Why do so many people experience unhappiness? There are lots of differing ways to look at it.
The personal-responsibility view says people are unhappy because they make poor choices, which bring negative consequences and lead to unhappiness. Another view is that our culture’s focus on material success leaves many of us empty inside, and confused as to why the nice home, car or vacation doesn’t completely satisfy us. The spiritually-oriented have described the “God-size hole” many feel about their lives- the emptiness of the lack of deeper meaning or spirituality. Many schools of psychotherapy look to our early relationships for the source of dis-ease, to our mother and father, and the early wounds that continue to plague us long into adulthood, invisible outwardly but plenty real inside.
My observations tell me all of these are relevant. But from the viewpoint of biology, evolution and study of the brain and nervous system, there’s a fascinating theory. It says our species evolved, like all species, for survival, not happiness. It says the brain evolved to more and more effectively solve survival problems. Chief among these was not getting killed, especially not getting eaten. To stay alive, we got very skilled at detection of predators and other dangers.
This survival-evolution theory looks at the brain, and how it works, form the perspective of our long history occupying a middle shelf on the food chain. There were many creatures above us, and many below. We could easily swat away a stinging poisonous wasp, but not a hungry tiger. To survive, our species had to become very adept at scanning our environment for threats, and reacting quickly to avoid danger- the fight, flight or freeze process in the nervous system. Eventually our problem-solving intellect moved us to the top of the food chain thanks to our ability to plan, imagine new strategies, and work together as a group based on those strategies. We learned that in groups we could protect ourselves from large predators, and in fact successfully hunt them. We hunted many of them right into extinction. To read a wonderful account of our (in many ways tragic) march to the top of food chain, read Yuval Harari’s terrific book, Sapiens (Harper, published in English in 2014).
Over tens and hundreds of thousands of years, and countless generations, our bodies and brains evolved to survive by detecting threats, planning for responses, and reacting rapidly in crisis. Now, having subdued the natural threats for the most part- planetary warming, disease and war notwithstanding- we find ourselves in a world of our own mastery, not very happy.
How not happy? Many of us suffer from survival mode syndrome, otherwise known as anxiety: Constantly noticing things that are wrong, or might go wrong. We’re invited to a summer barbecue, no dangerous predators on the guest list. How many of us spend our time there caught up in scanning for “danger”: Signs that we don’t fit in, don’t compare favorably, aren’t attractive, intelligent or charming enough. We leave unhappy, wondering what’s wrong with us. We may believe the danger-narratives in our heads (“I’m not as clever as so-and-so.” Or, “No one ate my potato salad.”) or blame ourselves for being unable to enjoy socializing.
We’re like apes in modern clothing, all dressed up and equipped with iPhone, but frequently convinced we’re under imminent threat.
The evolutionary view says survival ruins the barbecue. It’s not your fault your mind constantly looks for something wrong- it’s the result of the eons of evolution. Only now the predators are (mostly) gone, or have morphed into other forms (the soul-draining smartphone distraction, identity theft online, cyber-bullying, etc.) but our brain is still hypervigilant, detecting the next incoming threat, even if the greatest danger is BBQ sauce on your new shorts or FOMO (fear of missing out).
The good news is there’s help for this pattern of scanning for danger, of feeling anxious in (relative) paradise. Mindfulness teaches us how to use the mind in more beneficial ways, so we’re not just swept along in the hereditary patterns of threat-detection and reaction.
With Mindfulness training, we learn to notice what the mind is doing- scanning for threats and problems, and re-direct it. We train the mind to focus on what’s good, and what’s real in the present moment, instead of planning and wondering about the next moment or next day or next threat (or opportunity). Where the threat scanning induces reactivity in the nervous system, Mindfulness induces steadiness and a sense of well-being. Over time we are able to stand back and watch the mind flailing and freaking out, predicting disaster, and know it for what it is: Conditioning of the mind, and not relevant now. We learn to slow the breath down, and release the tense muscles that feed the adrenaline into the nervous system. We more and more notice that we are well, and for the most part, safe.
Mindfulness helps us be at ease, even if the brain continues to scan the environment for the tiger, poisonous snake, or rejection of potato salad.