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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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