February 23, 2020

We Didn't Evolve to Be Happy

“A huge happiness and positive thinking industry, estimated to be worth US$11 billion a year, has helped to create the fantasy that happiness is a realistic goal. Chasing the happiness dream is a very American concept, exported to the rest of the world through popular culture. Indeed, “the pursuit of happiness” is one of the US’s “unalienable rights”. Unfortunately, this has helped to create an expectation that real life stubbornly refuses to deliver.

Because even when all our material and biological needs are satisfied, a state of sustained happiness will still remain a theoretical and elusive goal, as Abd-al-Rahman III, Caliph of Córdoba in the tenth century, discovered. He was one of the most powerful men of his time, who enjoyed military and cultural achievements, as well as the earthly pleasures of his two harems. Towards the end of his life, however, he decided to count the exact number of days during which he had felt happy. They amounted to precisely 14.

Happiness, as the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes put it, is “like a feather flying in the air. It flies light, but not for very long.” Happiness is a human construct, an abstract idea with no equivalent in actual human experience. Positive and negative affects do reside in the brain, but sustained happiness has no biological basis. And – perhaps surprisingly – I reckon this is something to be happy about.”

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