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You Aren't Built to be Happy

Evolutionary psychology suggests brain's aren't built for consistent happiness.

Art by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.
Source: Art by Alexi Berry. Used with permission.

Lately I’ve encountered a number of people who seem to believe they should be happy nearly all of the time. This post hopes to correct that notion and provide an alternative philosophy. This faltered philosophy may be one of the major problems in the average person’s thinking about happiness. Most will admit they cannot be happy all of the time, yet they behave as if they expect to.

To define the issue, many people believe lasting happiness is one’s supposed default. My argument to demonstrate this is how when one is not happy, there is an attempt, either by himself or others, to ascertain why. Happiness is the assumed default state. If it is not experienced, there is a problem which needs to be fettered out and solved. Happiness is the default in this approach. It is what is expected.

Yet evolutionary psychology suggests otherwise. It is generally accepted that the human brain has a negativity bias. Studies of brain activity have demonstrated that the brain responds more actively to negative images than positive or neutral images. In “Buddha’s Brain”, neuropsychologist Rick Hanson describes the brain’s focus on negative as Velcro, and on positive as Teflon (p.41). The theory is our brains evolved this way in order to protect us; early humans had a lot more to gain from focusing on what might harm them than from what was pleasant. The human brain, therefore, is not designed to be generally happy.

Steven C. Hayes, who interestingly is the founder of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, wrote recently for Psychology Today the article, “Why You Focus on the Wrong Things.” In it he describes five ways our brains evolved to focus on negative. They include imagining dangers, ruminating about the past, worrying what others think, feeling not good enough, always needing more. As you can tell, evolutionary psychology posits we focus on the negative by default. Additionally, if brains remained in a state of happiness, there would be no motivation to move forward, to seek what we need. Lack of happiness motivates movement, whether it be for food, or other instincts that need satisfaction.

Despite this, a lack of happiness is seen as an issue, and has been for a long time. The idea people should be happy nearly all the time may have resulted from the affluence this country has experienced since WWII. Viktor Frankl, quoting a colleague, described that era’s view that “our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment” (p.114). His book was originally published in 1959. In a more recent bestseller, Mark Manson makes a similar point. He argues, “We like the idea there is some form of ultimate happiness that can be attained. We like the idea that we can alleviate all of our suffering permanently. We like the idea that we can feel fulfilled and satisfied with our lives forever. But we cannot.” (p.36).

A quote from the same book offers the solution: “The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.” (p.9). As I have written previously, acceptance is the key to less suffering (see, “Acceptance: It Isn’t What You Think"). Notice I did not say the elimination of suffering. The idea is that by realizing one cannot be happy all of the time and that negative mood states are normal, one can reduce the suffering one experiences. Often this can be done by simply realizing negative mood states are normal and transient. Returning to Buddha’s Brain, Dr. Hanson argues pain is inevitable, but often one causes oneself more suffering by the reactions they have to this pain (p.50).

Much of the suffering one experiences in life is normal, and in ways, meant to be helpful. Negativity bias keeps us alert for dangers. But one needn’t pay so much attention to outdated dangers. For example, the fear of rejection comes from fearing being shunned from the community and dying without their support. But this is no longer the case. Not only can one survive without being accepted, but there is also enough diversity anyone can be accepted to some group.

One reframe (looking at a problem a different way) that might be helpful is moving negative mood states to neutral through the use of the ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Training). In defusion, mind-states (including emotions) are viewed as events happening within. Usually thoughts and feelings are perceived as truths or calls to action. The idea is to become the observer of these states, and rather than thinking, “I’m so depressed”, for example, observing “I’m having the thought, I’m so depressed”. This creates some distance between the thought/mood state, and the thinker. This distance then, helps the mood become more neutral.

In Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson describes the term equanimity (p.109). Equanimity refers to a balanced state of mind. A balanced state of mind isn’t happy; it isn’t sad; it just is. I have found that this state is easier to attain when faced with more negative emotions than positive (because who wants to bring down a positive state?). I often challenge my clients to move away from the negative, seek a neutral mind-state (equanimity) and feel good about that. In the book, Hanson relays a story of a peer boating down the Ganges and seeing beauty on one side, and funerals on the other, and opening herself to both while remaining in equanimity (p.110).

Negative states help motivate us for change, as our brain would see fit. Once these negative states are seen as either outdated, helpful, normal, transient, and an opportunity to seek equanimity, they lose some of their power. Accepting them, creating mindful distance with them, rolling with them, and not telling negative stories which exacerbate them is the solution. Ultimate happiness may not be possible, but less suffering certainly is.

Copyright William Berry, 2019


Frankl, V. (2006). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Hanson, R. (2009). Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Hayes, S. (2019). Why You Focus on the Wrong Things. Psychology Today, August 2019.

Manson, M. (2016). The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.

More from William Berry, LMHC., CAP.
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