From an evolutionary perspective, our brains have been fine-tuned over millions of years to ensure our survival. Yet, in the midst of our modern quest for happiness, we find ourselves facing a curious paradox. Despite advancements in technology, comfort, and abundance, many of us struggle to find lasting fulfillment and inner peace. It begs the question: Could our brains, designed primarily for survival, be ill-equipped to meet the demands of our contemporary pursuit of happiness? In this article, I explore some of the concepts in my book, “A Life’s Work: Learning to Overrule My Mindless Brain” to address this intriguing dilemma and discuss practical steps we can take to bridge the gap between our ancient neural wiring and our modern quest for happiness.
The Survival Bias
Our brains have evolved with a survival bias, constantly scanning the environment for potential threats and focusing on ensuring our physical safety. Instinctually, both the predator and the prey are desperate to survive. Rich or poor, weak or strong, pretty or ugly, we can’t escape the animal environment that our brains were designed in. While this trait was essential for our ancestors, it often leads to a heightened sense of fear, anxiety, and negativity in the modern world. It is embedded in our culture that dwelling on bad things is necessary to provide the energy and motivation to make things better. Our brains tend to amplify negative experiences and discount positive ones, creating a skewed perception of reality that hinders our pursuit of happiness.
The Illusion of External Fulfillment
Throughout history, survival meant meeting basic needs such as food, shelter, and reproduction. However, in our modern society, we have surpassed mere survival and shifted our focus to more abstract concepts like happiness and fulfillment. Our brains, however, still cling to the notion that external achievements and material possessions are the key to happiness. This illusion often leaves us unsatisfied and perpetually chasing after the next goal or acquisition, without finding lasting contentment. This concept is highly evident in our educational system where student success is measured by predetermined external benchmarks that have little to do with their own emotional and psychological circumstances. I believe the best thing we can do for our children is to allow them to explore their own inner experiences and to see their brain as their servant and not their master; to discover their own power to navigate the world with confidence in their personal abilities and to live a fulfilling life.
The Influence of Comparison
Another challenge our brains face in the pursuit of happiness is the constant comparison prevalent in our interconnected world. Our brains are constantly measuring the world against an impossible and unrealistic yardstick. Whether it comes from the influence of family, friends, colleagues, peers or within ourselves, the tendency to compare our lives, achievements, and appearances can prompt us to put up a “front” to the world. We often internalize the facade to keep ourselves going on the path to our perceived objectives. As we remain unsatisfied and the struggle perpetuates, feelings of inadequacy, envy, and a distorted sense of self-worth further hinder our ability to find genuine happiness within.
Overcoming the Mismatch
While our brains may be predisposed to these challenges, we are not powerless in our pursuit of happiness. Over many years, I have sought to understand and engage that power in my own life. In the process, it became clear that a shift in the way we use our brains can turn a mindless brain into a tool for being the person we want to be. Stepping out of the filter through which we have lived so far can be a difficult task, like managing the manager. Yet, we now have an experiential basis to understand the concept. The human brain, like a computer, employs an organized database and algorithms to solve problems. While there are obvious differences in origin and physical characteristics, they are very similar in process and function. It is in our understanding of their limitations that we can override the default outcomes. By separating ourselves from the computer that is our brain and with conscious user input, the brain becomes a mental bridge to a spiritual destination. By examining religion, philosophy, and social and physical sciences, I have come to think of happiness (or Heaven) not as an escape from an unsatisfactory present to be found in a future result, but in knowing who we are and being in accord with the world just as it is. This happens moment to moment as we adapt how we react to the thoughts that our ancient brain offers up.
As we navigate the complexities of the modern world, it is crucial to recognize that our brains, shaped by evolution, may not naturally align with our pursuit of happiness. Now, for the first time in human history we have the opportunity to understand what transcendence is; rising above the limitations of our brains. After thousands of years of searching, we have a totally new way to get to the root cause of why it is so hard to be happy. Armed with knowledge, awareness, and acute intentional action, we can transcend these limitations. With conscious and mindful action, we can rewire our neural pathways and redefine our goals to bridge the gap between our ancient survival-driven brains and our modern quest for happiness. We now have the tools to overcome the mismatch and cultivate a more fulfilling life.