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Why Happiness is Such a Struggle

Forlorn statue

Now, I don’t know all 6.5 billion of you out there, but of the few hundred people that I do know, I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t like to be happy.  I think we all have that in common.

Type “Happiness” into Amazon’s book search and you’ll get over 350,000 results.  For some reason, humans have a lot of trouble being happy.  There’s no question that we all want it, so why are we so bad at it?  With such universal demand, you’d think we’d have it figured out by now.

There seems to be some persistent force that keeps us unhappy.  It’s almost like humans have some curious fetish with dissatisfaction. No matter how much we have in the way of resources and privileges, it isn’t enough. Even when we accomplish or acquire something that makes us feel happy, that feeling fades so quickly.

This human tendency towards unease has baffled and frustrated people for centuries.  Some of our behavior is so puzzlingly destructive and useless that we’ve developed all sorts of bizarre explanations for it: evil spirits, angry gods, government conspiracies, and the most destructive fiction of all: the idea that there are good people and bad people.

I have a better explanation.

The Unhappiness Script

“All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone”

– Blaise Pascal

There is a force that keeps us unhappy.  And it’s somewhere between our ears.

It’s the way we’re built.  It’s in the blueprints.  It’s in our blood.  I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you that.  But don’t worry, I promise I have good news too.

You see, we inherit a lot from our ancestors. We get their DNA, their impulses, their thinking patterns, their values, their strengths and their weaknesses, whether they suit our lives or not.  Human bodies and minds still work in pretty much the same way they did thousands of years ago, before civilization, before high technology, before science.

Life was short, brutal and highly competitive.  If a caveman ever actually became happy with his possessions, with his social standing, or with what he had accomplished in his life, he was as good as dead.

Resources were too scarce; survival required great amounts of effort and force.  If he were to begin to enjoy his life as it was, other people would take his food, his mate, his role in the tribe, and his possessions.  His more competitive, more desperate peers would beat him to everything he needed to survive.

There was no agriculture to produce food in abundance, no economy to provide affordable tools, no cradle of civilization to protect him. For most of human history, happiness — as pleasant as it might be — was a deathtrap.

And guess what, your brain is calibrated this way too: away from happiness and towards insecurity.  Inside the oldest parts of our mind, something is always saying

“This isn’t good enough.  You need X.  Go get X, or you will die.”

This simple, ruthless script is programmed to drive survival at all costs.  It works exceedingly well for this purpose, but it also guarantees a life that is mostly unpleasant.

The more intense the dissatisfaction, the more incentive a person has to acquire something that promises to relieve that dissatisfaction.  Unhappiness is nature’s way of keeping people on their toes. It’s a crude system, but it has worked for thousands of years.

But today, we don’t need to be so high-strung, and we certainly don’t need unhappiness to keep us alive.  In fact, now that civilization has made survival fairly easy for most of us, these ancient impulses are a scourge.  Our heads are full of obsolete methods for survival that today only serve to make us insecure and ungrateful.

A lot of our mental systems are completely outdated.  We operate as if our impulses are telling us the right thing to do, yet most of the time these impulses are not appropriate to our circumstances.  As a result, we go overboard when it comes to issues of security (think Patriot Act), resources (think oil wars and economic hysteria) and romantic relationships, (think of how devastating it is to be dumped) just to name a few areas of imbalance.

A New Skillset

We are just not geared to be happy. Knowing this, the picture looks bleak. So what can we do about it?

There is some hope. Along with our impulses to hoard and loathe, we’ve also developed some more advanced qualities that do benefit us today. The development of compassion and respect helped people to identify with and care for others in their tribe, and get things done through teamwork.

Also promising is the still-emerging trait of nonjudgment. It allows us perceive reality and respond to it without bias and the emotional pain of judging it as good or bad. It allows for smarter, more objective decision-making, though it may not have given our ancestors the snap judgment needed to survive the day. It would not have been terribly useful in the past, but it certainly is now. Quality of life is almost solely determined by our ability to accept circumstances and respond to them regardless of their desirability.

The most potent of these newer qualities is, of course, love.

Love is a complete 180 from the archaic Unhappiness Script. The possibilities for humanity in a love-based culture are astounding to think about. There is so much to discuss about this relatively new, all-powerful human quality, so I will explore it in future posts, and not here. Suffice it to say that love is a highly advanced human activity, and as a species, we’re just scratching the surface of its potential.

For those of us living amidst civilization, we are better served by a newer skillset. Hoarding, dissatisfaction and paranoia are the crude old ways, and they just don’t fit us anymore. Compassion, calmness and love are much more useful to us.

We’re in the middle of a transition from being a survival-focused species to a much more potent quality-of-life-focused species.  The problem of individual survival is no longer the main concern for most of us, the vast majority of our time. Technology and civilization have made it easy to survive. What we yearn for now is quality of life. Yes we’re alive, but it isn’t always so pleasant to be alive.

So now that quality of life is overtaking mere survival as the biggest concern for most people, the necessary “human skillset” is beginning to shift.  Most of us now have much less use for savage survival skills such as:

    • How to hoard resources
    • How to dominate and intimidate others
    • How to stop another race from advancing

and much more use for quality of life skills such as:

    • How to keep little things from getting to you
    • How to enjoy your work
    • How to keep a sense of wonder and possibility in your life

All of the skills and insights necessary for happiness are available to us, and now with the internet, they can be communicated more efficiently than ever. Our biology may never catch up with us; it’s very slow to adapt, but that’s okay. Behavior and culture adapt much more rapidly. Straightforward happiness skills are so universally beneficial and useful that they catch on quickly.

So yes, at the end of the day there is something in us that wants to be unhappy. But hopefully now it is not so mysterious. It’s a just simple program that keeps us wanting. There are ways to deal with it, but even just being aware of the Unhappiness Script goes a long way.

No matter what skills we develop, our biology and psychology are hardwired to a large extent, so we always need to be aware that our brains are going to tell us to do stupid things sometimes. We need to recognize these patterns and know how to deal with them when they arise, if we hope to be happy on a consistent basis. Raptitude is a vehicle for helping each other to learn to do that.

I’ll share what I know, I hope you will too.


Photo by Fabbio

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hll June 29, 2010 at 5:40 am

just forget everything. and forget to desire to remember. that’s the best way to be happy. nearest we can get is distraction. fill th mind with something else, something hopefully consistent, like maybe an om or mental screensaver that yo might take years to learn how to put in place and kep in place, such as a single flower image burning into the mind’s eye’s here and now. that’s what has ben said to work beore. but cannot relinquish all the things tht hurt and worse lack the courage to accept them.

David N.S July 6, 2010 at 6:33 pm

dude you have an awesometastic mind and i love the place the place that you can take it, i wish you all the best and hope that you have many more of these utopianic ideas

Casper Roseewater January 30, 2011 at 2:16 pm

Re: Why Happiness is Such a Struggle?

I don’t dispute what you write; it kind of makes sense and I’d like to refer others to it to augment understanding. I was just wondering if you know of any evidence that might indicate this might is true. It would seem to fall into the school of Sociobiology which is somewhat controversial.

David January 30, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Hi Casper. This is the first piece I ever wrote and I have my misgivings about it. But the truth of the concept is self-evident to me.

The only evidence I have is the first-hand kind, which can only ever be personal experience. Many people reject everything but second-hand, corroborable empirical evidence from people in labcoats. I used to reject everything for which there was no citeable study. Maybe there is, one in this case, I’m not sure. I tend to go by direct experience now, at least as much as conclusions from scientists funded by people whose motives I don’t know. I’m not anti-science, I just think there is also value in interpreting first-hand experience alone.

I don’t know about you, but I feel a distinct, pervasive sense of “this is now quite okay,” and I have had to learn to accept that as a part of mother nature’s toolkit and sometimes act in spite of it.

Steve March 31, 2011 at 5:04 pm

What I find most troubling is how western culture has an outlook of the world as total work; of work-for-work’s sake. We need to foster an atmosphere is society that allows for more than just material progress. We need a degree of the classical world view which viewed both useful work and philosophical work as vitally important to the full development of man.

In short, more people need to read things like Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

Kent April 11, 2011 at 7:04 am

This explains why I’m much happier when I’m actively learning something new. I’ve lost jobs because there was nothing new to learn and I got bored and depressed. I used my last break from university classes to teach myself to juggle. It all makes sense now.

Gabriel June 11, 2011 at 5:36 pm

I stumbled to your “Six Amazing Songs That Illustrate What it Means to Be Human” post. I was skimming through reading the and listening and when I came across Lives by Modest Mouse I stopped dead in my tracks (MM has been for a long time my favorite band and I particularly have always loved the beginning lyrics to the song Lives so your post stole my attention instantly) I saw the link to this page there and hopped over to read. This post and that post are profound to say the least. I wished to compliment you, for you have a unique way of observing and explaining things. (Honestly after reading those posts I assumed you were either a major in Sociology Psychology or both.) I also wanted to say that this post has made me exceedingly hopeful, often times I’ve pondered about why happiness is so hard to achieve I always thought it was something within us but I never figured out a reason why. I also coulnd’t think of anyways to combat it. So thanks, I’m going to end this comment now, its become far too long.

josh September 18, 2011 at 12:16 am

Hello there, i hit my stumble button and it took me here. I usually read a sentence and move on when i hit these types of blogs. anyways this week has been crazy and i was feeling pretty stressed out. bills, a business, family, life in general was just hard this week and after reading all the way to the last line i felt calmer… happier. I have sat here for a moment now and analyzed why i feel calmer. (especially after seeing so many others say the same thing) I believe the reason for the calming effect is because we (most of us) are at that point in evolution where we know that love and calmness are more benificial to us as a species and your words help others to remember that. Once we think about it and know that it is true to ourselves Tada! you feel in control. that control = happiness. thats just me. Thanks.

OliOli November 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm

I love the comment about not being happy sitting in an empty room. (It’s too late in the day to find the quote). That is a great point, because although some people might see it as a great personality trait to be happy with anything (I don’t, necessarily), it wouldn’t make evolutionary sense. The will to strive for more, but in relation to that, to interact with people is important for our survival so it’s a natural impulse for that reason as well as the more basic human urges!! Another good article, thanks!

Haley January 24, 2012 at 9:47 pm

Hi David,
I’ve read a lot of your posts at this point, and I’ve probably come across this post before, but I found it again while I was searching your blog for a perspective-changer to make January seem a little less oppressive. I noticed something new this time: you talk about how humans have only scratched the surface of our new found power to love…have you written a post about that yet? If so, which post? And if not, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

joe May 28, 2012 at 7:28 pm

You have no evidence to prove ‘cavemen’ experienced a lesser quality life than us.

I’d like to make the point that they probably enjoyed their life & time more intensely than ‘we’ do. Since peace was such a comfort (according to yours and the rest of the evolutionists theory) they would have appreciated it more. That’s a very common sense statement, and applies to anything in life. The less of a resource, the more it’s worth.

Really though, it’s silly to even mention pre-modern man species. They do not exist anymore, their behavior cannot be studied or can their actual brains.

You’re composing a piece based on very, very little evidence on the actual life style of our long dead ancestors.

Are you going to write about how dinosaurs liked to play hopscotch in their spare time too?

This is the first post of yours I have read, I’ll continue to read a few more because I think you’re a good writer and I think you and I share a similar perspective… I hope they aren’t as dense as this though.

Good luck on finding the truth with the rest of us.

David May 28, 2012 at 7:49 pm

Hi Joe. I’ll do my best to respond to your comment without reacting to the snide tone of it.

I wrote this over three years ago. It was the first article I ever wrote, and I no longer have the same impression of early human quality of life. I think it was generally better than that of modern westerners. More leisure time, much less status anxiety, no religious authorities telling people how to live.

No, we can’t study the behavior of prehistoric people but there is a lot of physical evidence suggesting how they lived and it’s not exactly a giant question mark to researchers.

Misconceptions about “cavemen” notwithstanding, the central point of the article is still true — dissatisfaction (and consequently, the need to change something) will always arise if one waits long enough, and that incessant pushing is what moves us through life. If you don’t think so, sit still in a quiet room for an afternoon.

Cheese and Rice July 25, 2012 at 3:44 am

Whilst I agree with most of this article, I do think that credit should be given to where it is due and that is to Jesus who said “Love thy neighbor like thyself”, and the “Golden rule” which are not recent concepts as you propose in this article.

David July 25, 2012 at 7:07 am

Yes they are, if we’re talking about the timeline of evolution. 2000 years is nothing.

Ramon August 7, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Hi David: I just ran across a response I wrote to your blog ‘somewhere’ on March, 2011, and it won’t come up on various word searches. I presume it was a comment on this posting, but who knows? So I’ll try posting it again
(with a few tweaks):
Posted to Raptitude
Ramon March 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm
Instead of ‘happiness’, let’s use Candice O’Denver’s term ‘resting.’
According to her view, everything arises in our awareness/clarity as ‘data’—
all positive-negative-neutral points of view, all emotions, dukkah, whatnot. If we don’t attach to them, they dissolve on their own because they have no independent reality outside pure awareness, which she now calls ‘Open Intelligence’.
Actually the ‘I’ has no independent reality outside pure awareness, so there is no one to be ‘happy,’ ‘enlightened,’ ‘suffering,’ etc.
The only thing I add to Candice’s excellent teaching is that “Resting in clarity” (awareness, open intelligence) can be accessed through ‘the self-arising, resonant breath.’ To explain further:
What physical condition accompanies resting? Watch a dog. When it lies down to rest, it first sighs deeply (perhaps to blow away any loose dust or dirt from in front of its nostrils). Then as it relaxes even more deeply, it begins a resonant, relaxed breath. This resonant breath is something we all do when asleep. It resonates the soft palate and also the trachea, that stiff, hollow tube that brings air into the lungs. At its most relaxed, it produces the snore and, in most cats, the purr. This also vibrates the upper aorta that snuggles up close to the trachea where it enters the heart, and through this contact, also transmits the vibration to the blood. That is why, after three or four good purrs (or snores), my fingers and feet begin to tingle pleasantly as the ‘snore’ vibration reaches my extremities.
I identify this tingling sensation as positive feedback telling me that
all lateral tensions in my body have been dissolved by these vibrations.
I described it further to a http://www.greatfreedom.org trainer (who thinks I’m over-complicating things) as follows:
It’s all about soothing energy, isn’t it? I access soothing energy on various levels of being — spiritual, mental, emotional, physical, but the main thing for me is not to forget to include the body — that good old body, it just trundles along doing its best for me despite the way I ignore it. When I relax into awareness I check the body, and often I find there’s a tense muscle in one hip, or else some other armoring — lateral tension — that needs soothing. Of all the ways I’ve found to deal with soothing these lateral tensions, the resonant breath works the best because it duplicates the total relaxation of the sleep state — but while I’m still awake to ‘enjoy’ it.
Okay, these approaches may seem limiting or overly simplistic, but body states so often impact mental/emotional states. If I deal with tensions on the physical, the rest of me takes care of itself.
So I then ask myself, how much relaxation can I learn to tolerate without drifting off into wondering ‘what’s for supper,’ etc. What level should I recognize as “deep enough” to just enjoy and not attempt any deeper relaxations? As a benchmark, I’ve selected the post- orgasmic ‘afterglow’ that usually lasts only a half-hour or so if unattended to. However purring — breathing resonantly into that afterglow — allows it to continue indefinitely, the only limitation being the ‘what’s for supper’s’ that come along and distract me back to my usual ‘set point’ – my operational level of soothing energy to which I’ve become habituated over lo all these 70+ years. So in a sense, to ‘rest more thoroughly than I am habituated to’ requires at least tuning into — and encouraging — the self-arising resonant breath. It’s not so much about making a conscious effort as it is allowing the body to trigger its own releases by encouraging what it does on its own when it rests.
Over these past years I’ve found that I can dissolve armorings easily with the purring breath that resonates the blood stream all the way out to the capillaries in the fingers and toes, dissolving all tensions that block the ‘flow.’ What a delight! And for me, it doesn’t complicate Candice’s ‘short moments of awareness’ approach, but instead harmonizes well with everything I’ve learned from http://www.greatfreedom.org. I just don’t want to leave any part of the being behind — neither the body, the mind, the emotions, the spirit!
Let me end with a quote from Candice:
“The Power Is In Awareness
“Awareness has the ultimate sense of humor. And so you know, it’s important to relax and be gentle with yourself. Awareness is in all points of view. You can’t really say that it’s only this or it’s only that. That’s impossible. Awareness can only be talked about in a way that includes everything. In other words, when there is a complete openness of communication between all points of view, all data. So this makes it easy.
“First of all, you don’t have to change. What could be easier than that?…”

Rita Kothauer August 10, 2012 at 2:13 am

Refreshing! I can’t help but think of the hippie agenda of the seventies, love and peace. It would be so great to give it another try today. This explains a lot about the negativity I see every day. And the Tea Party.

kenji October 26, 2012 at 11:47 am

Hi David,
I understand that as humans we were made to be unhappy, to want more. My life is real struggle and I don’t know how to be happy.

Jo November 13, 2012 at 8:52 am

Totally agree with your thoughts of unhappiness as aN essential impetus for human survival and success :) reminds me of this quote by Thomas Edison: “discontent is the first necessity of progress”.

Also, I think that there has been overwhelming emphasis on staying happy especially since the boom of the self-help industry a couple of decades ago. Like, it becomes sort of a mandate. For instance, if you’re not happy, society diagnoses you with a problem. It seems as though our scope of normal emotions are becoming increasingly confined to happiness, based on society’s expectations. It’s normal to be sad, frustrated, angry for many reasons including those in this post. However, media + society does dictate to varying extents, what emotions are permitted.

Furthermore, I believe the persisting feelings of dissatisfaction is a consequence of consumerism as well. Concepts such as ‘planned obsolescence’ motivates our need for more and more of stuff that may actually be redundant. It’s worth googling :)

In all, although I do not have any empirical evidence or whatever, I believe social expectations and norms do have a large part in shaping most of us (whether we know it or not) and it’s pretty messed up if you really think about the implications. Also, profit driven developments in today’s consumerist climate, do mess around with our definition of needs and wants, and thus our emotions.

Anyway, props to David for this site! finding sites like this is like sifting for gold in the mud.

janet March 22, 2014 at 12:05 pm

I just came upon your site and – oh wow – you are so calm and inciteful. Have only read a few so far but – hey ‘I think I’m in love.’
ha! ha! – ‘do you have a brother?’ and can anyone tell me – w h e r e Are the men out there who think with their ‘h e a r t’ as well??
Beautiful Stuff David – I’m going to Thunder Bay for tea!

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