Your Brain is Wired to Keep You Unhappy. But Why?

The good life appears to be straightforward: acquire enough money, find your dream girl/guy, be the boss, get the fancy car and the big house. Then, we tell ourselves, will we be satisfied. Then we can relax.

There is a slight problem, however: there isn’t a trace of evidence suggesting that higher earnings or more material goods will translate into joy or fulfillment. In fact, it’s often the opposite (especially for lottery winners). With each acquisition, the threat looms that our prized possession will be taken away. We become tense and grasp for more.

This makes sense from natural selection’s standpoint. Humans evolved to react in ways that would constantly make life easier or more comfortable. I imagine this trait would come in handy when seeking shelter or food on the Sahara. Today, however, technology has managed to outpace that primal instinct. The result is that we are still scanning our environment for things to be uncomfortable, unhappy, or unsatisfied with, even though this is the safest and easiest time to have ever lived on Earth.

Our minds are hardwired to trick us. We salivate at the thought of a diamond engagement ring or the latest shoe release, but the feeling that occurs when we actually get them never seems to live up to our expectations. After the initial dopamine rush, the pleasure dissipates. We become bored, or worse, resentful that we thought this thing could actually make us happy. So our brain tells us to go get more.

The saddest part is that our conscious mind is fully aware of this cycle, but we can’t resist the urge to consume. Many people, from Socrates to Jesus to modern psychologists, have warned us about the futility of self-indulgence. Unfortunately, we haven’t caught on.

“The idea that just one more dollar, one more rung on the ladder will leave us feeling sated reflects a misunderstanding about human nature,” says the author and scholar Robert Wright. “We are designed to feel that the next great goal will bring bliss, [but] the bliss is designed to evaporate shortly after we get there. Natural selection has a malicious sense of humor; it leads us along with a series of promises and then keeps saying ‘Just kidding.’”

The process that created us is the same one that, paradoxically, torments us. It places us in a vicious, frustrating, emotional cycle of desire, consumption, and confusion. And it seems as though the only way to escape it might be to simply acknowledge that it exists.


Dominic’s articles, essays, interviews, and book recommendations are sent in his monthly newsletter. All subscribers receive the PDF “11 Immutable Writing Lessons from Legendary Authors.”

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