A huge happiness and positive thinking industry has created the fantasy that happiness is a realistic goal. Chasing the happiness dream is a very American concept, exported to the rest of the World.
‘The pursuit of happiness’ is one of the US’s ‘unalienable rights’. Unfortunately, this has helped to create an expectation that real life stubbornly refuses to deliver.
Even when all our material and biological needs are satisfied, a state of sustained happiness will still remain a theoretical and elusive goal.
Abd-al-Rahman III, Caliph of Córdoba in the 10th century, one of the most powerful men of his time, enjoyed military and cultural achievements, as well as the earthly pleasures of his two harems.
Towards the end of his life, he decided to count the number of days he felt happy. They amounted to precisely 14.
Happiness is a Human construct, an abstract idea with no equivalent in actual human experience.
Positive and negative affects do reside in the brain, but sustained happiness has no biological basis. And – perhaps surprisingly – I reckon this is something to be happy about.
Humans are not designed to be happy, or even content. Instead, we are designed primarily to survive and reproduce, like every other creature in the natural World.
A state of contentment is discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival.
The fact that evolution has prioritised the development of a big frontal lobe in our brain over a natural ability to be happy, tells us a lot about nature’s priorities.
Different geographical locations and circuits in the brain are each associated with certain neurological and intellectual functions, but happiness can not be found in the brain tissue.
Nature’s failure to weed out depression in the evolutionary process is due precisely to the fact that depression as an adaptation plays a useful role in times of adversity, by helping the depressed disengage from risky and hopeless situations in which he can not win.
Depressive ruminations can also have a problem solving function during difficult times.
The current global happiness industry has some of its roots in Christian morality, which will tell us that there is a moral reason for any unhappiness we may experience.
This, they will say, is due to our moral shortcomings, selfishness and materialism. They preach a state of virtuous psychological balance through renunciation, detachment and holding back desire.
In fact, these strategies merely try to find a remedy for our innate inability to enjoy life consistently, so we should take comfort in the knowledge that unhappiness is not really our fault. It is the fault of our natural design. It is in our blueprint.
Our emotions are mixed and impure, messy and tangled and at times contradictory, like everything else in our lives.
Positive and negative emotions and affects can coexist in the brain relatively independently of each other. Negative emotions are dealt with by the right-sided brain, whereas positive emotions are dealt with by the left-sided brain.
We are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain.
The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us.
Postulating that there is no happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure.
If you are unhappy, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you Human.