Natural Selection and Life-Satisfaction: Why We’re Programmed For Discontentment
It was in the spring of 1965 when Rolling Stones lead guitarist Keith Richards unknowingly awoke in the middle of the night, grabbed his guitar and recorded the melody and refrain for what would become the band’s first song to top American music charts. At the time, the Stones popularity was growing rapidly in the U.S. and they were only weeks away from their third transatlantic tour, at the heights of the counterculture movement known as the British Invasion, but they still lacked a hit single that could push them into the upper echelon of English bands occupied by the likes of Herman’s Hermits and the Beatles.
Although Richards didn’t even realize he’d recorded anything that night, much less the defining tune the band was looking for, until he curiously pressed play on the Philips cassette player he kept near his bedside the following morning, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ would soon become a generational classic and later be lauded as the second greatest song of all time. Similarly, just as the legendary musician was unaware of the momentous moment as it took place, the band, who filled the song with lyrical references to sexual frustration and commercialism, assuredly didn’t realize that, from a psychological perspective, they’d described one of the most vexing truths of human existence to perfection.
When considering the dynamic and influential role natural selection plays on our feelings of life-satisfaction, it becomes easier to see why the song’s catchy lyrics “I can’t get no satisfaction, I can’t get no satisfaction, cause I try and I try and I try and I try, I can’t get no, I can’t get no,” exquisitely illuminate the reasons we’re programmed for discontentment. Better yet still, by understanding how natural selection deludes our minds and compels us to pursue lasting fulfillment in desirable sensory objects and experiences, which provide us with nothing more than momentary glimpses of pleasure and happiness, we can discover how it’s possible to elevate and stabilize our levels of subjective well-being.
The ‘Goal’ of Natural Selection & Evolutionary Shortcomings:
In the nearly 200 years since Charles Darwin famously hypothesized that natural selection is the mechanism most responsible for our evolution, scientists and evolutionary psychologists have helped to validate the immortalized biologist’s groundbreaking theory which tells us that, in the battle for life, only the fittest survive. This is to say that, although the phrase popularly used to describe Darwinian evolution is often misconstrued, it’s now widely believed that the organisms most capable of acclimating to their environment have the greatest chances of accomplishing natural selection’s ultimate ‘goal’ of reproduction. Of this most primitive yet primary objective, the award winning scientific journalist and author Robert Wright tells us:
Natural selection cares about only one thing (or, I should say, ‘cares’—in quotes—about only one thing, since natural selection is just a blind process, not a conscious designer). And that one thing is getting genes into the next generation.”
While there’s no denying the many benefits the human species has attained from being biologically ‘designed’ to pursue the goalof procreation, by staying safe, improving life circumstances and attracting suitable mates, our evolutionary journey hasn’t been free of shortcomings, and there’s undoubtedly been a compromise between empowering and limiting genetic traits. For example, although we can walk upright, control our body temperature by sweating and communicate with others in a highly sophisticated manner, we still remain susceptible to chronic stress, mental health disorders and hereditable diseases such as sickle cell anemia.
Additionally, because we’re no longer subjected to the same type of life-and-death situations faced by our caveman ancestors, our biological drives for safety and enhanced preservation oftentimes express themselves in unproductive ways, as is the case with social anxiety, materialism and obesity. Yet still, what may be most disheartening about our evolution is that we haven’t developed an instinctive inclination to nurture our own psychological well-being.
The Evolution of a Deluded Mind:
There’s little denying the fact that the human brain is the most powerful and sophisticated organ ever to be designed by evolutionary forces. After all, it’s the reason we’ve been able to invent the wheel, build unimaginable skyscraper cities and travel from continent to continent some 40,000 feet in the sky. Despite the many marvelous mental capacities we’ve been blessed with, however, our brains actually present us with a less than accurate picture of ourselves, others and the world at large. The Nobel Prize winning Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who extensively examines cognitive illusions in his globally acclaimed book Thinking, Fast and Slow, tells us:
The world makes much less sense than you think. The coherence comes mostly from the way your mind works.”
Although it’s easy to assume that our thoughts, feelings and perceptions offer us an objective view of reality, mental errors such as misperceptions, biases, faulty appraisals and delusions give rise to something that’s far from precise. To understand just how prevalent distorted thinking can be, consider the following six situational occurrences that regularly take place in everyday life:
Someone misinterprets the words of another as an attack on their character.
Someone overestimates how dangerous it is to be in a busy public place.
Someone unjustifiably judges an unfamiliar acquaintance before realizing their evaluation error after chatting with the individual.
Someone wrongly predicts, with unwavering confidence, that the stock market will make them rich.
Someone falsely believes that a coiled up rope in a dark room is a snake.
Someone believes that they’re one of a select few individuals who can do something most people can’t.
For anyone who’s even been victimized by one of these cognitive errors or a seemingly endless number of others, which is everyone, it’s certain that their brain didn’t offer them a view of clarity but rather one rooted in self-serving deception. Yet, despite the fact that mental gaffs make it appear as if there a problem with our brains’ hardwiring, the mind’s faulty nature serves an important evolutionary purpose, and can be considered an advantageous design feature of natural selection, because it keep us safe and help us accomplish the all important ‘goal’ of procreation. The prolific quantitative psychologist and science author Donald Hoffman sheds additional light on how evolution gave way to distorted ways of thinking:
Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you.”
Illusions of Pleasure:
In much the same way we have an innate tendency to mistakenly perceive harmless situations as threats, while naturally focusing on the negative aspects of life, our views and purists of pleasure are oftentimes obscured by mental illusions. As you can probably guess, the deluded beliefs, thoughts and perceptions we have as they relate to pleasant activities and desirable sensations arise because natural selection, which could care less about enduring happiness, has ‘programmed’ us to do whatever is necessary to pass our genes into future generations. Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who authored the 2006 international bestseller Stumbling on Happiness, tells us:
The bottom line is this: the brain and the eye may have a contractual relationship in which the brain has agreed to believe what the eye sees, but in return the eye has agreed to look for what the brain wants.”
From an evolutionary perspective, there’s good reason why procreative friendly activities such as eating, having sex, staying safe, outdoing the competition, earning the praise of our peers and enhancing our life circumstances bring about feelings of euphoria, as we’d have little incentive to partake in them if they weren’t satisfying in and of themselves. And although the pleasure we obtain from these endeavors isn’t problematic in it’s own right, the ways we view the pursuits and become attached to their complementary feelings, which steer our thoughts and behaviors on a unconscious level, are largely to blame for our inability to live in a more abiding state of contented joy.
Contemplating how one thinks about material acquisition, monetary gains, social praise,sexual relations and bodily consumption makes it easier to understand how our minds offer us a curtailed and illusionary view of pleasure. For example, why does an individual, who’s recently been offered a promotion at work, zone in on the perks of the new gig while disregarding any potential headaches that may come with it? Or why can’t someone craving unhealthy sweets like ice cream or donuts stop thinking about the mouth watering tastes as if they’ve never experienced the stomach ache and sugar crash that come soon after? Or why does a man in the courtship stages of a romantic relationship remain oblivious to the possibility that the woman could have flaws even though his past relationships made clear that no one’s perfect?
Despite the fact that natural selection is nothing more than a blind evolutionary process, it certainly appears as though it has ‘designed’ us to see only half the picture when it comes to pleasure. How exactly is this so you may wonder? The following three principles illuminate the answer:
The activities that help us achieve the goal of procreation are pleasurable in and of themselves.
The pleasure we obtain from these endeavors doesn’t last forever because we wouldn’t continue to pursue them if it did.
We’re designed to focus on and passionately anticipate the pleasure we obtain (1) more so than we are the ensuing letdown and persistent cravings (2) because we’d become indifferent to the undertakings if we fully understood their true nature.
Again, it’s important to remember that while the mind’s subtle miscalculations as they relate to pleasure may appear to be limiting to the naked eye, they must be viewed advantageously from an evolutionary standpoint because they keep us on the path towards accomplishing natural selection’s ultimate ‘goal’ of seeing our genes into future.
An Unconquerable Quest for Lasting Satisfaction:
Just as a dog chasing its own tail is incapable of pacifying its chomping urge and a hamster running on a wheel is unable to really get anywhere, so to is our pursuit for everlasting happiness doomed to fail form the start. It’s because we view and pursue fulfillment from a deluded mindset that, despite our countless attempts to quench our thirst for enduring gratification, we’re unable to escape the vexing shadow of discontentment. Ultimately, what results from our minds overvaluing the feelings we obtain from enticing endeavors and concealing the fleeting nature of pleasure, while also prohibiting us from realizing the guiding influence body sensations have on our though and behaviors, is an unconquerable quest for lasting satisfaction that continues until most people perish.
Psychologically speaking, this most frustrating inconvenience, which serves us evolutionarily, is what’s referred to as hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill. According to the theory which was developed by British psychologist Michael Eysenck in the late 1990s, each and everyone of us has a happiness ‘set point’ that we naturally seek to elevate and stabilize through pleasure seeking pursuits, even though it’s not really possible, as if we were walking on a stationary treadmill believing to be on our way to some immaculate state of permanent bliss. The eminent German philosopher Thomas Metzinger elaborates further:
It is becoming evident that psychological evolution never optimized us for lasting happiness; on the contrary, it placed us on the hedonic treadmill. We are driven to seek pleasure and joy, to avoid pain and depression. The hedonic treadmill is the motor that nature invented to keep the organism running.”
It’s important to point out that this isn’t to say that we can’t momentarily boost our feelings of joy through pleasurable undertakings, because we can, but that our levels of happiness will always return to the baseline level with the passing of time. And still, to complicate matters further, we must not forget that natural selection blinds us to the impermanent nature of the feelings we so desperately want to permanentize. So what does all this really mean? Unfortunately, it’s that none of us will ever be able to find the lasting satisfaction we seek in the pursuits natural selection makes us believe are the places to search.
Redesigning Our Approach to Life-Satisfaction:
By now the paradoxical limitations natural selection imposes on our thinking as it relates to happiness should be clear to see. Although it can initially be quite disheartening to have your eyes opened to these limitations, which are only exasperated by social influence and advertisements that prey on our primitive instincts, not all hope should be lost. In fact, because our evolutionary journey has also equipped us with the extraordinary capabilities to monitor ourselves, ponder the inner workings of the mind and consciously make decisions that bring meaning into our lives, we have the power to redesign our approach to life-satisfaction. The prominent American molecular biologist Kenneth R. Miller tells us of this unique opportunity:
Whether the consciousness, reason, and awareness displayed by humans beings are the telos, the goal of the universe, I cannot say. But I can echo what astronomer Carl Sagan once did say, which is ‘We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.’ A material world that has finally produced a species capable of exploring and explaining its own existence has unquestionably reached a turning point in its history… Yes, the human brain is a faulty instrument, but the human brain is fully capable of consciously recognizing its faults and correcting them.”
If we are to free ourselves from the shackles of discontentment, we can look towards a variety of life-affirming endeavors that have the potential to change the ways we think about and approach fulfillment. While you shouldn’t limit yourself to the following three undertakings, as there’s a seemingly endless number of ways you can enhance your life through understanding and action, they are undoubtedly some of the most empowering:
Consciously Ponder Transformative Questions:
Because it’s possible to transform deeply ingrained beliefs through deep contemplation, conscious questions and analytical reasoning offer us a powerful tool that we can use to alter how we view and pursue life-satisfaction. It’s certain that by continuously asking yourself thought-provoking questions related to success and happiness, with full understanding of how natural selection limits our pursuits for fulfillment, you can rearrange your priorities and refocus your efforts on the things that bring you a deeper sense of joy.
For example, you can assuredly change your mindset for the better by asking yourself daily questions, such as ‘What am I Grateful for?,’‘How Can I Make Today Memorable?,’ and ‘What Do I Want in Life?’, before proactively pondering the answers for 5 to 10 minutes. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, purpose driven reasoning offers us the opportunity to systematically change our idea of happiness from one that’s built around worldly pursuits and bodily pleasures into a more life-affirming alternative that’s based upon gratitude and contented acceptance. David Myers, a distinguished psychology professor who’s authored over 15 highly regarded textbooks, tells us of the important role questions play in critical thinking:
Smart thinking, called critical thinking, examines assumptions, appraises the source, discerns hidden values, evaluates evidence, and assesses conclusions. Whether reading online commentary or listening to a conversation, critical thinkers ask questions.”
Mindfulness is a way to rebalance ourselves. Instead of being lost in thought, or caught up in emotional upheaval, we can tip the scale in the direction of greater equanimity, clarity, wisdom, and self-compassion by actually learning how to inhabit that other dimension of our being.”
As it relates directly to natural selection and life-satisfaction, it’s now widely believed that meditative practices can help us to see through our mind’s delusions and provide us with insights into the true nature of reality. Furthermore, by regularly stilling your mind in silence, you’ll naturally become more centered and grounded in the present-moment, which is the only place true happiness can be found, and less attached to material possessions and worldly successes.
Find Meaning & Purpose in What’s Important:
When contemplating the fact that only 33% of Americans consider themselves happy, it becomes clear to see that there are fundamental issues with how most people in the United States approach life. Fortunately, however, there’s been growing interest in studying the science of happiness since the branch of positive psychology was formally establish in the late 1990s, thanks to the pioneering work of psychologists such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Christopher Peterson and Barbara Fredrickson, and it’s to this research we can turn our attention to push us further in the direction of fulfillment. For example, reflecting upon how our own beliefs and behaviors correlate with the following five evidence-based insights, which relate directly to life-satisfaction, offers us a life-affirming opportunity to find ways to get more out of life:
While monetary wealth does to a certain extent correlate with happiness, researchers at Purdue University recently found that annual income levels between $60,000-$75,000 are optimal for emotional well-being and that happiness may decrease once individuals make over $95,000 a year.
A landmark research experiment, which used a smartphone app to compare daily activities with emotional states, found that mind-wandering is associated with unhappiness and living in the present-moment, and flowing through life, is associated with contented joy.
By fully understanding the activities, ways of being and life components most associated with subjective well-being, it’s certain that we can begin living with a greater sense of purpose. To move yourself in that direction, it’ll be imperative to consciously aim to find meaning in what’s important rather than allowing yourself to be blindly guided by your inborn drives for safety, consumption, praise and possession. Martin Seligman, the man who must be considered as the founding father of positive psychology, offers us some final words of inspirational wisdom:
Reaching beyond where you are is really important… Just as the good life is something beyond the pleasant life, the meaningful life is beyond the good life.”