Why are so many people unhappy?
The bad feeling of cortisol is released when you perceive a survival threat, but the brain defines survival in a quirky way. It cares about the survival of your genes even though you don't consciously care; and it relies on circuits you built in youth even though you don't consciously intend to. This is why a bad hair day can feel like a survival threat. Your brain chemicals are controlled by structures inherited from earlier mammals (the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, pituitary, etc). When your mammalian operating system releases the distress chemical, your big human cortex scans for evidence of potential threats. You are good at finding threats, which triggers more neurochemical distress and a bad feedback loop.
To make things worse, a social threat is a survival threat to the mammal brain. A mammal needs a herd or pack or troop for protection from predators, but these groups are full of conflict. An animal can get bitten if it reaches for food or mating opportunity that a bigger critter had its eye on. Natural selection built a brain that avoids pain by holding back when it sees that it's weaker. It does this by constantly comparing itself to others and releasing either happy chemicals (serotonin, dopamine) when it seems safe to assert, or cortisol when it seems best to hold back. If you get fed up with this and want to leave the group, your inner mammal makes you feel like a lone gazelle in a world of lions. It's not easy being a mammal! Your brain makes social comparisons as if your life depended on it.
I'm not saying you should think this way, but your brain will go there so you should know why. You may have been told that happiness is effortless in other times and places, and "our society" is the cause of unhappiness. This is false. People everywhere are mammals, and always have been. Instead of thinking something is wrong, you can appreciate the survival mechanism that kept your ancestors' genes alive in a hazardous world. Cortisol frees us to try new things and still pull back in time to avoid harm. Cortisol feels bad because that works -- it gets your attention and motivates you to do what it takes to make it stop. If you rush to mask your cortisol with good feelings, you can end up with habits that cause you more unhappiness in the long run. Instead, remember that cortisol is metabolized in twenty minutes if you don't feed it. So the next time you're unhappy, distract yourself for twenty minutes with something that will not frustrate you. Then, go back for one minute and take a calm look for the threat that triggered you, and remind your inner mammal that it's safe.
So how can a person be happier?
You can rewire yourself to enjoy more happy chemicals. First, accept the natural ups and downs of your mammal brain instead of rushing to mask the downs with habits that hurt you in the long run. Then, understand the job your happy chemicals evolved to do. Finally, build a new pathway to your happy chemicals by choosing a new thought or behavior and repeating it every day for 45 days.
Happy chemicals are triggered for reasons that are easy to understand in the state of nature. Dopamine flows when a monkey spends hours trying to crack open a nut. Endorphin flows when a monkey is injured. Oxytocin flows when a monkey grooms a trusted troop mate. Serotonin flows when a monkey one-ups the monkey next to it. Happy chemicals are quickly metabolized and you have to do more to get more. Our ancestors triggered them by finding food to relieve their hunger and other steps that met immediate survival needs. It's not easy to figure out healthy ways to trigger them today. (Plenty of suggestions in my book Habits of a Happy Brain.) It helps to remember that the brain did not evolve to make you feel good all the time; it evolved to motivate survival behavior.
Whatever triggered your happy chemicals in youth paved neural pathways that tell you how to get them today. This may not lead you where you want to go. You can turn them on in new ways if you build new pathways, but it takes sustained effort. Choose a healthy new thought or behavior and repeat it every day for 45 days. A new path through your jungle of neurons will get established. The new behavior may not feel good at first, but on Day 46 you will have a new highway to your happy chemicals and you will be eager to build another new one.
Can a return to nature make us happy?
It depends where your mind goes when you're in nature. If you're making social comparisons, you can end up frustrated even in a beautiful setting. Yet your mind tends to do that because you're a mammal, and so is everyone else.
Nature is not as happy as you think. Animals struggle to relieve their hunger and rivals often snatch their food. Their offspring get eaten alive in front of them and they have to face the predator at the water hole the next morning. There is no free love in the state of nature. Mammals work hard for any mating opportunity they get, and disappointment is common. Life is not all warm and fuzzy in a herd or pack or troop, but natural selection built a brain that keeps motivating the body to try again. Finding food makes a mammal happy until its belly is full; then it seeks happiness in social importance, as much as we wish it wouldn't.
The weaker members of an animal herd live around the edges where predator threat is highest. They are not sacrificing themselves voluntarily. They spent their lives pushing toward the center like every herd animal, but when they weaken they end up on the edge. Your inner mammal may feel like you are being pushed out even though your life is safer than anything imagined by your ancestors. If you look for evidence to support this bad feeling, you will find it. But you will just end up feeling bad. You can focus on something else instead, but it's hard to do that. The electricity in your brain keeps trying to flow where it has gone before. You can build a new pathway in your brain to focus on the good in the world around you. Spend one minute looking for the good, three times a day, for 45 days. You can do it in nature if that works for you, but you can also do it on a crowded train. Your brain will build the habit of looking for the good. You may think this is biased or unrealistic, but your old habit of looking for the bad is also biased and unrealistic. Your old habit was learned by chance but you can learn a new habit by choice.
How could a survival-focused brain make choices that are bad for survival?
Your brain is always trying to promote your survival with the neural pathways it has. It built these pathways whenever something felt good or bad in your past. They help you go toward rewards and avoid harm in the future. But something things feel good in the short run but hurt you in the long run. You may find yourself repeating a behavior that hurts you because the pathway that expects a reward is still there. Why does it the expectation of a reward survive after so many hurts?
1. The rewards and pain of your youth built superhighways in your brain due to a substance called "myelin." Before age eight and during puberty, your brain produces lots of myelin, so anything that affected you strongly during those years built a myelinated pathway. Now, the electricity in your brain flows so effortlessly down that pathway that it feels right even when you know it's wrong.
2. Anything that relieved a threatened feeling saved your life from your mammal brain's perspective. If you were chased by a lion and saved your life by running up a tree, your brain would get wired to scan for trees as if your life depended on it. So imagine you flunked a math test and went to a party to feel better. Your brain "learned" to scan for parties. Consciously, you know they don't improve you math skills, but your inner mammal has gotten the idea that parties relieve a threatened feeling and thus make you safe. Of course the opposite is also true: if you were a person who felt threatened by parties and relieved the bad feeling by studying math, that survival strategy is real to your brain.
3. Repetition builds neural pathways. Anything you repeat builds a bigger pathway. Any threat reliever you repeated in your myelin years built a BIG pathway.
4. Size matters. Big rewards build big reward pathways and big threats build big threat pathways. Artificial rewards are bigger than natural rewards. For example, in the state of nature you have to work hard to find a bit of sugar, but in the modern world you can get an artificially huge sugar reward. In the state of nature you only get endorphin when you injure yourself, but opiates can give you an artificially huge endorphin surge. Your brain loses interest in small rewards if you train it to expect huge rewards.
Artificial pain builds big pathways. For example, you probably enjoy better health than your ancestors, because they lived with vermin-infested open-pit toilets. But if you constantly surround yourself with health warnings and apocalyptical science fiction and political messages, you are likely to build a pathway that builds huge expectations of threat.
Can social support make us happy?
Yes and no. The good feeling of oxytocin is released when you have the safety of social support. But the good feeling is metabolized in a few minute and your brain looks for a way to stimulate more. People will not always conform to your expectations because you built then from your oxytocin past. When your expectations are disappointed, your mammal brain sees it as a survival threat. You can end up with a lot of cortisol in your quest for the good feeling of oxytocin. Some temporary relief comes from investing effort in strengthening your social bonds. But there's no permanent solution because the mammal brain keeps seeking safety in numbers. You are better off reminding yourself that you are safe whether or not other people meet your expectations.
We humans are born helpless and vulnerable. The first experience in each brain -- the foundation that your later experiences are layered on -- is urgent distress that you cannot relieve by yourself. Social support is a matter of life and death during the years your brain is wiring itself, so we all learn to fear the loss of social support. Yet every mammal must transition from dependence to independence in order to survive the loss of their parents. We are designed to seek independence and social bonds. Unfortunately, we tend to worry about the one we lack in each moment instead of appreciating the one we have. When you have social support, your brain longs for the independent steps that stimulate your dopamine. But when you have independence, your brain longs for the social support that stimulates oxytocin. This focus on what's missing can leave you feeling like something is wrong unless you make a habit of valuing what you have. When you have independence, enjoy it instead of feeling abandoned. When you are in a group, enjoy it instead of feeling stifled. You will flip between the two throughout life and you can't always control it so you may as well enjoy where you are.
How can we help others?
It feels good to help others because social importance stimulates serotonin. It feels good to help others because your mirror neurons create the feeling of receiving help yourself. Sometimes we're so eager to help that we do things that don't really help. Sometimes we reward bad behavior, which strengthens the bad behavior of the person you were hoping to "help." Sometimes we are so focused on another person's needs that they fail to develop confidence in their ability to meet their own needs. Sometimes we sacrifice our own happiness because we think it will help, but it only teaches the person to sacrifice happiness. You cannot reach into someone else's brain and trigger their happy chemicals for them. They have to make the connection themselves. If you have healthy self-care habits, they can learn by watching you.
The brain learns whatever gets rewarded. You can help others by rewarding only healthy behaviors, even though you are tempted to reward them for unhealthy behaviors. If someone steals your wallet, you may want to be "nice" by telling them you are so pleased to give it to them. This makes you feel better, but it doesn't really help the other person.