Don't Medicalize the Ups and Downs of Being Alive

The system can't make you feel good all the time.

Posted Feb 21, 2014

 It would be nice if all bad feelings could be eliminated. Modern society suggests that you should feel good all the time, and if you don't, "the system" has wronged you. People are taught to expect "the system" to relieve their distress. Alas, the system cannot do that, so we are left to manage the frustrations that come with being human. You could make that a crisis if you want. Many people do because they are trained to believe that "our society is bad," and gravitate toward evidence that fits. This thought habit overlooks the fact that we create distress with our own brains. People have taken responsibility for managing their emotional experience throughout human history. People built skills for emotional self-management, and institutions that encourage those skills. It's nice to have "help," but modern expectations of help go farther than it's possible to deliver. Each person is ultimately responsible for managing their emotions. If we expect the system to manage everyone's distress, we manufacture a crisis.

A recent blog, What Is Causing the College Student Mental Health Crisis accepts the crisis view without challenge. It immediately blames the flaws of "our society"-  the thought habit we're required to learn in college. It's hard to avoid this thought habit because it's reinforced so often by news reports and our colleagues. The repetition connects synapses which cause your brain to see the world through that lens without awareness or intent. As a result, you overlook other information, such as:

1. Life is more secure and comfortable than it has ever been. For most of human history, people worried about whether they would eat, whether they would get killed by neighbors, whether they would die from "that thing going around." There was much physical pain in the course of the average life, and much dreary repetition.

2. Our brain evolved to focus on survival threats. Your brain is always looking around for things that might hurt you and turning on the emergency chemicals to warn you. It responds to anything that hurt you in the past. You don't decide this consciously: your early stresses triggered cortisol which connected neurons that tell your cortisol when to turn on today. When there are no physical threats to your survival, your brain focuses on social threats. Social disappointments and frustrations can feel like survival threats when you don't have more immediate physical threats. Your internal alarm gets triggered. The people around you may encourage this by telling you that you should get mad at the world for failing to do what you think will make you feel good.

3. Your brain always seeks more. Getting what you think you want does not make you happy. Your brain soon takes what you have for granted and seeks more. This has motivated survival behavior for millions of years. You have to make peace with this brain. "Our society" cannot do it for you.

Arjun Mujay/Naturepictures
Source: Arjun Mujay/Naturepictures

You may think you would be happy all the time if only the world gave you all the money/love/respect/highs you think you deserve, with no unfortunate side effects. You may have been told that your disappointments are evidence that the world is flawed, and that "getting mad" is the appropriate solution. You are free to question this formula. You can build a new lens on life if you choose to. You can accept the frustrations of being human instead of experiencing them as some injustice that can be solved by anger. Your time on this earth is limited. You don't have to spend it getting upset about what the world woulda coulda shoulda done for you. Others may think you should be angry at the world for failing to make you feel good, but those people are promoting their own interests. You can ignore them and feel good about your world anyway, if you choose to. 

My book Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity shows how we get wired to focus on the world's flaws, and how we can rewire ourselves to see the bigger picture.

My book has lots more on how your natural happy chemicals got wired, and how you can re-wire them.

 My book I, Mammal explains why the brain is so focused on social rivalry. It offers strategies for feeling good in a world where everyone else is a mammal.