Evolutionary forces may have conspired against steady contentment
This article is by psychiatrist Rafael Euba, M.D., and is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It has been edited for style and clarity, and we’ve added additional facts and observations.
Dr. Euba has practiced psychiatry for more than 20 years and is a Senior Lecturer at King’s College London. He’s also the Neuromodulation Lead Consultant at London’s Oxleas NHS (National Health Service) Foundation Trust and practices at The London Psychiatry Centre, where he supervises use of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) as a treatment for depression.
Humans aren’t designed to be happy – so stop trying so hard!
By Rafael Euba, M.D.
A huge happiness and positive thinking industry, estimated to be worth $11 billion a year, has helped to create the fantasy that continuous happiness is a realistic goal.
Chasing the happiness dream is a very American concept, exported to the rest of the world through popular culture. Indeed, “the pursuit of happiness” is one of the U.S. Constitution's “unalienable rights.”
Unfortunately, this has helped create an expectation that real life stubbornly refuses to reward.
Even when all of a person's material and biological needs are satisfied, sustained happiness remains out of reach.
Abd-al-Rahman III, the 10th century Caliph of Córdoba, Spain was one of the most powerful men of his time, who enjoyed military and cultural achievements, as well as the earthly pleasures of his two harems. Towards the end of his life, however, the Caliph decided to count the number of days during which he'd felt entirely happy, which only amounted to 14.
Happiness is typically quite transitory, and sustained happiness is a particularly elusive butterfly.
As Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes — lyricist for Antonio Carlos Jobim, among others — wrote, happiness is “like a feather flying in the air. It flies light, but not for very long.”
Yet — perhaps surprisingly — I reckon that acceptance of these tough truths can provide considerably more comfort than the “pursuit of happiness”.
Evolutionary forces likely pushed against constant contentment
It's worth remembering that we are not designed to be consistently happy.
Humans haven't evolved — in response to various external pressures — to naturally be continuously happy or content.
Instead, we are designed primarily to survive and reproduce, like every other creature in the natural world.
So, we seek sensory pleasures (like sugar), reproduce (motivated in part by sexual pleasures), and try to avoid threats and pain.
The fact that evolution favored development of a big frontal lobe (which gives us excellent executive and analytical abilities) over continual contentment tells us a lot about nature's survival-driven priorities.
Different regions and circuits in the brain are associated with certain neurological and intellectual functions. But — because it has no known neurological basis or functional signature on brain scans — “happiness” hasn't been identified as a distinct mental state.
In fact, experts in this field argue that nature's failure to weed out depression in the evolutionary process — despite its obvious disadvantages in terms of survival and reproduction — makes good sense. That's because depression plays a useful role in times of adversity, by helping us disengage from risky and hopeless situations.
Similarly, ruminating — that is, repetitive dwelling on the causes, context, and consequences of negative emotional experiences — can promote depression but also serve a problem-solving function during difficult times.
Positive and negative emotions coincide and coexist
Our emotions are mixed and impure, messy, tangled, and at times contradictory, like everything else in our lives.
Positive and negative emotions can coexist in the brain relatively independently of each other. (Interestingly, the brain’s right hemisphere is the primary processer of negative emotions, whereas positive emotions are more often dealt with by the left side of the brain.)
The reality of competing emotions undermines the credibility of the happiness industry's promise of consistent contentment.
Periodic unhappiness is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as some happiness gurus imply. Far from it.
Any pretense that the right positive-thinking program can reliably abolish — or substantially diminish — psychic pain or discomfort will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration.
The consolation is knowing that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure.
As a computer programmer might put it, rather than being a “bug”, constant fluctuation between happiness and melancholy is a “feature” of being human.
Habits often undermine happiness, but can be broken
Unhelpful and unhealthful habits constitute major barriers to greater happiness, and can be a key source of unnecessary unhappiness.
Unwanted, counterproductive habits can feel — and be — hard to break, in part because we reinforce those behaviors over periods of years, thereby embedding them in our brains.
Charles Duhigg’s widely praised 2012 book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business probably became a bestseller because people know they need help breaking bad habits.
[Editor's note: We summarized the essence of Duhigg’s book in Habits are Human … How to Break the Bad Ones, which highlighted the evidence-based discovery that the best way to break a habit is to recognize its “cue”, “routine”, and “reward” — and then avoid the cue and change the reward.]
A positive-thinking or self-help program can be helpful largely to the extent that it provides evidence-based instructions in how to break bad habits.
Moral shortcomings often get the blame
George Bernard Shaw once said, “We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it.”
Shaw was making a moral argument, but most people do report feeling much better when they give than when they take, or than when they buy and consume things.
Many religious traditions assign blame for unhappiness to moral shortcomings, selfishness, and materialism, and suggest that we can achieve continuous contentment through compassion, selflessness, and detachment from desires.
However, these strategies constitute uphill struggles against human nature — so we should take comfort in the knowledge that, to some significant extent, unhappiness is in our evolution-driven “blueprint”.
Many New Age or self-help authors and speakers offer paths to happiness purportedly based in Eastern religions.
But these figures often distort the teachings of those traditions.
After all, the key insight at the root of Buddhism is “life is suffering”, and the Buddha taught that accepting this insight is the best path to a life of relative contentment.
Likewise, rather than striving for enlightenment (i.e., eternal bliss), the core teaching of the Mahabharata — a primary Hindu text — is that we must pursue our duties, regardless of personal desires or consequences.
Drugs can't do the job, with possible exceptions
Benign chemicals like caffeine alter the mind in ways that can be welcome and useful under certain circumstances.
But because happiness is not related to a particular functional brain pattern, we cannot replicate it chemically.
Advocates of a morally correct path to happiness disapprove of drug-driven shortcuts to pleasure, and science supports the futility of looking to drugs for lasting happiness.
The chief problem is that drugs only provide a temporary "high", often with negative effects on cognition and/or emotions, and after-effects that can include addiction.
[There are some possible, clinically promising exceptions: see the Editor's Note below*.]
The people in Aldous Huxley's book, Brave New World, live perfectly happy lives with the help of “soma”, the drug that keeps them docile and content.
Given the choice between normal emotional swings and content placidity, I suspect many would prefer the latter — a suspicion supported by widespread self-medication with alcohol and drugs.
Of course, the idealized “soma” described by Huxley doesn't exist.
Instead, recent research suggests that the divine soma drink praised in India's ancient Vedic texts probably contained three potent plant materials: poppy seeds for their dreamy opiates, ephedra twigs for their stimulating ephedrine, and cannabis flowers for their psychoactive THC.
[*Editor's Note: Preliminary clinical research suggests that responsible administration of certain plant substances with long histories of traditional, “shamanic” use — such as psilocybin mushrooms and Amazonian ayahuasca — can help alleviate depression, anxiety, and dependence on addictive drugs (see the list of sources, below).]
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