You’ll never be happier, but keep working at it

October 3, 2009


October 3, 2009

One way or another, everything we do is motivated by our desire to be happy. You’re reading this because you hope it will be a pleasant experience. If you read the business section to track your investments, you’re hoping for news that they’re doing well, which will make you feel good.

If you’re working hard in pursuit of promotion and a pay rise, you’re doing it because you believe the extra status and money will make you happier.

The philosopher Blaise Pascal said: ”All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views … This is the motive of every action of every man, even those who hang themselves.”

The Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert puts it the opposite way: ”If there has ever been a group of human beings who prefer despair to delight, frustration to satisfaction and pain to pleasure, they must be very good at hiding because no one has ever seen them.

”People want to be happy, and all the other things they want are typically meant to be means to that end. Even when people forgo happiness in the moment – by dieting when they could be eating, or working late when they could be sleeping – they are usually doing so in order to increase its future yield.”

If all of us want to be happy all the time, the explanation for this has to be in the way humans have evolved as a species. The process of natural selection must have made us that way because it improved our ”fitness” – our ability to survive and reproduce.

At one level it’s very simple. Why do we find sex enjoyable? Because that makes us want to do it a lot and doing so causes us to reproduce. All of our ancestors must have enjoyed sex because that’s what made them our ancestors. Those humans in the past who didn’t much enjoy sex didn’t get to be our ancestors.

But it’s not that simple. The evolutionary biologist Randolph Nesse famously remarked that natural selection doesn’t give a fig for our happiness. It just wants us alive and making babies, miserably if need be.

So what’s going on? Well, Daniel Nettle, a psychologist at Newcastle University in Britain, reveals his theory of why we are so obsessed by happiness in his book Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile.

The trick is that we’re biologically programmed not to be happy but merely to pursue happiness. We’re programmed to pursue it in ways that contribute to our biological fitness. Whether we actually achieve it, nature doesn’t much care.

So in a sense it’s a bit of a con. The good news, however, is that most of us do achieve a fair bit of it. Surveys unfailingly show that most people are quite happy most of the time. Evolution has programmed us to believe we’ll be happier if we’re physically and materially secure, if we have a mate, if we have high social status, and many other things. All these are things that, in our primitive state, would have contributed to our fitness.

The pursuit of happiness is humans’ basic motivating force, the drive that keeps us doing and striving. And evolution is a competitive process – the survival of the fittest. So it wouldn’t serve the evolutionary process’s purpose if, by acquiring a mate, a bit of security and a bit of social status, we could attain happiness and be content.

Thus we’ve evolved never to be completely happy (or never for long) and to quickly adapt to whatever we’ve managed to attain and soon be hankering after something we imagine will be better.

One of the ways this is accomplished is by us having brains with separate systems for wanting and liking. Our system of desire – run by the brain chemical dopamine – motivates us to, for instance, work long hours for things like pay rises and status goods.

Our system of pleasure – run by opioids – makes us feel good while we’re doing some things that are good for our fitness, though the feeling doesn’t last long.

While many of the things we desire will also give pleasure, Nettle says, it isn’t necessary that they do. We evolved in an environment where status was highly correlated with reproductive success, and material resources were always scarce.

Since our brains haven’t evolved further in response to the modern environment, they still motivate us to strive for these things in the belief they’ll make us happy.

In fact, empirical research tells us the things most likely to make us happy are seeing friends, sport, cultural activities, going out, and visiting new places. But so powerful is our desire system that we’re often so busy pursuing money and status we don’t do all that much of the things that do make us happy.

Empirical research also tells us that societies don’t get happier as they get richer (a truth politicians and economists have yet to hear about) and that the more importance people place on money, the less satisfied they are with what they’ve got. In other words, materialism breeds dissatisfaction with material conditions.

Yet more empirical research tells us people believe they’ll be happier in the future but seldom are, and they constantly overestimate the happiness they’ll get from positive developments and underestimate their ability to adjust to negative developments. In economists’ jargon, we’re hopeless at predicting our ”utility”.

With their assumption that people are rational – careful calculators with full knowledge of the future – economists believe that, on the odd occasion we make a mistake, we quickly learn the error of our ways.

If they knew any psychology, they’d know this isn’t true. Many of us go on believing the pursuit of money and status will make us happy despite loads of experience that any pleasure it brings us is fleeting.

Why? Because our system of desire is so strong. Why is it so strong? Because it suits our evolution’s purpose to have us go on doing the things that (used to) improve our fitness.

The good news, however, is that natural selection has also provided us with a multi-level mind, in which the relatively automatic emotion programs that often determine our behaviour can be overridden by our better educated, more reflective selves if we go about it the right way.

Ross Gittins is the Herald’s Economics Editor.


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