Happiness is tough, man. No matter how ridiculously good life is in 21st century America, it’s so easy for that nagging worry, or rush hour traffic, or some shithead coworker to hijack your entire emotional state and ruin your whole damn day.
Now, more than ever, happiness should be easy. Our homes have electricity, running water, and can hold temperatures to a precise degree. Modern medicine has eradicated a handful of history’s most disgusting diseases. We have planes that can transport us to the other side of the world in less than a day. We have HDTV and the Internet!
We live in the pinnacle of human existence, but instead of skyrocketing happiness, the opposite is happening. Depression rates are 10 times higher than they were in 1960. Antidepressant prescriptions have increased 400% since 1988. And millennials especially struggle with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
But in order to understand today’s struggles with happiness, we need to go way, way back to the early days of our ancestors.
How Evolution Primed Our Brains for Pessimism and Stress
For almost 60 million years our ancestors lived in small hunting-gatherer groups. Life was simple — there weren’t sales goals, traffic jams, or overflowing inboxes — but it was dangerous. You killed prey or you died. You escaped giant, man-eating predators or you died. You avoided illness, injury, and infection or you suffered for weeks, and you died.
The brain responded to dangers in the pre-civilized, pre-modern medicine world by shaping itself for what was most important: survival. It became paranoid, constantly scanning the environment for potential threats. It developed instincts, reactions, and biases to keep us safe. These tactics have baked into our brains for millions of years, but two in particular don’t vibe with life in the 21st century.
The Negativity Bias
Years ago, two types of motivation drove every human decision:
- Seeking pleasure
- Avoiding pain
Pleasure or ‘carrots’ included eating food, seeking shelter and sex. Pain avoidance or ‘sticks’ included avoiding starvation, predation and injury. Both carrots and sticks are important and necessary for survival, but they’re not equally important, right?
If you fail to get a carrot today — let’s say you chuck your spear at a woolly mammoth and miss — you can retrieve the spear and be alive to throw it again tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick — say you believe there isn’t a saber toothed tiger in the bushes when there is one — then there is no tomorrow.
Because of this, our brain developed what Ph.D. and bestselling author Rick Hanson calls the negativity bias, a system of thought designed to keep us safe by overestimating threats and avoiding risks. This bias is still in our brain today, influencing our actions as we deal with conflict, present in meetings, and argue with our spouses.
The Fight-or-Flight Response
Imagine you’re a caveman. You’re eating spit-roasted rabbit in your little cave house with your sexy cave lady when — OH MY GOD WTF IS THAT!? — the tiger from the bushes barrels through your front door.
Your eyes perceive the tiger and send a signal to your brain. The amygdala, the emotional processor of your brain, alerts the hypothalamus of a threat. The hypothalamus calls for the stress hormone cortisol to flood your bloodstream.
In an instant your heart rate skyrockets, pupils contract, and muscles tense. You experience tunnel vision and adrenaline catapults you into action.
Without consciously knowing it, you will do one of two things: grab your spear and go for the throat, or grab your cave lady and run for the back door. Fight-or-fight.
In this scenario, the best strategy is the quickest strategy. Any analysis or hesitation only increases the likelihood you’ll be eaten. Fight-or-flight overrides thought with action, because in a life or death situation action is your best shot at survival.
The Ancient Brain in the Modern World
We owe our very existence to these ancestral instincts, but today they do us no favors. In the modern world, our ancient brain is making us stressed and unhappy. Here’s how:
Prevents us from following our dreams. The negativity bias makes us overestimate threats. Historically, when threats were often life or death, this fear and paranoia kept us alive. But today, this bias makes us dream small. It says, “You can’t start that business. What if you fail?” or “Hannah’s way out of your league, bro. Ask her out and she’ll shut you down, and everyone will know about it.”
Makes us ultra-sensitive to bad news, even when it’s outnumbered by good news. This is why a single ‘needs improvement’ on your performance review overshadows ten ‘exceeding expectations’. Our negativity bias is a magnet for negative stimuli. We look for it, find it, and dwell on it. We believe things are not okay, when in reality things are just fine.
Destroys creativity and logical thinking. Complex modern problems require creativity, collaboration, and resilience and we’re trying to solve them with a pessimistic brain that panics when it’s stressed because it’s scared of prehistoric cats.
Stresses us out. Our nervous system has a function to calm us down after a fight-or-flight response. As long as stressful experiences are brief and infrequent, we automatically return to a resting state. But today — where mild stressors are delivered to our inboxes and voicemails and pinged to us 60 times a day by our bosses — we’re getting stuck in our reactive mode, and it’s stressing us out.
Chronic stress is responsible for about 80% of doctor visits and is linked to the six leading causes of death: cancer, heart disease, lung ailments, accidents, cirrhosis of the liver, and suicide. Additionally, prolonged stress has been shown to damage brain structure and connectivity.
Thankfully, researchers have discovered an antidote that can undo the effects of stress, enhance creativity, and even shift us away from our negativity bias. This new wonder drug is happiness.
Why it’s Better to be Happy
Happiness undoes the cardiovascular effects of negative emotion. When we’re stressed, we experience a hike in heart rate as our body sends blood to different muscles preparing us for a specific action like fight or flight. This constant fluctuation shifts our heart into overdrive and is thought to increase the risk of coronary heart disease. Positive emotion has been shown to speed recovery from cardiovascular reactivity and quickly return us to our resting state. So when we’re happy, we’re less susceptible to stress and anxiety. We can then spend more time in a neutral or positive mindset, which is important because…
Happiness expands the mind. While negative emotions limit our thoughts to induce action, positive emotions flood our brains with the feel good chemicals dopamine and serotonin — similar to the effect you’d get from a dose of ritalin. These chemicals activate the learning centers in our brain, increasing focus, motivation, and creativity. This is what researchers call “broaden-and-build”, a theory that suggests that positive emotions broaden the amount of possibilities we process and help us build more resources to use for problems in the future.
Studies related to this theory show that doctors put in a good mood before making a diagnosis reached the accurate diagnosis 20% faster than a control group of doctors in a neutral state of mind. Another study shows that optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56%.
Happiness can be learned. Inside our brains are billions of neurons that connect to form neural pathways called synapses. Every thought, action, and feeling we experience is based on this underlying neural activity. The more we practice an action or think a certain way, the stronger the connection between neurons. This is what scientists refer to as Hebb’s Law — “Neurons that fire together wire together” — and it means that we can use experiences and mindset to change our neural structure. So just as our ancestors learned that the world was a dangerous place, we can re-learn that it’s really not so bad, and that today happiness is a safer and more effective alternative to anxiety and fear.
How Do We Get Happy?
So now we know that happiness is awesome and that, with practice, anyone can obtain it. But what we don’t know is how to obtain it. In the final two posts of this three part series, we’ll leverage research in psychology and neuroscience to lay down an easy-to-follow roadmap to happiness.
Feel free to leave your rose-colored glasses at home, because this won’t be a lesson in blind optimism or self-deception. The world is often a shitty and unfair place, and anyone who says otherwise is either dishonest or delusional. Yet this is another reason to train your brain for happiness: so you can be happy in spite of what you can’t control.
You’re about to discover that happiness isn’t so tough after all. You don’t need a fat salary or roaring success (thank god). You just need a little practice.