Abandoning The Relentless Pursuit Of Happiness

25/01/2017 13:48 GMT | Updated 26/01/2018 10:12 GMT

Many of us spend a great deal of time and effort pursuing happiness. Self-help books promise to unlock the secret of sustained happiness, newspapers frequently churn out articles on the latest happiness trends and social media feeds are filled with 'inspirational' quotes promoting happiness.

This focus both reflects and supports the belief that our purpose in life is to be happy, and that something is wrong if we are not. Often we spend our lives chasing the house, the job, the holiday, the partner, the self-help book, the lifestyle, that will make us happy.

Yet despite our best efforts, happiness can be difficult to obtain, and even more difficult to sustain. What's more, the cultural belief in the entitlement to happiness may mean that unhappiness is interpreted as personal failure, leading to further unhappiness.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective, the claims that our purpose in life is to be happy, and that happiness should be sustainable are doubtful. Humans evolved to behave in ways which allowed them to successfully reproduce and pass on their genes. Sustained high levels of happiness would probably not have been conducive to that. To illustrate the problem, imagine a world in which all of us were completely, blissfully happy all of the time. What would drive us to develop, to achieve, to seek out new partners, to have children?

Consequently, happiness is somewhat slippery and elusive. We experience happiness sometimes, we know what it feels like, and we know how good it is. When we don't have it, we may want it. Happiness has more adaptive value when it is always just out of reach, driving us to seek it out, yet always seeming to pull away from us.

This is why when we obtain something we think will make us happy - a new job, more money, even a lottery win - the increased happiness we initially experience may rapidly fade. We quickly adjust to new gains so that we are driven to pursue further gains. Psychologists have termed this the hedonic treadmill -we have to keep working hard just to sustain the same level of happiness - running just to stand still.

Evolutionary psychologists have identified another challenge to sustaining happiness. The human brain has evolved to experience negative and distressing emotions, and they often have adaptive value. They have shaped our behaviour in ways that have helped us to survive, form relationships, extract benefits from social living, and crucially, reproduce successfully.

Take fear. The experience of fear is typically extremely unpleasant. The problem for happiness however is that it has adaptive value. Fear alerts us to potential threats and ensures that we do what we can to avoid those threats. In the ancestral environment, fear was very important in keeping us alive. Even in a modern environment, without fear we would be more inclined to act in ways which cause us significant harm.

To understand the adaptive value of negative emotions, imagine not having them. If we did not feel guilt, would we make amends for wrongdoings? If we did not feel anger, what would prevent others from exploiting us? Emotional pain serves a similar function to physical pain - it sends a strong signal that something is wrong and that we need to take action to address it.

There is perhaps a tendency now to avoid anything sad or melancholy, as if it must do us harm. There is so often discomfort in our culture around the expression of sadness. Yet it is entirely normal for things to be wrong in life, and sometimes those things require our attention, thought and processing, rather than a relentless stream of 'inspirational' (and often fairly meaningless) quotes.

That may all sound somewhat gloomy. However, believing that our purpose in life is to find true and lasting happiness and then experiencing that as unattainable is likely to lead to disappointment and disillusionment. Having an understanding of the limits of happiness and its evolutionary basis may be liberating.

We may be more content if we stop pursuing happiness with such fervour, know that we will experience it sometimes and value that, but embrace the range of human emotions a little more.