Sometimes, it feels as if your brain just won’t cooperate. You try to be grateful for all your blessings, but your thoughts wander back to your curses. You try to make positive changes to your daily routine and you are full of good intentions, but you fall back into your old, destructive or wasteful habits. You want to do great things and live an exciting life, but fear gets in your way and holds you back. Why? Why is your brain so stubbornly refusing to do what’s good for you?
The answer is as simple as it is discouraging: Mother Nature is a cruel mistress. She doesn’t care the least whether you have an adventurous spirit or a happy life.
Being more of a pragmatist, she has favoured whatever mental traits helped your ancestors survive long enough to reproduce. It just so happens that the traits that are excellent for survival and spreading our genes are not at all the traits that promote quality of life.
To make matters worse, your surroundings and society have changed too fast for your stupid brain to catch up. The mental traits you have evolved were meant for a slower, simpler life, and your brain hasn’t had enough time to optimize its “programs” to match the world we live in today. A significant portion of your fears and emotional pains arise because your brain are running on outdated software.
No two brains are alike, so what I’ve written here won’t apply to everyone. Some people have had a childhood and youth that prepared them to meet the challenges of modern society with the proper mindset. Others have just been born more optimistic. But the majority of people have brains with a negative bias.
If you’re in that majority with me, this article enables you to understand why you act the way you do, and why there’s hope for you to change it. If you’re not, it’ll make you see why most people can’t easily do what you do.
We’re expected to be happy. To be positive, rational and self-confident. To live an exciting life and do amazing things. Those are great goals, but they can be pretty hard to meet. And if you fail to meet them, there is nobody you can blame but yourself. Aren’t you the one in charge? Who else could you possibly hold responsible for your negative attitude, for your failure to live an amazing life?
It turns out you can blame your brain. Or your ancestors, or evolution, or society, or all of them. I’ve listed here 6 mental traits we’ve evolved that improve our chances of survival but decrease our chances of feeling happy: How they work and how they are sometimes being abused or misused in modern society.
The brain has something in common with most parents: It can be stubborn, dumb and overprotective, but it does it because it loves you. Once you’re done reading, you’ll see that your stupid brain is really on your side. Then, as with your parents, you will smile at it, gently reassure it that everything will be fine, and then do the thing you want to do anyway.
1. You Feel That Things Will Go Wrong
Imagine the year is 300,000 BC. You, your good friend, and two other cavemen dudes go out into unknown territory to look for food. You come to a large river. On the other side are bushes and trees with plenty of delicious fruit. You start discussing whether or not you should try to cross it. Worth the risk?
As always, you and your friend are in a great mood. You’re optimistic and confident that you can get there and back again in one piece. The other two, however, are pessimists and against the idea. Maybe they can swim across unharmed, but maybe they can’t. Although they may have trouble finding food elsewhere, they still decide to turn back and continue looking.
You shake your head in disbelief. There’s food right over there! A bit if water is all it takes to scare them away? Pathetic.
But the river turns out to be strong. You optimist friend who went with you is not as competent a swimmer as he thought. His courage quickly turns to fear, but it is too late: He is caught by the strong current and drowns.
You, being slightly taller and a better swimmer, make it across. You cry for five minutes before going on an eating rampage that lasts until you can’t squeeze down another fruit. You make it back unharmed, but the exhausting swims burned nearly all the calories you had just consumed. You soon feel hungry again.
The pessimists, using a more careful tactic, keep looking for other sources of food, but no luck — they go to sleep hungry that evening. The next day they return to the river and walk upstream until they find a spot where the water is calm enough for them to catch three small fish. It isn’t much, but they get by.
Although hypothetical and very simplified, this story explains how Mother Nature slowly reduced the amount of confident and optimistic people in the population, and why pessimism and negativity became more common: Your friend who drowned would never produce children to inherit his optimism.1 You might produce a few, but the two pessimists both survived and would most likely have more children combined than you. Thus, compared to pessimism, optimism was an evolutionary handicap.
Your brain intuitively knows that obtaining rewards and avoiding risks are both very important. You need rewards like food and water to live and sexy time to reproduce. You need to avoid risks to not die. Clever brain, we like brain.
But here’s the moral of the story: If you fail to obtain a reward, the consequences usually aren’t fatal. Whatever the reward may be, there is always a possibility that it may be obtained later or elsewhere. You may feel bitter and regretful that you missed this chance, but it won’t kill you. Failing to avoid a risk, on the other hand, could very well be fatal. Unlike missed rewards, which may be compensated for later, death is final. It completely removes any chance of reproducing in the future.
So to keep you alive, your brain first had to evolve the notion that avoiding failure is more important than achieving success. It gives you an uneven relationship to risks and rewards — it is generally more interested in avoiding the bad than in achieving the good.
To make sure that you followed that notion, it had to evolve another: You are more likely to fail than to succeed. Your brain assumes, consciously or subconsciously, that the odds are generally not in your favour, or even if they are, the odds will beat you anyway.
These mental traits were very useful for your forefather. When he had to decide whether to eat an unfamiliar mushroom, the potential reward was a tiny amount of food while the risk was poisoning or death. So it was generally a good idea to assume that things would go wrong and to prioritise survival over success. He could always just keep looking until he found familiar food. It’s also hard to imagine that this would have much of an impact on his overall feelings of happiness.
But for us the story is different. These notions often hold us back from living the life we want.
When you view your past decisions through the light of this information, maybe you can make sense of those occasions where fear held you back from something that was actually completely safe. Striking conversation with a stranger, asking a girl to dance, speaking in front of a crowd. You knew it would’ve been the right thing to do, it would’ve made you happier, there was nothing to lose and everything to gain, but it just felt too dangerous, too improbable, or too stupid at the time.
Even though the situation wasn’t dangerous at all, we feel that somehow, something might go wrong anyway. We will fail, be humiliated or rejected. Such a failure almost feels like a threat to our survival, like we would die if it happened. An irrational but very compelling fear stops us from doing what we want and ought to do.
How can the brain possibly feel that a risk of humiliation is almost a risk of death? Damn you, brain! Shouldn’t you be too clever to confuse the two!?
2. You Feel Inadequate And Afraid
Imagine that the brain came pre-programmed with instructions of what it should fear. A child’s brain would then instinctively fear what its parents had feared. Since our common ancestors probably spent a lot of time worrying about lions, leopards and scorpions — typical threats in the African deserts and savannahs — all future generations would inherit those fears. Both children and adults would be extremely good at spotting and avoiding these animals, which would’ve given them huge survival advantage under those circumstances.
But what would happen if they found themselves in new surroundings, such as when the ice age began or when they had to migrate in search of food?
They would then wander in thick forests or on snow-covered glaciers and be looking out for insects with pincers and have nightmares about big, yellow cats with spots or manes. But these animals were nowhere to be found. And when a gray wolf or a while polar bear approached them, they’d shrug or even go over to pat the beast because their brains hadn’t been programmed to be afraid of their shapes and colours. They’d die pretty young. Hah, stupid brains.
Instead, imagine a prehistoric human whose brain could be taught what to fear after birth. He would receive guidance from his parents, hear stories from his tribe and make his own observations about what dangers to look out for. Such a human could adapt to the threats in any environment within just a few years. His mental list of objects to avoid would be relevant and up to date.
Evolution favoured this adaptability, and therefore we have the capacity to be taught what to fear.2 And that’s very handy. It has kept us alive against countless threats. Good brain!
This only became a problem of epic proportions when someone discovered there was money in making consumers feel afraid and inadequate.
Take a moment to consider how many industries depend on you believing that you aren’t good enough. If marketers didn’t manage to make us feel inferior and incomplete, how else would they be able to sell a pair of Kanye West’s “Yeezy Boost” sneakers for a whopping $350? (Of course there are compounding factors. We have a social instinct, for example, that cares a lot about being popular and attracting a mate, and ridiculously expensive shoes might come in handy there.)
Our society is obsessed with social status. People are more concerned with being seen than being useful. We constantly film each other and ourselves for Instagram and Snapchat, we share gossip faster than ever, hoping we can capture something funny or outrageous that can give us some “likes”. If your grandfather made a fool of himself on the dance floor, the only people who’d see where the ones who were looking at him. If you do it and someone happens to record it, say hello to the “Viral videos” channel on YouTube. It’s no wonder you want to avoid humiliation, rejection and public embarrassment at all costs.
Just as there’s money in making people feel inadequate, there is power in making them fear each other. If governments couldn’t engender a bit of paranoia, xenophobia and anxiety in us, how would they ever convince us to go to war?
So we are being taught to fear new things, whether it’s a particular religion, a skin color, carcinogens, or simply the possibility of not being good enough. Many of our contemporary fears serve no other purpose than to keep us under economic and political control.
3. You Have A Tendency To Be Anxious
You have inherited a brain with a tendency to look out for potential threats. The explanation for this is simple: People who were always on their toes, or always assumed something to be hostile or dangerous until proven otherwise, had a faster reaction time (and were thus more likely to survive and reproduce) than their more easy-going contemporaries.
The result is that you’re usually nervous, tense or afraid, even when there’s nothing to be afraid of. Your brain sees almost every stranger and unfamiliar environment as potentially threatening. You think people should not be trusted or that someone might be out to get you.
Once again, bear in mind that this fear was probably not as taxing on our ancestors’ minds. They didn’t wake up to the sound of sirens or alarms, didn’t have to watch out for cars when walking around, and didn’t meet anyone new except when a baby was born. Their psychological world was smaller and slower. Your poor brain is about as fit for a hectic city life as a koala bear is fit to live in a night club.
4. You Notice All Your Errors
Whenever you make a mistake, you obviously face a higher risk of something bad happening than if you did things correctly. Unintentional actions usually lead to unintentional outcomes. This was very important for your ancestor because, as we discussed earlier, the risks he faced could very well be fatal. If he threw his spear wrong at a boar he would enrage it instead of killing it.
To avoid some of the risks associated with making errors, your brain evolved the ability to be highly aware of its own mistakes. When your brain catches itself making a mistake, a distinct neurological process takes place which causes a discernible change in its electrophysiological state — a phenomenon called “error-related negativity”, or ERN.
Once again, you’ve got to admit that this can be pretty handy, even in today’s world. But it sucks that there is no equivalent counterpart when you do something right. Obviously you brain releases pleasurable chemicals once you obtain a reward (food, sex, sleep), but this is different. Regardless of whether your errors lead to a negative consequence or not, your brain automatically registers the error and negatively affects your state of mind, even if only a little. Performing an action correctly, on the other hand, causes no automatic gratification.
Appreciating your own work and emotionally rewarding yourself with compliments after doing a good job is a skill you have to learn and consciously exercise. Until you do, you will feel your faults and mistakes more powerfully your right actions and successes.
5. Your Thoughts Are Mostly On The Negative
What we have covered so far are sadly just a few of the many ways in which the brain prioritises the bad over the good. Studies show that we take negative information closer to heart, and it has a stronger emotional impact on us in several ways.
For instance, if we receive compliments and praise from ten people but a single stranger makes a rude comment about us, that person’s opinion probably becomes the one we believe the most. Negative stereotypes are more numerous and enduring than positive ones. We remember bad things longer than the good. Our language contains more words to describe unpleasant emotions than pleasant ones. However pedagogically unsound, we actually learn faster from deterrence and punishment than from support and encouragement. And these are just a few examples of what psychologists call “the negativity bias”.3 It is a bias we have inherited to improve the odds that we steer clear of potential danger.
Similarly, we’re willing to invest more energy in protecting what we have than in acquiring something new of equal value. We feel the psychological pain of a loss twice as powerfully as the satisfaction of an equivalent gain — a phenomenon called “loss aversion”.
This negativity bias inevitably leads to a feeling that the world is a dangerous place, that the unknown is a threat, and that change is risky. Things ought to remain as they are. Basically, it makes us conservative. It can be summarised the following notion: “To keep doing what has kept me alive until now is less risky than trying a new method that may not work.”
The resulting conservatism may show itself in our political views, our relationship dynamics or our daily habits. Too much psychological conservatism will stop us from doing what really makes us feel alive, excited or accomplished. The anxiety that evolved to stop us from making rash and potentially fatal choices is also guilty of holding us back from expanding our comfort zones and living a fulfilling life. If we rarely experience or accomplish anything new, we will be bored and dissatisfied with ourselves. We will suffer from low self-esteem because we know, consciously or otherwise, that we aren’t living up to our potential.
How are conservatism and the negativity bias exacerbated by modern culture? This question leads us to the final point.
6. You Want Information About What’s Dangerous
To avoid as many risks and dangers as possible, your brain tries to store information about potential threats. That way, when it finds itself in a dangerous situation, it may be able to recall something useful and keep your ass alive.
This trait probably wouldn’t be as emotionally burdening if it weren’t for our incredible information technology. Our ancestors clearly needed to occasionally memorize the shape and colour of a berry that turned out to be poisonous and killed their cousin. But, thanks to the aforementioned conservatism, that didn’t happen often.
We, on the other hand, are swarmed with news of dangers every day — not just local threats, but even wars and crimes happening nowhere near us, on the other side of the globe. Faces of murderers and rapists to avoid, internet scams to watch out for, symptoms of diseases to be aware of. To increase its chances of survival, your brain tries to remember all of it.
That’s why bad news sell; that’s why we have an almost unending thirst for knowledge about death, destruction, disaster and disease. We want to know what to look out for so we can stay alive. (There are serious benefits to cutting out the news of your daily life.)
Befriend Your Brain
As I explained in the beginning, the explanations above are meant to make you understand and appreciate your brain and its actions, to make you more compassionate towards yourself, and to help you recognize when your fear is irrational so you can push through it.
Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me sooner: If you sometimes find yourself depressed or sad for no reason, if your goals seem daunting, if you’re afraid of what’s next, if you can’t live up to everybody’s expectations, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It means you’re quite normal with a functional brain.
Your brain comes with some software that isn’t very useful today. It hasn’t had enough time to completely adapt itself to society, which preys on your weaknesses to make you feel even more depressed, more afraid. But really, your brain is really just trying its best to keep you alive. Deep down, your brain values your life higher than anything else. It loves you! Give it a hug and a treat.
Have some compassion for yourself. If you saw a dog trying to play a violin and failing miserably, would you think the dog is an idiot for having paws? Or would agree that having paws have served canines well for thousands of years and the violin is a challenge too? Just as the violin wasn’t designed around the basic features of a dog, society wasn’t designed around your basic needs for love and acceptance. Rather, it tries to scare you and belittle you. That’s how I see human brains in modern society. Our brains have served us well, and society is a fucking challenge.
To make sure this article ends on a good note, I’ve saved the best news for last:
It’s possible to reprogram your brain, and there is knowledge out there about how you do it.
It’s going to be hard. The odds are against you, your biology is against you and mainstream culture is against you. Unlearning habits that you have had since you were little is going to take you years. You will have to become aware, even suspicious, of things that everyone else considers benign. Often times you will have to swim against the current. One day you may realize that you either have distance yourself from someone you’re very close to, or stagnate and stay as you are.
You will have to learn to become conscious of your automatic responses and slowly unlearn the ones that do not serve you well. You will have to overcome your basic, primal instincts. Your deepest beliefs about yourself must be scrutinized and revised or replaced.
Quite literally, you will have to change the core of your brain. But it can be done.
(Cover image by Berli Mike)