Born To Be Unhappy. How We Can Overcome Our Own Biology. (Part 1 of 4)

Part 1 provides a framework for our problems. Part 2 provides historical context. Part 3 provides proposed solutions.

Americans have more things and more options than ever before. Better cars, smarter smartphones, bigger TVs, longer lives, cheaper travel, instant communications, and practically unlimited options for entertainment. People are also the least happy they have ever been. Many are depressed, suffer strained relationships, and work longer hours at jobs they enjoy less. How did we get in this mess?

Our evolving brain

Our underlying emotions, desires, and fears are managed by our limbic mammalian brain, which hasn’t changed in a very long time. On an evolutionary scale, the higher reasoning part of our brain is a relatively new arrival and is still figuring out its relationship with our mammalian brain, which had hundreds of millions of years to establish itself as the instinctive and dominant decision maker.

These parts of our brain are often in conflict. It’s how one part of you decides to get up at 5am but then a different part of you decides to sleep in until 8.

It is our primordial mammalian brain, along with the orbital frontal cortex, which are responsible for much of our decision making, while the rest of our more evolved neocortex (our conscious) often finds ways to rationalize the decisions we have already made based on our instincts and feelings.

Since our mammalian brain is responsible for things like emotion, motivation, and behavior, but not language, we struggle to find words to explain critical things like “what motivates you?” or “why do you love your mother?” We clearly feel something, but the part of the brain that is responsible for emotion is separated from the part of the brain that is responsible for reasoning and language.

Our brain is divided, far from perfect, and still learning to adapt to the modern world.

Takeaways:

  • Our brain is mostly of ancient design
  • Higher reasoning is a relatively new feature
  • Our brain is dominated by its legacy mammalian functions

Our brain is not designed for today’s world

With the rapid changes of the last 10,000 years, our own biology is far from caught up to our new surroundings. Our brain is still optimized for the world of nomadic hunter gatherers and we now find ourselves thrown into a world that we were simply not designed for.

While humans are very adaptive, it is difficult for life to thrive in an environment so foreign to its design.

The irony is that the more complex our world becomes, the more we must rely on our primitive instincts to deal with an overwhelming number of decisions. At the same time, the more complex the world, the less relevant our outdated instincts become.

As put by Robert Cialdini in his seminal work, Influence:

“We have created an environment so complex, fast paced, and information laden, that we must increasingly deal with it in the fashion of the animals we long ago transcended.”

This means we are making more and more decisions based on instincts that are less and less relevant. It should therefore be no surprise that while we rationally know what is best for us, we still often do something completely different. Our own happiness is one of the many victims of this internal conflict.

The good news is that the human brain can update itself

If our biology is like our hardware then our mind is like our software. Given the strength of the human mind, we can overcome biological hardware limitations. Doing so requires a challenging and deliberate effort to update our ways of thinking, which is similar to updating software on an outdated computer.

Consider this blog series as a software patch intended to help us understand ourselves, understand solutions, and help us build a plan for living a better life.

1.1 Our Search for Meaning

Animals don’t lack meaning in their life because their instincts, guided by their hardware (DNA), drives nearly all of their behaviors. An ant does not need to sit and ponder how to spend the day any more than a giraffe does. What they are to do, and how they are to do it, no matter how complex or intricate, are impressed upon them in the hard-coded instincts they inherit.

For nearly all forms of life, their meaning is their behavior. Whether it’s a tree growing in the jungle or an ant that climbs it, both do exactly what they were created for.

Contrast this with a person who must consciously ponder hundreds of choices each day while lacking instincts for the right answer. Biological instincts may tell you when you’re exhausted and have to go to sleep, but they won’t tell you what color shirt to wear in the morning or whether you should leave your consulting job. Our lack of relevant instincts leaves us searching for solutions.

For a long time this was partially addressed through strong traditions. Whereas instincts tells one what they have to do, tradition tells one what they ought to do, including dress, occupation, and even marriage.

With adoption of greater individual freedoms, traditions no longer guide most of our actions.

Now man finds himself without the instincts of what he must do, the traditions of what he ought to do, or the insight of what he even wishes to do.

This is what famed psychologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl describes as an individual’s existential vacuum. Extended more broadly, it is related to what French sociologist Émile Durkheim described as anomie within a society. We have all the means to live a comfortable life but nothing to live for.

If forced to explain the purpose of our life, few of us would have a clear answer at the ready. This is not the problem but it contributes to it. Without meaning, we have no reference frame by which to measure progress, and therefore the more we achieve the more intense our desires become. I’ll get more into this in a bit.

Takeaways:

  • Most of us struggle with the question of meaning in our lives
  • Most of us are not automatically happy; it is not the natural condition
  • We have to update our way of thinking if we want different results

1.2 Born To Be Unhappy

Humans have a special trait among all life: our ambition. The definition of ambition is:

“a strong desire to do or to achieve something, typically requiring determination and hard work.”

This hard-coded ambition, which is likely found in our ego, may be our species’ greatest source of strength and yet is often a driver of our individual downfall and depression. It leads to us to climb the tallest peaks, reach the deepest oceans, walk on the moon, and cure deadly diseases, while simultaneously escorting us to depression and sorrow.

Unhappiness results from seeking satisfaction from what we want rather than what we have.

Better, leaner, faster, stronger. Or perhaps you fall more in the camp seeking to be more thoughtful, compassionate, balanced, and mindful.

Either way, we all want things we don’t have and we want them no matter how far we have already come.

With no clear meaning by which to guide our progress, ambition has no sense of boundary and leaves us with little chance of achieving fulfillment.

Who is unhappy?

I used to be surprised to learn that a close friend was deeply unhappy. I eventually came to understand that it wasn’t just a handful of friends but that many people, if not most, are dealing with a personal struggle or employing shields to avoid their demons.

Most people hide their unhappiness and keep it out of view from the outside world. This is perhaps why there is so much shock when people like Robin Williams, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain commit suicide. Most people may not be clinically depressed, but most people are not happy either.

The poor are unhappy because they are poor. The middle class are unhappy because they are middle class. The rich are unhappy because they are not richer. The corporate employee is unhappy because he feels like a cog. The entrepreneur is unhappy because he has to watch his business 24–7. The unknown actor is unhappy because he’s unknown. The world famous actor is unhappy because he can’t have a moment of privacy. Those without a close family are unhappy because they don’t have a close family. Those with a close family are unhappy because of their family.

Some people (i.e. the poor) may have more to be unhappy about in absolute terms than the rich, but it doesn’t change the fact that both are unhappy. When it comes to happiness, relative conditions are often what matters. Suicide rates for example are the highest in wealthy neighborhoods.

No matter what environment we find ourselves in, we cannot be perpetually happy. We think changing our environment will bring happiness when in fact it is we who must change.

People tend to think that changing their situation, like getting a better job or a bigger house or into a different relationship, will make them happy. This may appear to work at first but then the conditions of their new situation makes them unhappy for different reasons, and the unfortunate cycle continues.

We have a lot more to understand about ourselves before we can discuss solutions, so let’s first understand the dynamics of ambition. Not in the Genghis Khan take-over-the-world kind of ambition, but in everyday human life.

1.3 Human Ambition

100,000 years ago we were a relatively obscure and unimportant primate gathering food and dodging saber tooth tigers. We might have had fire and used bones and sticks to hunt wooly mammoths, but we were hardly an impressive sight. Just another species on a planet teeming with life.

Today all other life on Earth is a footnote to the presence of humans and our transformation of the planet. How did this happen so quickly?

When humans developed a strong sense of ego, we also acquired the biological and behavioral trait of ambition.

We have the desire to achieve for the sake of achievement. If we are not achieving and not working hard toward something then we feel idle and unfulfilled even if we already have everything we physically need.

Birds for example are not known to build a new nest just because they find it personally challenging. People on the other hand will continue to work even after they have accumulated more money than they or their children can ever spend.

Humans are the only creatures driven to consistently pursue hard work despite no apparent benefit to our health, the spreading of our genes, or our survival. This is a unique trait which has shaped the course of our species and leads to profound consequences on us individually.

Ambition propels our species

To travel places faster we invented the wheel. Then domesticated horses. Then invented cars, airplanes, and spaceships. But those were never good enough. Now we want flying cars and soon teleportation. We want to get places instantly, and once we can do that we’ll want to be in multiple places at once. Then we’ll want time travel. And you know that people will still find plenty to complain about when their teleportation time machine is missing a “must-have” feature.

We climb mountains not to look for food but because the mountain is there beckoning us. If we find a bigger mountain, then that becomes the new goal.

JFK (1962) appealed to people’s ambition by choosing to pursue goals because they were hard.

Ambition may therefore be the most powerful trait to ever evolve. It has enabled our species to go from a handful of unimportant and obscure tribes to over 7 billion people dominating all other forms of life.

If we do not destroy ourselves or get destroyed by an alien life, our insatiable ambition dictates our fate to not just dominate Earth but given enough time, to dominate our entire galaxy and the rest of the reachable universe. Human biology simply demands it. It is in our nature.

Ambition makes individuals unhappy

The disadvantage of ambition is exactly what makes it so powerful; we can never be satisfied. If we could be satisfied, then early humans would have stopped at the stone age, or the bronze age, or the iron age. After figuring out how to build a house from wood, we had to figure out how to build a house from stone, and then we then had to build a two story stone house, then a three story brick house, then a 10 story, and then a 163 story Burj Tower, which clearly is not enough either. There is literally nothing that can or will ever be good enough for our species on the whole.

Ambition allows humans to dominate all other forms of life but the tradeoff is that individual humans must live a life on an emotional treadmill in search for achievement.

Psychologists call this the hedonic treadmill. No matter what we achieve, we must achieve more to sustain the same level of fulfillment.¹ It is like walking toward a horizon — making constant progress but never getting any closer.

While we as a species land on the moon, we as individuals often suffer an unfulfilled life grasping for the next achievement that we foolishly hope will bring us happiness. Even those who literally landed on the moon, a symbol for one of our greatest achievement as a species, are prone to depression and struggle, as this interview with Buzz Aldrin reveals:

After Apollo 11, the 39-year-old Aldrin found it difficult to readjust to life on Earth. His marriage of 21 years soon broke up, he remarried in haste and was divorced for a second time within two years. His military career ended after an unhappy stint as commandant of the USAF test-pilot school. He began to suffer acutely from depression, and finally confronted the fact that he was an alcoholic.

Stories like the above are so common that they are synonymous with our humanity. No matter what we achieve, we have the innate desire for more. Whether somebody drops out of high school or walks on the moon, our desire for what we don’t have makes us prone to be unhappy.

The story of Sisyphysis describes a king sentenced to the anguish of perpetually pushing a boulder uphill and never getting to the top. If he were to reach the top and his eternal challenge become solved, what would bring him happiness then? What would be his new struggle?
“The human tragedy is that the more we consume the hungrier we get. What was an unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.“ — Robert Sapolsky

Takeaways:

  • You always want more than you need
  • More achievement, no matter its magnitude, will not make you happy
  • Nobody is coming to save you

So that’s the bad news, but the good news is that there is a way to aspire for greatness without having ambition set us astray. There is a way for us to control our ambition rather than it controlling us. To get there, let’s take a moment to understand the difference between joy and happiness.

1.4 The Joys We Feel

Humans were optimized for success as nomadic hunter gatherers. Our brains were built to get rewards once in a while, which was great to keep us motivated and pointed in the right direction as we braved a dangerous world. 50,000 years ago we benefited from a burst of joy when our ancestors earned a hard fought prize of honey, quenched their thirst, or started a fire by rubbing two pieces of wood together — which as a side note, is way harder than it looks.

Our brain creates joy triggers to let us know we are doing the right thing. That’s our hardware running on instincts. But those triggers, and our instincts, have lost their meaning in a world filled with material abundance.

Fulfilling our physical needs for food, warmth, thirst, and shelter, used to bring humans moments of joy. Our instincts guided us and informed us that we were on the right track. Moments of joy had a biological purpose. These are no longer helpful.

The biological design that led us to seek out hard fought honey is now beleaguered by manufactured foods engineered to overwhelm senses.

Quenching our thirst is just not good enough to feel joy anymore, which may be why Coca-Cola used to advertise itself as a drink to end our thirst and now advertises itself as a drink that brings happiness.

We now seek joy triggers without meaning. Whether checking our phone, eating a chocolate chip cookie, or seeking a compliment at work, none of these bring happiness and no matter what we achieve, we always need more.

What gave us joy yesterday becomes an entitlement today, and is not enough tomorrow. To feel the same joy, we always need more tomorrow than we have today.

In summary:

  • Joys are designed to let our instincts know we are on the right track
  • Unfortunately our instincts no longer serve their biological purpose
  • We seek meaningless and transient joys as a substitute for a happy life

1.5 Happiness & The Good News

Happiness is different than joy, and unlike joy, it can be enduring. Happiness is an internal state and as an internal state it cannot be defined by external events.

Happiness is realized because it is a state of mind we internally achieve, and not because of any grades, jobs, or fortunes we accumulate.

So let’s review:

  • Positive external events can lead to joy
  • The more we accomplish the more we need for the same level of joy
  • All joy is temporary and doesn’t bring happiness
  • Those who seek happiness by seeking joy are destined to be unhappy
  • You can be happy, but you have to learn how to achieve it
“Happiness is a choice and a skill, and you can dedicate yourself to learning that skill and making that choice.” — Naval Ravikant

So how do we master internal happiness?

There are many who find some happiness by doing things that bring them meaning, usually through family or work. But even those require external circumstances; your work must go in a certain direction as does your family. While finding meaning in your work, family, and community have been often shown to support happiness, there is an even deeper and more enduring level of happiness which comes from within. I summarize this through the Ten Tenets in part 3.

In part 2 we will take a brief moment to review what some of history’s wisest people from Buddha to the Romans said on the subject of internal happiness and then return to the Ten Tenets for a better life in part 3.



Credits: Much of this writing has been influenced by, and sometimes borrows directly from the following: Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, Tim Urban, Shane Parrish, and Mark Manson, as well as the more scholarly works of Robert Sapolsky, Yuval Harari, Jonathan Haidt, Viktor Frankl, and many others. I have also posted an intro to the series.

Footnotes:

¹A simple biological explanation for why joy can never bring us sustained happiness and why we always want more:

As Robert Sapolsky expertly analyzed this in his brilliant book Behave, take a monkey who learns that when he presses a lever he gets a raisin as a reward and 10 units of dopamine are released in his brain to signal “good job.” Now he presses the lever and is surprised with two raisins, and 20 units of dopamine are released. Super happy! However, after the monkey continues to get two raisins, the size of the dopamine response returns to 10 units. Now press the lever and get just one raisin, and dopamine levels actually decline.