“I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”
- Emo Philips
If you ask most people what their #1 goal in life is, some form of “be as happy as possible” tends to be the top answer.
So I’m constantly baffled by how bad most people are — even incredibly smart people — at applying their intellectual faculties in service of this goal.
Our brains serve our genes, not vice versa
This inability makes sense when you think about it from an evolutionary psychology perspective. The Darwinian game of “genes optimizing their ability to make more copies of themselves” has been going on for a couple billion years — many orders of magnitude longer than human-level intelligence has been around.
Animals that acquire resources and high social status have the best mating opportunities, so it’s little wonder that we’re naturally motivated to climb the resource / status ladder. In fact, we likely evolved such big brains just so we could navigate the complex web of status hierarchies of our communities.
But, as research in positive psychology tells us, these trappings of status don’t make us happier. It’s not about how much money you have (above a low threshold). It’s not even about how smart or good looking you are.
Instead, the factors within our control that correlate with happiness (as opposed to genetics, which is outside our control) are such things as having free time, having good friends, regularly entering a state of flow, and feeling attached to something bigger than oneself.
So why can’t we apply our big brains to the task of making ourselves happier? We can, but it’s hard, because our brains are not monolithic entities.
Elephant and the Rider
A metaphor that I like comes from the fantastic book The Happiness Hypothesis. To quote from the book:
The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between conscious/reasoned processes and automatic/implicit processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.
You can use your conscious mind to make yourself happier, but it take more than a simple act of will. You need to retrain the elephant.
The author lists three ways to retrain the elephant:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy. Basically, you practice becoming aware of negative thought patterns. Whenever you catch yourself in a negative pattern (e.g. “I’m so bored with my life”), you substitute a positive thought (e.g. “I’m bored so… I should sign up for an acting class!”). Over time, the negative patterns diffuse.
- Meditation. Practicing mediation makes you mindful of your thoughts, and able to intervene at a meta level by asking yourself “does this thought serve me”. You learn to create a more positive internal state by not reacting to craving and aversion.
- Prozac. The shortcut to giving yourself a healthy balance of neurotransmitters :)
This retraining is hard. It takes commitment to repeatedly practice the steps needed to retrain the elephant. But if you think that “be as happy as possible” is your highest goal, shouldn’t you invest this energy?
Think about how many hours per week you devote to making money. And you know (in your conscious brain) that this money isn’t going to move the happiness needle as much as having free time, good friends, a flow state, etc. — doesn’t it make rational sense to shift some of these hours away from making money (if you can’t find the time elsewhere) and instead apply them towards those activities that research says is more likely to make you happy?