Stop chasing happiness – we humans are not designed for it

According to a fresh survey of American millionaires, a mere 13% reported feeling rich. Many of the people asked, who control more than $5 million in assets and savings, said that they are not feeling wealthy.

Tied into the study is the question of happiness: How is it possible that millionaires don’t feel happy?

Strangely, research shows that when a person wins the lottery, often their neighbors go into debt, and some of them even file for bankruptcy because they were trying to keep up with the capital of the family next door.

A different study found that the wealthier your neighbor is, the less likely it is for you to be happy. But what about the lucky lottery winners, many of whom also fall into bankruptcy? Why do they remain unsatisfied even after this incredible injection of cash?

Simple: we humans just aren’t designed for happiness.

In a recent essay, Rafael Euba, a Senior Lecturer in Old Age Psychiatry at King’s College in London argues that like all other animals we are “designed’ by evolution to reproduce and survive. Happiness is simply not at the core of our life system.

He says that we are not content by design, and this fact is backed up by a biological trait all of us are bonded to in life: the chase.

We put extensive effort into pursuing romantic partners, a dream job, a house,  but as soon as we achieve any of these things, they are swiftly forgotten. When our adrenaline rush goes down, our attention is immediately switching to a new target. The things we were so certain would make us happy let us down because our expectations did not syncronize with reality. 

However, this does not necessarily have to be the case; with focus and discipline, we can move on to cherish the things we fought for so hard.

But this kind of mindset requires effort. Just like happiness, satisfaction does not come naturally to us.

Euba says that if we are “built” for anything, it is depression. Reflecting on difficult times helps us solve problems and figure out methods to survive trauma.

“Experts in this field argue that nature’s failure to weed out depression in the evolutionary process (despite the obvious disadvantages in terms of survival and reproduction) is due precisely to the fact that depression as an adaptation plays a useful role in times of adversity, by helping the depressed individual disengage from risky and hopeless situations in which he or she cannot win,” he writes.

Happiness is hardwired into our national identity as the prime goal. A state which does not come naturally needs to be earned.

Buddha recognized that happiness is a momentary and unsustainable goal. His solution called for levelheadedness and compassion mixed with a touch of contentment. He knew that ups and downs were an inseparable part of life, and hence we should best remain composed while riding its waves.

This might be the reason America has become such a depressed nation. With so much significance given to the pursuit of happiness, people constantly feel left behind when they cannot keep up with those around them who are doing better. We are not at ease because we cannot match the life we envisioned for ourselves, regardless of our initial goals.

By pursuing a life of instant gratification and entertainment we are running into hedonic waters and even biblical scripture states that there is a problem with that. But in part, Euba blames Christianity itself:

“The current global happiness industry has some of its roots in Christian morality codes, many of which will tell us that there is a moral reason for any unhappiness we may experience. This, they will often say, is due to our own moral shortcomings, selfishness and materialism.”

But why is it that we chase happiness at every corner? Money is the easy answer here.

There is a whole industry in America focused on happiness fueled by positive thinking worth around 11 billion dollars. And although few people are truly concerned about your personal happiness, many want to sell you the idea that it could be everlasting (only if you pay for their services of course). Try typing in the word “happiness” into the Amazon Books section and see how many results will appear…

The happiness fixation in America is highly problematic. America ranked 19th out of 156 countries according to the 2018 world happiness report. And yet the U.S. accounts for two-thirds of all antidepressant usage in the world, with it being the most widely prescribed drug.

Author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich notes that positive thinking as a drive for happiness “requires deliberate self-deception,” because people constantly need to repress self-criticism and negative thinking. She goes on to say:

“The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts. Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity.”

Euba adds that, in neurological terms, our brains are able to manage both negative and positive emotions at the same time, nearly independent of one another. This can help you overcome mental blockades and give you a push in the right direction as you understand that “dissatisfaction is not a personal failure.” Feeling depressed isn’t a shortcoming in need of instant repair, but rather just part of the ups and downs of life. It is “what makes you human,” he concludes.

Based on your own experiences, do you agree with this article? Share your thoughts on the matter in the comment section below.

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