On Nature

Based on thousands of years of evolution, our bodies are biologically hard-wired to reward us when we feel pleasure, and punish us when we feel pain. If you do something that your body likes, it rewards you with a rush of dopamine, endorphins, and other chemicals making you feel happy. It hardly matters what the consequences are in the long term.

The major flaw in this system is that any pleasurable feelings that you initially felt for doing/eating/getting something will always fade away. This is so that you’ll go out of your way to get it again.

Imagine if a chimp ate a banana and felt happy about it for the rest of his life. He would eventually die of starvation whilst his chimp friends whose dopamine hits faded away would go on to seek the feeling again. The most well fed chimps would be the strongest and most likely to find mates, thereby passing on their dopamine seeking genes. Meanwhile our chimp who got everlasting happiness from his first banana wouldn’t be motivated to do much else, and would likely end up dying without having passed its genes.

Multiply this by thousands of generations of evolution and couple it with the fact that we can get dopamine fixes as easily as buying a new pair of shoes and we begin to understand why living a minimalist lifestyle is so difficult.

To intentionally abstain from the fun and flashy things that wins us social approval is basically going against human nature itself. Indeed, humans are especially difficult to please because it doesn’t take long for our brains to become normalised to the hit of buying the latest gadget before having it is no longer enough. At least chimps are happy with bananas—if they were human they would inevitably get bored and find a way to upgrade to the latest version.

What can we do about this? Unfortunately, short of reprogramming our evolutionary biology, we can’t do a whole lot about the way that our brains react to pleasure, or absence of pleasure. But as Homo Sapiens we do have the ability to override our biology using our intellect. We can look back into the past, come to conclusions about our decisions, and make predictions about the future.

We can look back and see that for almost every material thing we have bought in our lives, the ‘happiness’ we felt in that moment eventually faded. From this we can conclude that continually buying new things may not be an effective or sustainable way to obtain happiness. Instead, we can decide to concentrate on the kinds of things that make happiness last, such as our hobbies and achievements, memorable experiences, and close relationships.

Being human can be both a curse and a blessing. When I see how happy a pet dog is playing in the grass, or how satisfied with life a house cat is, I sometimes wonder why we humans have to make things so complicated.

Maybe if we spent half as much time and effort learning how to be happy as we do on buying stuff, we could actually do it. Just as we can choose to have carrots over cake, our biology can be overcome—it’s a factor, not an excuse. Perhaps the real determinants of happiness are how ready we are make the most of the situation we’re in, and our willingness to make the hard choices. That’s what makes a difference.