production has required the creation of cheaper forms of labor. New forms of neoliberal mass production have, lately, only been able to be sourced in poorer countries of the world, since there are unions and other policy protections in place in developed countries. We have fractured our personal happiness. To this end, because of cultural and economic differences between workers around the world, globalized companies can take advantage of poor communities where people are desperate for jobs. The people who work for large multinationals have few choices but to continue to work, because the role of every capitalist enterprise is to decrease its costs as much as possible and bring value to shareholders. Workers in these areas may consider their employer to own their time, and they are doing everything they can to fulfill that commitment to those whom they serve because they have no other means of providing for their families or themselves.

We can do capitalism better. New and more explicit forms of social economy have also arisen in the capitalist age, including the recognition of more extensive democratic rights, the rights of marginalized groups and the need for managing externalities such as climate change. Capitalism is both the positive and negative cause of these developments. On the positive side, the push for personal interests and protection within capitalism can be definitively linked to the idea of personal rights that has led to social justice reform. On the negative side, the push for corporate greed has also led to social justice reform through the development of unions, legal reforms and environmental protection agencies. The challenge then is that we need to shift the way that we think about who we are and what we do, and how we calculate what makes us happy.

CBD is a big part of this process.

The pursuit of true happiness

We are at the beginning of a sea change in how we perceive values in the United States. Awareness about the role of cannabis in our culture is a touchstone for many, and just one of the examples of how we are changing the way we think.

In 1969, only 12 percent of the US population supported the legalization of recreational marijuana use, as per a Gallup poll, but by 2000, this number was 30 percent.12 By 2015, 58 percent of people in the US, and 71 percent of young adults between sixteen and thirty, supported marijuana legalization. The support of legalization is likely to continue to grow.

And it’s not just cannabis that is linked to these social changes. Public opinion on other social issues is moving inexorably toward greater tolerance. Two NBC News/Wall Street Journal polls show that, in the middle of the 2004 presidential election, the public, by better than a two-to-one margin, opposed same-sex marriages. In 2012, in the same poll, on the same question, most favored it.13

Think carefully about that. The gay marriage issue is something emotionally rooted in the mesh of supposedly fast-held American beliefs, most generally emanating from learned religious dogma. So then how is it that an issue so influenced by religion and so deeply “learned” can undergo such a dramatic public belief shift in just a few years? This is a brilliant example of how humans are far more capable of changing their deeply held beliefs than we give ourselves credit for.

Cannabis advocate Steve DeAngelo has been a part of the industry throughout its modern history, and he believes that we’re looking at a social shift that will eventually help us redefine what matters to us as Americans. “There’s something that is going on with this plant in the world today that is bigger than any of us can really figure out,” DeAngelo says. “All around the world, wherever I go, in Israel, in Canada, in Chile, in Spain, I find people like myself who have been called by the cannabis plant, and who have become passionate about telling the truth about it, about educating people and who commit their lives to this plant. I think that there’s something bigger going on. I don’t think we’ve really figured out what it all means yet, but it has something to do with leading us—and when I say us, I mean every human being on this planet—back to nature and a more balanced kind of life. It has something to do with making sure that we grow a little bit of wisdom and a little bit of kindness.”

Andrew DeAngelo, his business partner and brother, agrees. “One of the things that I feel our modern world needs more of is real human connection and community. We have all these devices and platforms and we can communicate with each other, but we have a crisis of loneliness. I think that cannabis really is a wonderful vehicle for creating community. The two greatest things about my job are helping people with their illnesses and helping them feel better. I feel much more whole as a human being having this community that I can connect to on a daily basis. It’s made me a happier person. Every day I wake up excited to go to work. I’ve got a wiggle in my stride. I’m thrilled to be able to do this. I feel very blessed to be able to do this.”

We sometimes talk about the possibility that the world can be a much better place in a short period of time. Some people believe serious, deep-rooted social change happens only gradually, as new generations of more tolerant young people take over the dashboard of government and business control. While that slower process plays a major role in how society evolves, there are two other important factors.

Exponential Factors. With ever-increasing frequency, our society is interacting in a feedback loop with our technology that has increased the cycle of social change to its fastest-ever pace. Policy makers and public office candidates can take opinion polls in hours and respond to that data with modified policy proposals. We can organize political revolutions via the internet in days, such as transpired in the Arab Spring. Misinformation is also easily distributed and propagated. Raw and uncensored news flows around the neural network of the web so fast that those in power are forced to consider taking a fresh new approach: honesty, equity and transparency. Social scientists, as we’ve seen in this chapter, are now seeing evidence that social programming, such as our learned prejudice toward gay people,14 is much more plastic and able to rapidly adapt than older social theories were able to predict.

Punctuation Events. We also know that biological evolution interacts with itself in feedback loops. The long cycle loop is slow. As life competes for limited resources, it relies on genetic mutations to better adapt each new genus and species to slow growth environmental change, such as climate patterns, ocean water levels, salinity levels, tectonic plate movement and other major factors.15 The lifeforms then act upon the slow evolutionary processes to further guide new mutations. The short cycle feedback loop comes from abrupt, out-of-nowhere environmental change: a punctuation event.16 For example, an asteroid impact can dramatically change the carbon dioxide level of the atmosphere within a day. Life rapidly responds, with certain species showing a higher propensity to adapt and change behavior without the need for genetic mutation. The rapid overnight behavior mutations in these groups allows those members to survive. In other words, successful survivors of punctuation events linked to environmental change tend to have more plasticity in their behavior patterns. There are many examples of this in nature, but humans are by far the most successful species at rapid behavior mutation without the need for physiological genetic adaptation or modification. We’re literally built to change our behaviors and our minds—quickly.

Despite our entrenched social dogma, these emergent systems tend to be fairly autonomous and free of central control from any person or group. At an increasing rate, this emergent informational lifeform is relying upon and exploiting our natural evolutionary ability to rapidly change. Our powerful survival skill of behavior and belief plasticity determines the rate of behavior evolution.

Here’s another way to think about all this. We like to talk about how our understanding of the universe is exponentially changing, along with our resulting technologies. Could the human species be embarking upon an evolutionary punctuation event with regard to social tolerance? In less than one generation, will we witness an exponential rate of change in the way that we perceive plant medicines so that we can begin to move toward wellness?

It’s only a matter of time before a paradigm shift in global behavior takes root via simple evolution. And when it does, it’s fair to expect it to occur with blinding speed, due to the increasing tendency toward rapid change of all systems. As Steve DeAngelo says, the ability of cannabis to engender a dialogue in our minds, look at ourselves, evaluate our past actions and help us become the people we most want to be is its most precious attribute.

Our species is capable of a shift to a less selfish and more tolerant society. Such a paradigm shift to kindness and understanding is a slam dunk, because, at its core, it better ensures survival.

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