Happiness and self-fulfilment are common goals in the game that is human life. However complex the rules of that game, eventually it is a neurobiological response in our brains that makes us feel happy or satisfied. Natural selection has favored those species who desired to achieve behavior that was beneficial for the survival of the individual and its kind. In the course of evolution, we were thus endowed with what neuroscientists call the “reward circuit”. The reward circuit becomes active if we do what is necessary or beneficial for survival, such as eating, learning, or having sex.
Research has shown the reward circuit is not only a direct response that leads to the production of endorphins responsible for happiness. It is also coupled to the hippocampus, our learning and memory center, and the prefrontal cortex, relevant for our thinking and planning. This enables us to develop possibly quite complicated tactics to trigger the reward mechanism. With the rise of human culture, many secondary goals have developed such as the desire for money or human touch, and tactics explained in all the self-help books that promise a way to reach them. This reward circuit provides a powerful mechanism on the level of an individual that has been enormously effective in driving progress of the whole species.
There are shortcuts to immediate happiness. Drugs like cocaine, speed, angel dust, heroine, morphine, alcohol and tobacco stimulate the reward system, and often provide greater pleasure than is normally the result of natural stimulation. With repeated drug use, neurotransmitters in the brain develop a substance tolerance, it then takes a larger dose to achieve the same effect. Simultaneously, the user becomes less receptive to natural stimuli and loses interest in activities other than obtaining the next dose. Changes in the brain metabolism cause withdrawal effects, which makes it hard to fall back into a previously stable and pleasant state. Our ability to learn from rewards and direct our actions towards this goal then leads to a planning of how to get the next drug. It becomes the center of interest, many users report a constant obsession with the drug. In many cases, the addict neglects primary survival needs.
All of the mentioned drugs have well studied negative consequences for the user's physical and mental health. But the knowledge of these consequences is generally not sufficient for the addict to break out of this vicious cycle that rewards repeated short-term kicks on the expenses of long-term happiness. If left untreated, it will finally lead to breakdown or death.
Knowledge of this lacking ability for self-correction of the reward circuit has therefore caused us to issue laws, educate our children, and help those in need. These are measures to protect us from our own weaknesses to avoid potentially fatal damage.
There are other ways to cheat on our reward system, that include overeating or extreme sports that trigger hormone rush, actions that become feasible at a high civilizationary level when primary survival needs are easily fulfilled. The boundaries between what unhealthy behavior requires external constraints are flowing and subject of discussion, which strongly depends on the consequences of substance abuse for the rest of the society, the tension lies between personal freedom and damage to other individuals. Tobacco use has by now in many countries been widely banned in public buildings. Obesity, though not an addiction, has been argued to require action.
Besides these substance addictions, impulse control disorders like pyromania, or compulsive stealing and gambling have similar effects of immediate satisfaction and high rewards. “Monetary reward in a gambling-like experiment produces brain activation very similar to that observed in a cocaine addict receiving an infusion of cocaine,” says Hans Breiter, co-director of the motivation and Emotion Neuroscience Centre at the Massachusetts General Hospital .
Many facets of human behavior pursued today are hard or impossible to trace back to primary needs, like the desire to appear on TV or to collect shoes.
Return on Investment and other Highs
Similar reward mechanisms operate in the systems that govern our lives. These incentives eventually go back to individual rewards, and they are often institutionalized for larger groups of people and based on secondary criteria that have grown out of primary needs. Companies don't strive for sex, they strive to accumulate capital. Interest groups don't hunt for food but for attention. Nations don't seek understanding but influence.
One can cheat on these reward mechanisms as well, which leads to the emergence of tactics that run contrary to the original intention of being beneficial for the society. We therefore have means to constrain damaging behavior like proper product information, property rights, ethical codes for scientific conduct, trade laws, or marketplace regulations. Again, the question of what needs attention is a discussion constantly in flux. The aim is in all cases to ensure that the pursuit of individual interests within a given system results in desirable long-term and large-scale trends.
October 2008, the world economy is struggling. The system meant to distribute resources, free capital, and connect traders in a virtuous cycle of demand and supply is choking after warnings have been ignored for more than 15 years [2,3,4]. Politicians and economists likewise praised the wisdom of the free market to regulate itself. Thousands of bankers all over the globe acted for their own immediate advantage, neglecting long-term risks, ignoring tell-tale signs of more problems to come. Again and again proposed political regulations to ensure the well-being of the society on the long run were put aside, argued to dampen the highs of the gambles. Bonuses of top managers increased to absurd rates, became the norm, increased further. What has worked for some became the goal for more, an upward cycle in constant need of higher kicks.
“Dissatisfaction over high pay, business failures and American-style laissez-faire capitalism has been sweeping across Europe for some time, but it has been given new impetus as investors and politicians struggle to make sense of a credit vise that tightens by the day.
Even before the latest tumult, steps were taken in the Netherlands and France to limit excessive compensation, and the issue is back on the agenda [...]”
Landon Thomas, NYT 
Disregard of long-term goals combined with immediate rewards in a system rushing from one high to the next became accepted as the norm. Consume has turned into an antidote to national and personal downs, was made into a value pursued for it's own sake, producing absurdities along the way, and inhibiting the ability for self-correction:
“[C]onsumerism is based on the fact that we are a society dominated by business interests. There is massive propaganda for everyone to consume. Consumption is good for profits and consumption is good for the political establishment - Consumption distracts people. You cannot control your own population by force, but it can be distracted by consumption. The business press has been quite explicit about this goal.”
~ Noam Chomsky 
Reliance on the infallibility of the reward circuit results in a neglect of factors necessary for the survival of the society as a whole.
Until finally the system breaks down.
I think we're in for an indefinite period of withdrawal, trying to return to a stable mode of operation.
“[T]oday there is only one incentive for doing business, and that is the maximization of profits. But the incentive of doing social good must be included. There need to be many more companies whose primary aim is not that of earning the highest profits possible, but that of providing the greatest benefit possible for human kind.”
is how Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus summarizes the need to pay attention to the needs of the society as a whole .
But how well do we know long-term effects? And if we know them, can we be sure they are implemented sufficiently fast to avoid damage?
Remarkably enough, I agree with Alan Greenspan on the cause of the problem. In his speech at Georgetown University on Oct 2nd  he said “Reputation and the trust it fosters have always appeared to me to be the core attributes required of competitive markets.”
Yes, the central issue is trust. But not trust in the traders, but trust in our ability to detect and correct shortcomings of the system. A detection that should not be hindered by faith-based argumentation, should not be tampered with by rhetoric, should not be driven by psychological effects. It requires a solid data base, shared knowledge, objective evaluation, and validation of models and predictions. In short, it requires a scientific method to reestablish trust in the working of our political and economical systems.
The Scientific Revolution, which has lead to a stunning progress in the natural sciences four centuries ago, has not yet been extended to the applications of social sciences. To a large extend, developments in these areas are still made in a process of trial and error, experiments with the well-being of billions of people. It is a slow learning process often plagued by a lacking ability to learn from past mistakes. Given that trial and error has worked for a long time, and that the computational prerequisits to deal with large amounts of data are only available since recently, it is not surprising this revolution did not take place earlier. But it is about time we upgrade to the 21st Century.
The Scientific Revolution is unfinished, and we need to finish it.
 “Gambling - Like Food and Drugs - Produces Feelings of Reward in the Brain," by Harald Franzen, Scientific American, May 24, 2001.
 “The Reckoning - Taking Hard New Look at a Greenspan Legacy," by Peter S. Goodman, NYT October 8, 2008.
 “The End of Arrogance - America Loses Its Dominant Economic Role," Spiegel, Oct 2008.
 “The Risk of a Systemic Financial Meltdown: The 12 Steps to Financial Disaster,” Nouriel Roubini Feb 5, 2008.
 “Culture of Outsize Pay for Bankers, Born on Wall Street, Has Europe Fuming,” by Landon Thomas Jr., NYT, Sep 30 2008.
 Interview with Noam Chomsky - “The United States Has Essentially a One-Party System,” Spiegel Oct 10 2008.
 “Capitalism Has Degenerated into a Casino', Spiegel, Oct 10 2008.
 “Markets and the Judiciary,” Dr. Alan Greenspan, Sandra Day O’Connor Project Conference, October 2, 2008