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Why You’re Unhappy: Biology vs Politics

Unhappiness is a natural brain function, but we’re taught to see it as a disorder. They say THE Science proves this, so it’s hard to question. My new book shows that unhappiness is natural biology, and politics has transformed it into a disease. Details at Why You’re Unhappy: Biology vs Politics

Unhappiness is natural because bad-feeling chemicals have a big job. They do more than warn of predators as we’re frequently told. Bad-feeling chemicals are released whenever a reward is less than expected. You don’t think this consciously, but the brain is designed to seek the best way to invest your energy. When you get less than you expect, cortisol alerts you to try something else. Cortisol paves neural pathways, and that turns bad feelings on faster when you see something linked to disappointment in your past. This sounds awful, so it’s essential to know that it’s natural.

So why are we trained to see bad feelings as a disorder?

It’s politics. Not politics in the sense of electing leaders, but politics in the sense of saying what’s popular to win support.

People like to hear that happiness is the natural default state and unhappiness can be fixed by experts. Opinion leaders are always competing for your attention so they look for a message with appeal. But the message you like in the short run can hurt you in the long run because you lose sight of the way you produce your own unhappiness. You don’t strive to build emotion-regulation skills when you’re taught that happiness effortlessly comes effortlessly to others.

My new book explains the unpopular facts of our biology, and how politics has filtered those facts. The story starts a few hundred years ago, when naked girls paddled canoes toward sailors arriving in Tahiti. The shocking news spread quickly around the world and people struggled to explain it.

A writer named Jean-Jaques Rousseau suggested that joy is the natural state, and civilization has deprived us of that joy.

This idea was wildly popular.

Rousseau’s theory was embraced so completely that it’s now presented as a fact rather than a belief. We are told that animals are happy, children are happy, and hunter-gatherers are happy. And we’re told that THE Science proves this, so we accept the logical conclusion that we’d be happy if “our society” hadn’t messed things up.

Today’s view of mental health rests on the Rousseauian paradigm. The disease model of mental health takes happiness as “normal,” and unhappiness as a disorder that “treatment” can cure.

Whether you blame genetics or environment, the message is always that someone else should relieve your emotional distress. This is profoundly disempowering and ignores basic biology. My new book shows that animals are unhappy, children are unhappy, and hunter-gatherers are unhappy, a lot. You’ve probably noticed this yourself, but you don’t connect the dots because you trust THE Science. So the book shows how science is shaped by politics. Doctors, academics, therapists and journalists are rewarded when they produce information that fits the Rousseauian template, and punished when they don’t.

This is why we’re surrounded by “evidence” that happiness is natural and unhappiness means something has gone wrong. We rarely hear that unhappiness is natural and happiness is a skill you must learn. The point is not to blame doctors, academics, therapists and journalists. They face the same political pressures we all know in daily life. They tell us what we want to hear because an impolitic comment can ruin their career. Maybe you don’t want to hear that unhappiness is natural and happiness is a learned skill? Maybe you’d rather hear that nature is all good and “our society” causes everything bad?

If you want the truth about your own impulses, this book is for you. You’ll learn to accept the operating system we’ve inherited, and to steer it from unhappy to happy chemicals.

So how does this differ from my other books?

1. To tell you the truth, I’ve been frustrated in recent years by the simplistic view of “happy chemicals” that spread on the internet since I first used the term in my 2011 book,
I, Mammal. The unrealistic view of happy chemicals is popular, but it’s not helpful. I’ve been wanting to explain the down side of each happy chemical more completely. Knowing the dark side of your dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphin makes it clear why they’re not meant to be on all the time. And when you see how hard it is to trigger these chemicals, you understand the crazy things people do for them.

2. I’ve also been frustrated by the popular phrase: “according to science.” People should know that science is done by human beings who are  mammals. The funding and reporting of science is done by mammals too.

Our information about our emotions has been filtered through a political lens, but you can learn to accept your true biology instead of limiting yourself to popular memes. You can find your power over your inner mammal instead of waiting for others to relieve your unhappiness.

3. I’m frustrated by internet wisdom that blames unhappiness on the time period we live in. The new book adds historical context so you can get past the illusion that our times are uniquely unhappy. We need to understand the suffering of the past in order to get real with the unhappy chemicals we produce inside us.

I was thrilled to find the truth of my own biology and I know it will thrill you too. The Rousseauian myth burdens you with the sense that something is wrong with you and wrong with the world around you. I want this book to relieve that burden. Nothing is wrong with you or the world around you. Our brain is good at producing unhappiness, so if you want to be happy, you have to redirect your brain over and over and over. The book helps you build that skill and teach it to others.

Please help me spread this useful message by commenting on Amazon, sharing on other platforms, and telling your friends. I’d appreciate that a lot. Advance readers have told me that the book changed their view of life. I think it will help you see the world with fresh eyes too.

Listen to this letter on YouTube or my podcast