Happiness Takes Effort, Here’s Why (and What to Do About it)
NOTE: This is an excerpt from my book The Happy Life Formula, which is all about the science of happiness and how to use it in our lives to be happier, healthier, and more successful.
Would you like to know the real reason why so many of us are miserable? Why we struggle to feel good about ourselves? Why we can’t seem to achieve any lasting happiness?
Here it is: We aren’t built for happiness. This beautiful brain of ours? The result of hundreds of thousands of years of evolution?
It’s not built for happiness; it’s built for survival.
Human Beings: Built For Survival, Not Happiness
When the first human beings appeared on this planet, the landscape looked vastly different. Food was scarce. So were water and shelter. As if that wasn’t bad enough, dangers — saber-toothed tigers and the like — abounded.
Our ancestors hardly knew if they’d survive the next hour. The idea of happiness never even crossed their minds. If they weren’t busy with survival, the next most important thing on their agenda was replication.
That, in a nutshell, was what our ancestors cared about. And so the brain we’ve inherited is optimized for exactly that.
Your brain is constantly on the lookout for danger. Every second of every day, it’s making value judgments for the millions of stimuli we consciously or unconsciously encounter. Is this good or bad? Friend or foe? Harmful or helpful? Safe or dangerous?
As a result, most of us live in a constant state of worrying. We are worried about a thousand and one things — losing our jobs, getting rejected, embarrassing ourselves, getting cancer, forgetting something important, looking less than stellar, getting judged by others, and so on.
Sometimes, we’re aware of it; oftentimes, it’s only happening in the background.
Another essential survival tactic for our ancient ancestors was to belong to a group. Getting kicked out of the clan was synonymous with death — good luck fighting those wolves all by yourself! And so the mind developed ways to keep peace and fit into groups. How? Through social comparison. Am I offering enough value? Am I fitting in? What can I contribute, compared to others? How can I avoid pissing off the leaders? How can I minimize my chances of rejection?
We do the same thing today, spending our days comparing ourselves to others and worrying about what they might think of us.
Everywhere we look — magazines, newspapers, television — we find people who are smarter, faster, richer, sexier, more powerful, and much more successful than us. No wonder we struggle with happiness! We’re constantly bombarded by glamorous media creations making us look inferior and stupid.
Another survival mechanism that worked wonders for our ancestors was the simple dictum of getting more and getting better. More food, better shelter, stronger weapons — that’s how you increased your chances of survival back then.
Guess what? That survival program is still running within us. It’s what sets us up for the hedonic treadmill we learned about earlier. It’s why we can’t seem to stop chasing after more money, bigger muscles, slimmer waists, faster cars, higher status, a hotter spouse, and so on.
Evolution has shaped our brains so that we’re hardwired to create misery for ourselves. We can’t stop worrying about our health, social status, or what others think of us. We keep evaluating, criticizing, and comparing ourselves to others. We focus on dangers, rather than opportunities. We’re bound to chase after more and more “stuff,” yet rapidly become dissatisfied with what we have.
In short, ancient brains in a modern world are a recipe for misery.
And we’re not done yet…
Remember those value judgments our brains make? What do you think happens when a judgment is made as either positive or negative?
When it’s negative (“this is bad!”), you feel the urge to run away or put up a fight. This is known as the fight-or-flight response. When it’s positive (“this is good!”), you feel the urge to move toward the stimulus.
This judgment is based purely on your brain’s interpretation. If you expect something to harm you in any way, you’ll feel like running away from it. If you expect something to benefit you, you’ll feel like moving toward it.
This mechanism isn’t exactly sophisticated. It bases its decision-making solely on how something feels like. If you expect something to feel good, you’ll feel an urge to approach it. If you expect something to feel bad, you’ll feel the urge to avoid it.
Approach what feels good; avoid what feels bad.
All of this happens incredibly quickly, and mostly on autopilot. Your ancestors didn’t have time to analyze whether they should run away or fight that saber-toothed tiger. The faster they decided, the greater their chances of survival.
This fast and automatic decision-making process still guides our lives today. Anything that promises to feel good, we’ll feel like approaching. Anything that might feel bad, we’ll feel like avoiding.
Cookies? Approach. Chocolate? Approach. Facebook? Approach. Cleaning the house? Avoid. Doing the taxes? Avoid. Studying for exams? Avoid.
It doesn’t matter whether something is good or bad for us. What matters is our interpretation of how it’ll make us feel.
We do things that promise to feel good (yet rarely do), not things that are truly good for us and bring lasting happiness.
Remember that happiness is largely determined by our actions. Unfortunately, actions that make us happy often get interpreted by our ancient brains as things to avoid. Actions that make us miserable often get interpreted as things to approach.
Consider the following examples:
- Exercise makes us happier. Yet the way we interpret it is as strenuous, effortful, and boring. As a result, we feel the urge to avoid it.
- Watching television for hours makes us miserable. Yet we interpret it as relaxing, pleasant, easy, and comfortable. As a result, we feel the urge to approach it.
- Meditating makes us happier. Yet we interpret it as boring, difficult, or even painful. And so our brains tell us to avoid it.
- Stuffing ourselves with crappy food makes us miserable. Yet when we see that chocolate chip cookie, our brains think it’ll make us feel good and urge us to approach it.
- Going on a family trip makes us happy. Yet planning the trip is often the last thing anyone wants to do. It’s interpreted by our brains as effortful, annoying, and boring. Hence, we feel like avoiding it.
- Spending the weekend alone at home playing video games makes us miserable. Our brains, however, keep promising us it’ll lead to abiding happiness. And so we keep playing away, expecting to feel happy.
- Studying hard and getting good grades makes us happy. To our minds, however, studying seems boring, difficult, pointless, and unnecessary. As a result, we don’t feel like doing it.
- Spending too much time on social media makes us miserable. Yet we feel the constant urge to check-in and see if we got any new likes, stars, or hearts, or if we’re missing out on something. Our brains must somehow feel it’ll make us happy and urge us to keep checking and checking.
Our brains mislead us.
What our brains tell us will make us happy leads to a quick spritz of pleasure, followed by misery.
You see, our brains can’t distinguish between short-term pleasures and true happiness.
Anything that promises the possibility of an immediate reward gets approved — the vanilla ice cream, the exciting television show, the new video game, the quick glance at your email inbox, social media, and so on.
Unfortunately, the things that make us truly happy rarely offer immediate rewards. Even worse, they often involve an up-front cost in effort. It takes effort to exercise, meditate, study for exams, plan vacations, practice gratitude, forgive people, set meaningful goals, or savor the good things in our lives.
It’s a precarious situation: Our brains tell us to approach the very things that lead to misery, and avoid the ones that lead to happiness. We feel like doing the things that make us unhappy, and don’t feel like doing the things that make us happy.
We are built for survival, not happiness.
What Can We Do About This?
If we want to become happier, we need to understand that our brains lead us in the wrong direction. More importantly, we need to use our willpower — a relatively new brain function — to override our ancient impulses and forego the pleasures of the immediately appealing.
We need to delay gratification and give up short-term pleasures for long-term happiness.
Doing that requires effort. We’re not only fighting hundreds of thousands of years of evolution; we’re also fighting an advertisement and business complex ready to exploit it.
It’s no coincidence that so many of us are addicted to fast food, TV shows, video games, social media, smartphones, news media, and other modern temptations. These things are built to take advantage of our ancient brains, which keep telling us that happiness lies in the next cookie, the next social media check, or the next episode of Game of Thrones.
Seeking instant gratification isn’t compatible with creating lasting happiness. Neither is seeking a life of comfort. Neither is seeking a life of little work.
I’m sorry to break it to you, but creating a happy life takes effort and self-discipline. You don’t get to experience this sought-after state by sitting on the couch all day long, constantly giving in to temptations, avoiding endeavors that take the slightest amount of effort, or running after the next momentary pleasure.
If you aspire to happiness, buckle up, roll up your sleeves, and get ready to work for it.
Thanks for Reading
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