“Make your state of mind more important than what you are doing.” (Hugh Prather, from “The Little Book of Letting Go”)
Happiness is a state of mind.
I am willing to bet that the people of the past had more happiness than we do today. Of course there was war, pestilence, disease, pirates, raiders, high infant and mother mortality, and a broken leg could kill you. (Think the Pharaoh Tutankhamen.) Life could be brutish and short — and often was.
But life was also simpler then, which is why I would make that bet. Not only do we have the same basic needs to tend to as they did, but we now have an overload of choices. Until relatively recently in history, people had 2 sets of clothes: one for everyday and one for Sundays, weddings and funerals. (Except the aristocracy/rich and they were not necessarily happier with a choice of what diamond-studded codpiece to wear that day.)
Modern humans have choices, far too many, for almost every single decision we make — which overloads the brain and puts the decision-making program just keep looping around on itself. It’s not just what shirt do we want to wear. It’s what blue shirt do we want to wear. Will it have long, 3/4 or short sleeves? Will it have buttons, or snaps, or a zipper or some combination to hold it closed? Will it be a solid color, or will it be blue stripes? Polka dots? Check? Collar or no collar? Crew neck, v-neck, plunging down to the bellybutton (or lower) neckline? Heavyweight material or light? Cotton or polyester or silk or wool or nylon or, or, or, or?
Now multiply that by every piece of clothing, including shoes and accessories, that we wear. Finally, you’re dressed. What do you want for breakfast? Although it’s probably closer to lunch by the time you manage to make all those decisions — and you’re trying to second-guess yourself about whether what you have chosen is the right outfit.
It’s a silly analogy, but still very valid. Too much choice is worse than no choice. And in a consumer economy, with the Internet and WWW, we have an infinite amount of choices. EVERY SINGLE DAY. As you said, “ One of the major differences between humans and other mammals is that our brain has a prefrontal cortex that allows us to make rational decisions and plan for the future. … The primitive parts of our brain that influence emotions don’t imagine how future us will feel about something, but they imagine how present us feels.” It’s a cycle of “defining choice, rational calculating for end result of a choice, considering another choice and rational calculating for that one, comparing them, and actually making a definitive choice AND then going over it again and again because you do not feel that you’ve made the BEST choice” — what in computer terms is called a “worm”. It’s a sort of virus/malware/Trojan horse thing in the computer we call our brain.
And it’s almost impossible to regulate and keep things in perspective. Too many advertisements, too many articles, too many choices, too much pressure to “fit in” and “be normal”, too much complexity for our lizard brains to deal with. It’s being constantly stimulated to the point of overload.
And the feelings it causes are responsible for the real unhappiness that we have in the midst of an artificial “happiness”; we *think* we are happy, literally. We have the things that we’re “supposed” to have, we are “successful” by other people’s assessments. We THINK we are happy. But our sweet little lizard brain KNOWS that what we think is happiness is not really. But with our superior prefontal cortex, we squash that message and ignore it.
Feelings…essentially just a particular chemical response to stimuli based on our perception and past experience. But that chemical response can be more accurate than any amount of thinking. Whether we acknowledge the accuracy or not is a whole other discussion. The problem in this particular situation is that the amygdala (the proper name for the id/lizard brain) is being so overwhelmed by all the choices we are trying to make all the time, it has caused an error with no way to correct for it without reprogramming.
I would suggest that it doesn’t even make it to the step of “(don’t imagine how future us will feel about something, but) how present us feels.”.
Life-altering events “reset” both the prefrontal cortex as well as the amygdala as part of the response; the brain throws out everything that is not directly related to keeping life going. It sends us back to a more basic operating system, without a lot of peripherals that we had added on over the years. Think of it like this: the horse is a much simpler form of transportation than a Tesla car. They will both get you to your destination; one is obviously faster. And I said “faster”, not necessarily “better”. That Tesla is going to have problems galloping across the fields; the horse won’t do well in a 55 mph zone. And if everyone else had the one but you had the other, you’d be unhappy — or vice versa. But then life lets you lose a leg. You’d be thrilled out of your mind to just be able to hobble along with a crutch. Who needs a horse or a Tesla?
So we return where we started: Make your state of mind more important than what you are doing (state of being, also the place where emotions arise). And happiness is a state of mind.
Peace and blessings, now AND in the future!