Humans aren't designed to "be happy." Why do we keep pretending?

A new essay by Rafael Euba questions the goals of the happiness industry.

  • Biologically speaking, humans are not designed for happiness, writes Rafael Euba on The Conversation.
  • Depression is a natural part of life, fostering problem-solving skills and keeping us out of dangerous situations.
  • Euba says the $11 billion positive thinking industry is a big reason for this focus on happiness.

According to a recent survey of American millionaires, only 13 percent reported feeling wealthy. Many respondents in control of more than $5 million in assets and savings claim that they don't feel rich. Tied into this research is the question of happiness: How can millionaires not feel happy?

Interestingly, research shows that when someone wins the lottery, their neighbors often go into debt; some even claim bankruptcy. They were trying to keep up with the newfound luck (and capital) of that family across the lawn. Another study found that the more your neighbor earns, the less happy you're likely to be. Yet what about the lottery winner, many of whom also go bankrupt? Why does this sudden injection of cash not satisfy them? Is there not happiness to be found there?

The answer is simple: humans aren't designed for happiness.

That's what Rafael Euba, a Senior Lecturer in Old Age Psychiatry at King's College London, argues in a new essay. Like all the other animals, we are "designed"—by evolution, to be clear—to survive and reproduce. Happiness is not the mainstay of our operating system.

Euba even argues that we're not designed to be content, a fact backed up by a simple biological trait we all experience in life: the chase. Whether a romantic partner, job, or dream house, we put extreme effort into pursuits that, when we achieve them, are quickly forgotten. Adrenaline subsided, our attention nearly immediately goes elsewhere. That thing we swore would make us happy let us down; or, better put, our expectations of that thing did not meet the reality.

This does not have to be the case; with discipline and focus, we can continue to cherish that which we fought for. Such a mindset requires effort. Like happiness, satisfaction is not natural to us, though we can work for it.

Rafael Euba speaking about Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.

Euba writes that if humans are "built" for anything, it's depression. Ruminating over difficult times helps you problem solve and figure out means for surviving after trauma. He continues,

"Experts in this field argue that nature's failure to weed out depression in the evolutionary process (despite the obvious disadvantages in terms of survival and reproduction) is due precisely to the fact that depression as an adaptation plays a useful role in times of adversity, by helping the depressed individual disengage from risky and hopeless situations in which he or she cannot win."

Still, happiness is baked into our national identity as the optimal goal. Again, such states need to be earned, proving they are not natural states. Though you'll find plenty of misquotes by the Buddha about striving for happiness, Buddha knew that happiness was a fleeting and therefore unsustainable goal. His solution called for equanimity and the expression of compassion with a touch of contentment thrown in. The sagely leader recognized that ups and downs were part of life. Best to remain composed while riding the inevitable waves.

Perhaps that's why America has become such a depressed nation. With so much emphasis on the "pursuit of happiness," we consistently feel behind when we can't keep up with our (lottery-winning) neighbors. We aren't content because we can't match the life we ourselves envisioned, no matter how ludicrous the initial goals were. A life pursuing entertainment and pleasure at every turn is hedonic; even biblical scribes knew there was a problem with that. Euba places at least part of the blame on Christianity, writing,

"The current global happiness industry has some of its roots in Christian morality codes, many of which will tell us that there is a moral reason for any unhappiness we may experience. This, they will often say, is due to our own moral shortcomings, selfishness and materialism."

Author Barbara Ehrenreich on her new book "Bright-Sided" Democracy Now 10/13/09 1 of 2

Then why do we chase happiness at every turn? Another biblical clue: money.

The American "happiness industry," fueled by positive thinking, is valued at $11 billion. Though few people are truly concerned about your personal happiness, plenty want to sell you the idea that it should be everlasting—with their product or service, of course. Type "happiness" into the Books section of Amazon and over 50,000 results appear.

This happiness complex is especially problematic in America. As Barbara Ehrenreich writes in Bright-Sided, America ranked only 23rd in roughly a hundred countries self-reporting happiness. Yet we account for two-thirds of all antidepressant usage in the world, with antidepressants being our most commonly prescribed drug.

She notes that positive thinking and the incessant drive for happiness "requires deliberate self-deception," with its adherents constantly needing to repress self-criticism or negative thoughts. She continues,

"The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts. Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity."

Euba notes that neurologically speaking, our brains can manage both positive and negative emotions simultaneously, relatively independent of one another. This provides a jump over those mental hurdles as you recognize "the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure." Feeling down is not a shortcoming in need of immediate repair, but simply part of the fluctuations of life. It is, he concludes, "what makes you human."


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

Befriend your ideological opposite. It’s fun.

Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.

Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
  • Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
  • "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
  • The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Keep reading Show less

Physicists find new state of matter that can supercharge technology

Scientists make an important discovery for the future of computing.

Surprising Science
  • Researchers find a new state of matter called "topological superconductivity".
  • The state can lead to important advancements in quantum computing.
  • Utilizing special particles that emerge during this state can lead to error-free data storage and blazing calculation speed.
Keep reading Show less

Physicist advances a radical theory of gravity

Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.

Photo by Willeke Duijvekam
Surprising Science
  • The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
  • The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
  • While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
Keep reading Show less

How to heal trauma with meaning: A case study in emotional evolution

As tempting as it may be to run away from emotionally-difficult situations, it's important we confront them head-on.

  • Impossible-sounding things are possible in hospitals — however, there are times when we hit dead ends. In these moments, it's important to not run away, but to confront what's happening head-on.
  • For a lot of us, one of the ways to give meaning to terrible moments is to see what you can learn from them.
  • Sometimes certain information can "flood" us in ways that aren't helpful, and it's important to figure out what types of data you are able to take in — process — at certain times.
Keep reading Show less