I think human interactions make a lot more sense when you realize that we are not naturally hardwired to be happy.
We’re built to survive. Or perhaps more accurately, we were designed to ensure the survival of our genes. The genes of those who weren’t as well designed for that purpose perished from the earth long ago. The fact that you and I exist means we were fairly well designed for ensuring that we continue along that path.
As E.O. Wilson wrote in The Social Conquest of Earth, “Consciousness, having evolved over millions of years of life-and-death struggle, and moreover because of that struggle, was not designed for self-examination. It was designed for survival.” (emphasis added).
Ensuring the survival of our genes and trying to attain happiness are competing goals. And while most reasonably intelligent people believe in evolution, I don’t think that most people appreciate quite the extent to which our evolutionary purposes get in the way or our modern goals and desires. Our evolutionary purposes don’t want us to be at peace or to be happy or to be satisfied with our lot in life.
Instead of a mechanism that maximizes for happiness that focuses our attention, we have have consciousness, whose primary purpose is to constantly remind us of all the things that could go wrong. To keep us worrying about things that could endanger the survival of our genes, and to continually seek ways to improve the likelihood of our genes’ survival.
Consciousness is designed to keep you worrying about all the things that could go wrong. So that’s what we do.
Consciousness also causes us to obsess more than is healthy for our own lives about our status. Status matters for evolutionary purposes, because high-status humans easily find at least one mate, and perhaps more. Those who mate with the healthiest and highest status mates and/or that mate often have genes that are much more likely to survive.
But there’s plenty of evidence that status comparison leads to unhappiness. (See Arrow and Dasgupta (2009) Courty and Engineer (2016)).
We’re designed to worry about everything that can go wrong in our lives and to obsess over status, even though the empirical data shows that both of those things cause unhappiness. And it’s a problem that’s not designed to go away, no matter how much status or success we have. Our brain is still designed to seek out more problems to avoid and more ways to increase status.
For a fuller discussion of this “happiness problem,” this post is excellent.
So what to do, right?
I think some people find this “happiness paradox” depressing. No matter how much we seek happiness, it will forever elude us. But I don’t see it that way. To me, it helps me understand why it is so hard to remain content, regardless of life’s circumstances.
To me, the most effective technique to achieve happiness isn’t to constantly try to seek happiness, but to rather stop obsessing over the things that make us unhappy—namely, life’s problems and status. The best way to control our conscious attention, so that we’re not obsessing over life’s problems and status, is through meditation.
Regardless, when, as creatures with prehistorical adaptations, trying to make sense of our modern lives, we wonder to ourselves: “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not happy?” The answer is simple: that’s just not the way we were designed.