Why Is It So Hard to Be Happy?
A brief history of the human race.
Posted Oct 29, 2020
One of the peculiarities of the human race is just how hard it is for us to be happy. Despite all the reminders entreating us to live our best lives, to make the most of every moment, it’s sometimes so hard to do this as we find ourselves struggling one day to the next.
When you add up all the folks who are affected by depression, anxiety, stress, trauma, physical illness, grief, suicide, addiction, and low self-worth, we realise we are not alone. It becomes hard to imagine someone who is unaffected by any of this suffering. It’s almost as if to be human is to suffer.
Why is it that we humans seem so prone to suffering? When we look at the rest of the animal kingdom, such angst and heartache is not so evident. You don’t see lions agonizing over relationship breakups from three years ago. Or zebras ruminating over their poor career choices. These kinds of activities are reserved for us humans.
How did this come to be? Well, there are a couple of special features of the human race, the first of which is the degree to which we cooperate. Bees, termites and ants aside, other animals don’t cooperate anywhere close to the amount humans do. As our societies built up over the millennia, cooperation has allowed us to undertake some amazing feats – including the development of medicine, systems of education, and technology. Of course, our cooperation has also allowed us to engage in ferocious and unprecedented cruelty against others in our species.
The key driver of our cooperation is our ability to communicate via language. This has conferred a big advantage for a species relatively short on thick skin, horns and claws. Language has allowed us to learn quickly, pass on our learning down generations and continue to build on that learning with each generation. No need to throw our offspring into ongoing traffic and hope they survive and learn from the experience. We can give our young ones instructions like “don’t play on a busy street, it’s dangerous.”
The dark side of this phenomenal ability is that we can now become fearful of things we’ve never encountered before in our lives. Remember your very first date? Were you super calm and relaxed? Confident in your ability to engage in charming and witty repartee? Probably not. Your mind was likely warning of all the ways it could go wrong.
Even though you had never before been on a date and had no actual experience to base these predictions on, your mind still went into overdrive. Why do we do this, especially when it brings us so much unhappiness?
To answer this, it’s worth reminding ourselves that most of us have some version of the “I’m not good enough” story that we carry with us. We worry that we don’t measure up, we’re in some way not acceptable or likable. This is because we have a deep-rooted desire to belong and be part of the group. As a result, we are quite naturally very attuned to any perceived threat to this. This came in large part due to being the surviving ancestors of the ancient people who were constantly concerned about getting kicked out of the tribe or anxious about being eaten. Those folks who were relaxed and always loved life swiftly ended up as lunch for the local lions and bears. We therefore evolved to be worriers, ruminators and threat detectors. To paraphrase the writer and comedian Ruby Wax, your brain is designed to keep you alive; it “couldn’t give a sh*t about your happiness” (“Ruby Wax Talks” 2015).
So, what do we do about this? It would be easy to think that the solution to stories like “I’m not good enough” would be to replace it with “I’m awesome!” But there is good reason to be suspicious of such an approach. First, the research shows that such positive affirmations at best work only in the short term (Wood et al. 2009). Second, appreciating that these stories point to places we deeply care about allows us to respond with self-acceptance and kindness. Such stories are painful, but they aren’t a sign of brokenness: They are indicators of our humanity and desire for connection and belonging.
This realisation perhaps serves as a gentle reminder to us not to fight with these stories and add extra layers of harsh self-criticism and judgement. It opens us up the possibility of warmth and kindness toward even the most difficult parts of ourselves. M. Scott Peck’s opening words in his famous self-help book, The Road Less Travelled, are, “Life is difficult.” Indeed, it is. Sometimes it is filled with anxiety, uncertainty, loneliness and sorrow. A deep recognition of this lets us stop striving to be something we are not. We can just arrive and be. Welcome to the human race.
Wood, J., Elaine Perunovic, W., & Lee, J. (2009). Positive Self-Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others Psychological Science, 20, 860-866