Coming back to life? Abandoning the relentless pursuit of happiness

The pursuit of happiness is inescapable. Search for happiness  in online bookstores and you will find any number of tomes which claim, to a greater or lesser extent, to enable you to achieve sustained happiness. Newspapers and magazines churn out article after article on the latest happiness trends.  The latest article I read this week was about a Danish secret to happiness called ‘hygge’, which seems to involve enjoying the simple things in life and making your house cosy. Click-bait stories invite you to learn about simple tricks you have been missing all your life which could have made you happy had you only known about them.And every time I look at my social media feeds I am often met with a stream of ‘inspirational’ quotes, which are largely focussed on the pursuit of happiness.

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Side note – is there a possibility that we might run out of nauseating ‘inspirational’ quotes? Surely they must be pretty much exhausted by now? Please, just stop. It causes me to spend too much time listening to The 1975 as an antidote.

There is a widely held belief that our purpose in life is to be happy, and that happiness should be our primary goal. Many of us spend our lives chasing the house, the job, the holiday, the partner, the self-help book, the lifestyle, that will make us happy. We also want happiness for our children. How often do we hear parents say that they just want their children to be happy? Parents often seem uncomfortable with the idea of their children being unhappy, even momentarily, and may feel they are doing an inadequate job as parents if they fail to ensure their children’s happiness.

Despite all of this effort, happiness can be difficult to obtain, and even more difficult to sustain. What is more, the cultural belief in the importance of happiness may mean that unhappiness is interpreted as personal failure, leading to yet more unhappiness. There are, as always, individual differences. If I were to ask you to think of someone who is always happy I think most people reading this would be able to think of someone who appears to manage this. Yet sometimes even those who seem to embody happiness are privately beset by sorrow.

Some people are indeed happier than others, however. This may be linked to the effects of different alleles of a serotonin transporter gene, which appear to be related to variation in life satisfaction. Some of us are perhaps more able to sustain happiness than others. Some research suggests that each of us has a genetically influenced happiness ‘set-point’ and our happiness varies only to a limited extent around this. If correct, this means that regardless of what happens to us (a lottery win or a significant injury), after the initial adjustment, our happiness will return to close to this point. Whilst genetics clearly does influence potential for happiness, some research does indicate that there may be greater scope for change in levels of happiness.

However, we do quickly adjust to positive gains such that an initial increase in happiness (for example, following a new job) is not sustained and we are no happier than we were before. As we make gains, our expectations and desires tend to increase. For example, it is commonly noted that as people earn more money, their desired living standards rise so that they continue to spend the same proportion of their income, and may desire ever more expensive things. In the long-term, they may be no happier because they still want more than they can afford. This is often referred to as the ‘hedonic treadmill’ because we keep working hard just to maintain the same level of happiness. This is what most of us are doing – running just to stand still.

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From an evolutionary perspective, the belief that our purpose in life is to be happy, and that happiness is sustainable indefinitely do not hold weight.

Understanding happiness from an evolutionary perspective requires an understanding of the evolution of emotion. Emotions have sometimes been considered an unimportant aspect of human nature, an accidental by-product of the evolution of the human brain. Emotions have often been seen as obstructions to rational thought, a view that is evident in the common belief that the ‘heart’ should not be ruled by the ‘head’. Whilst this view persists in popular culture, evolutionary psychologists now recognise that emotions have adaptive value. The brain’s limbic system consists of a number of interconnected structures which are involved in the generation, expression, regulation and processing of emotion, and a significant amount of brain function is devoted to emotion. Given that the human brain has evolved to solve the adaptive problems faced by our ancestors, if emotion had no adaptive purpose, it would be very unlikely that the brain would have evolved in this way.

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To understand the adaptive importance of emotions, imagine not having them. If you did not feel any guilt, would you make amends for wrongdoings? If you did not feel love, would you be able to form relationships and care for your children? If you did not feel anger, what would prevent others from exploiting you? And if you did not feel fear, would you still be alive?

Emotions have been selected for during our evolutionary history because they have shaped our behaviour in ways that have helped us to survive, form relationships, extract benefits from social living, and crucially, reproduce successfully. This does not mean that we should make decisions based purely on emotion. We are also equipped with high-level cognitive abilities to help us to make decisions. Emotions are not always fine-tuned and acting impulsively on raw, intense emotion without thinking is often a recipe for disaster. But emotions do provide us with useful information that guides our behaviour in potentially adaptive ways.

The conventional view is that happiness, for most people, depends on the balance of positive and negative emotions experienced. If you experience predominantly positive emotions most of the time you will likely be a generally happy person. However, an evolutionary perspective reveals some key obstacles to achieving sustained happiness.

The key obstacle is that sustaining very high levels of happiness over long periods of time is unlikely to have adaptive value. To illustrate the problem, imagine a world in which all of us were completely and blissfully happy all of the time. What would happen? Would we be driven to develop, to achieve, to seek out new partners, to have children? If we were completely happy, why would we do these things? And that is the problem. Consequently, the human condition has evolved to find happiness a somewhat slippery and elusive quality. We have it sometimes, we know what it feels like, and we know how good it is. When we don’t have it, we want it. When we have it, we want to hang on to it, yet somehow it seems to slip away again. Psychologist Daniel Nettle has argued that happiness is like a carrot designed to be dangled in front of us. Happiness has far more adaptive value when it is always just a little out of reach, always driving us to seek it out and keep it, yet always pulling away from us. This is why we quickly readjust to gains and revert to the level of happiness we had previously, hence the hedonic treadmill.

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In his paper on the evolution of happiness, David Buss identifies a number of further obstacles to happiness. A key problem is that unpleasant and distressing emotions have adaptive value. A good example of this is jealousy, referred to by Buss as ‘the dangerous passion‘. Take sexual jealousy, the unpleasant emotion felt by many people when they believe or know that their partner or desired partner is having sex with someone else. Many people find that such thoughts induce a truly horrible feeling of sickening jealousy. This feeling is perfectly articulated in the lyrics of one of The Killers’ most popular songs. Mr Brightside describes the visceral feelings of a man confronted with the prospect of someone who appears to be a current or former lover having sex with someone else:

“Now they’re going to bed
And my stomach is sick
And it’s all in my head
But she’s touching his chest, now
He takes off her dress, now
Let me go
I just can’t look it’s killing me
And taking control
Jealousy, turning saints into the sea
Swimming through sick lullabies
Choking on your alibis…”

(The Killers, Mr Brightside)

It is clear that the emotion this situation engenders is so unpleasant that it is physically sickening. The problem for happiness is that jealousy has adaptive value. Experiencing jealousy alerts us to threats (or potential threats) to intimate relationships. For men, a partner’s sexual infidelity could result in one of the most significant threats to male reproductive success – cuckoldry. If a partner is unfaithful and becomes pregnant, a man could unknowingly invest his resources in another man’s child, at great cost to his own reproductive success. For women, a partner’s sexual infidelity could result in him having a child with another women, and she risks his resources being diverted from her own offspring, and possible desertion.

The sickening experience of the emotion of jealousy drives us to do something about these perceived threats to our reproductive success – because we want to get rid of the feeling. Some of these responses are unpleasant and worse (hence Buss’ term ‘the dangerous passion’), yet often they do have an adaptive basis.

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Jealousy is just one example of a painful emotion which has adaptive value. The same is true of many other unpleasant emotions. It is also true of physical pain. Physical pain tells us that something is wrong, that we are injured or unwell. It signals that we need to quickly remove our hand from a burning stove, or that a tooth is infected and we should not use it to chew. There is a rare condition, congenital analgesia, which prevents people from experiencing physical pain. Although never having to experience pain may sound wonderful, people with this disorder experience a lot of injuries and can be at great risk of early death due to injury and limited ability to detect illness. Pain, unfortunately, is adaptive, yet it causes suffering and unhappiness.

Buss discusses a number of additional barriers to happiness that arise from its evolutionary history. A key challenge concerns differences between the environment that we live in now and the ancestral environment that humans evolved in. Humans are a slow reproducing species and this means that evolutionary changes take a very long time to come about. Humans have changed relatively little during the agricultural, industrial and technological revolutions because on an evolutionary timescale, these are recent changes. We are essentially still hunter-gatherers living in a world that has changed rapidly and radically. Biological evolution has not been able to keep pace with the speed of cultural and environmental change. Although arguably some changes in many parts of the world lead to increased happiness – for example, availability of food and shelter, medical care, pain relief, the welfare state, much lower levels of violence – we struggle with other changes such as long working hours, living in very large groups, stress, lack of nearby kin and competition for mates.

Another barrier to happiness discussed by Buss is our evolved tendency to compete with one another. Reproductive success, for example, depends on successful competition with others. We compete, for mates, and for the attributes and resources which help us to attract mates. However, when we succeed in competition we do so at the expense of others. If a man achieves high status it will help him to attract mates. But status is a zero-sum game; a man can only be high status if others are low status. Those who lose out in competition are likely to experience some unhappiness.

That may all sound a bit depressing. I don’t find it so. Having an understanding of the evolutionary basis of happiness and a realistic understanding of the limits of happiness can be liberating. In contrast, believing your purpose in life is to find true and lasting happiness and then experiencing that as unattainable is, I think, more harmful.

It is also worth remembering that to some extent, being happy, as well as being unhappy, does have adaptive value. During human evolutionary history, being happy signalled that we were behaving in adaptive ways. For example, acquiring an attractive partner would likely result in happiness as this had fitness benefits. However, we should not expect this happiness to last indefinitely. Life is not a romantic comedy where the happy ending is the happy ending. Acquiring an attractive partner brings it own challenges to happiness. There is a risk of losing them. Unless (like me) you have weird mate preferences, your ideal partner is likely to be someone else’s ideal partner, and there is a risk of mate poaching and desertion – which leads again to that ancient tormentor, jealousy.

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My own personal view is that we fetishise happiness. Perhaps we have always done so, yet there appears to be a particular cultural emphasis on it currently. Happiness is sometimes seen as the only thing that matters, and the only emotional state which has value. This belief in itself may, I think, lead to unhappiness.  A recent BPS research digest details research studies which demonstrate advantages of feeling sad. I found the final study to be most interesting because it indicates that there is also value in sadness; it suggests that lives which are unhappier on some dimensions may be more meaningful.

Can ‘negative’ emotions actually be pleasurable? I think they can be if they are meaningful and not excessively long-lived. Don’t misinterpret me: I am not talking here about depression, which is an illness associated with significant distress over a long period. I am talking about the range of ‘negative’ emotions experienced by most of us in our lifetimes.

If something happens which results in sadness, the reflection that brings can have meaning, and can lead to positive change. The experience of sadness itself may be intense and interesting. Most of us can take pleasure in a sad film, book or song if we allow it. One of the songs that I love the most is Coming Back to Life by Pink Floyd. To me it has a sense of deep sadness and melancholia which is very beautiful. Yet It is very meaningful and there is a sense of hope arising from despair. Some research indicates that listening to sad music can provide a positive emotional experience and can be pleasurable. The same is likely true of fiction. One of my most loved books is Wuthering Heights. It is hauntingly dark, brooding and joyless, but has immense depth, meaning and beauty. I find it an intensely pleasurable read.

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Does enjoying such things mean I am unhappy? On the whole, I don’t think so. I think that my definition of happiness incorporates the ability to derive meaning and pleasure from a variety of emotional experiences. Sadness and happiness are not, to me, opposites, they are not mutually exclusive. Sometimes I am happy feeling cheerful, but sometimes I am happy feeling sad.

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Yet there is a tendency now to avoid anything sad or melancholy, as if it must do us harm. When sad songs are played on the radio, it is common for listeners to text in with messages questioning why it was played, and with comments about their mood being ruined. DJs will joke about it and then play a more upbeat song. Sometimes DJs themselves question sad songs. A while ago, The 1975’s (then) new song A Change of Heart was played on the radio, and the DJ commented along the lines that it was really good – but jokingly questioned whether the band were OK, presumably due to the nature of the lyrics. There is so often discomfort in our culture around the expression of sadness.

The evolutionary perspective on happiness that I described above may shed some light on why we are uncomfortable with sadness. As I argued above, during human evolutionary history, the existence of negative emotions served to indicate that we were not behaving in adaptive ways and achieving reproductive success. In that sense, like physical pain, negative emotions indicate something amiss. So why am I arguing that sadness and negative emotions don’t mean something is wrong? I’m arguing it because it is entirely normal for things to be wrong in life, and sometimes those things require our attention, thought and processing of negative emotions, rather than a relentless stream of ‘inspirational’ (and often fairly meaningless) quotes.

Life is a rich and complex emotional quilt, full of different colours, and textures of different depths. It is not supposed to be a flat, uniform and joyous pink or yellow. There are some of those in there, but they are attached to darker patches. Those darker patches have value too. We should perhaps not always run away from them, but find the meaning they have to offer and appreciate the emotional complexity and depth of the human condition.

Would we be happier if we concerned ourselves less with happiness? If we stopped pursuing it with such fervour? If we didn’t expect it to always be with us, but knew that it would likely return? And if we embraced the range of human emotions a little more?

You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.” – Jonathan Safran Foer

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