Let’s look at some facts about happiness(1): Over the last half century, purchasing power has doubled for people in the wealthy nations like the USA or Europe. This means, there are more people in the world than ever before that are as rich as never before in history. At the same time, health care has advanced to an awe-inspiring standard, and Psychology claims to be able to treat more disorders than ever before.
However, studies show that the the level of life satisfaction has stayed flat for people in those countries, while objective physical health is barely connected to happiness, and depression is now ten times more prevalent than in 1960.
Why that is so?
Positive Psychology tries to provide answers to this issue, which I will write about in a little series of which this is the first one. This blog post gives an introduction to a basic biological principle that leads back to our early days as human beings, and shows how we often hold ourselves back from happiness unconsciously.
Let’s start with a question: Take a moment and think of an experience in which you failed badly at something. And then of a comparable one in which you succeeded beautifully.
When we look at different aspects of society, it appears that those things in life that can be characterised as “bad” appear to hold greater power in human lives than the those that are “good”. For the majority of people, negative experiences feel more intense than positive ones, and they come back to mind as a memory more often. You can also take a look at what we report as news. Newspapers are filled with reports of events which are threatening and bad.
On top of that, it has also be shown that bad news get processed more completely and people are more likely to form bad impressions than good ones. Think of stereotypes you know about different cultures. You will most probably find that you know more negative prejudices than positive ones. We form them more quickly and they are also more resistant to being dis-confirmed than positive beliefs.
The reason for this lies in our brain. The brain works according to an organising principle, which is to classify the world around us into things that will either hurt us or help us to stay alive. Everything we do in life is based on our brain’s determination to minimize danger or maximise reward. When it detects a threat that could endanger our life, for example a lion, feeling hungry or angry people around us, we feel negative emotions like anxiety, sadness or fear, and prepare ourselves to flee, fight, or conserve.
When the brain detects something that could help us survive, we experience a sense of reward. Examples are food, money, sex, or a familiar person. The emotions we feel then are curiosity, happiness or contentment.
Everything we experience is scanned by the limbic system in the brain, specifically by a structure called the Amygdala. It becomes aroused by what happens and gives either an away or a towards response. It is constantly making these decisions based on our emotions, about half a second before we are aware and often also subconsciously. A study(2) showed that we even do that with none-sense words, for example based on how they sound.
Thinking about our evolution, we we lived out in the wild for much longer than in today’s civilized and sheltered environment. Our ancestors had to pay a lot of attention to every little hint for possible dangers, like a rustle that could have been a lion. In a dangerous world, it was the hypervigilant people who survived. In fact, our early survival as a species may have depended more on passing on fear-based thoughts (away response) to offspring than future-directed thinking (towards response). Therefore, the Amygdala fires fare more intensely when it detects possible danger in comparison to possible reward. The arousal from a danger also happens faster, lasts longer and gets burned deeper into our memory. This is the reason why we often remember negative experiences together with the emotions of those situations. The brain warns us so that we can stay alive and protect what we have.
However, what does this mean for us today?
In simple words, we overestimate how often negative events happen and how bad they really are. It strengthens our tendency to avoid risks.
When we make decisions and set goals in life, we have the choice to set toward or away goals. Away goals are based on fear, they make us visualise what can go wrong and activate negative emotions. Future-directed thinking entails positive visualizations and expectations, and the emotions that flow from that make us feel good. The problem is that because of how our brain works, problems come to mind so much easier than unknown solutions, and positive thinking requires more effort too. Thus, toward goals are rare and setting them might sometimes require the help from someone else, like a mentor or coach.
The truth is, fear has become less essential, perhaps often even irrational in today’s society. Our progress as human beings has always depended on us moving into an unknown future with hope instead of being ruled by fear. In our days, future-directed thinking offers the greatest advantages over fear because most of the things that we perceive as threats are actually opportunities within a pretty safe system. Think of public speaking, starting a business or new career, travelling to less developed countries, approaching unknown people or leaving those behind that are not good for us. Whatever you want to think of for yourself. All of this can seem daunting and we might feel safe and relieved at first just keeping everything the way it is. However, it is not going to make us happy (not) to act based on fear. There are actually very few real lions out there that threaten our life. In fact, most of the things we fear offer incredible rewards in the form of authentic happiness after we’ve approached them.
And this change starts with our thoughts and the realization of the power we have, knowing the above.
So ask yourself, what do you want in life, and why don’t you do it?
Is it a real lion, or does it just feel like that?
(1)The individual studies providing this data can be found in: Seligman, M. E. P. (2007) Authentic happiness: Using the new Positive Psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Nicholas Brealey Publishing, Boston.
(2)Nacchache, L. et al. (2005). A direct intracranial record of emotions evoked by subliminal words. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science 102, 7713-7717.
More about the theory of “bad being stronger than good”:
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenhaur, C. & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370.
Rock, D. (2009). Your brain at work. New York: Harper Business.