Why we pursue more and more without it bringing us any closer to real happiness
Dopamine is part of the wanting system [in your brain]. It propels you to take action. The liking system makes you feel satisfied and therefore pause your seeking. But the dopamine wanting system is stronger than the liking system. You tend to seek more than you are satisfied.
~ Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D
When it comes to happiness, we’re all a little lost.
Most of us set goals and then tirelessly chase after them, hoping that once they’re attained, we will achieve some kind of lasting happiness. Or, at least, some measure of peace.
Of course, both our experience and intuition tell us this will never be the case. Not long after we get whatever we’ve been wanting, the pleasure fades, and we’re back to restlessly thinking about the next thing we want.
It turns out that the neurotransmitter dopamine provides an answer. Dopamine is involved in all kinds of activities to do with the human brain, but what’s relevant here is that it causes us to feel the pleasure of wanting more.
Once our brain has established that attaining something is rewarding, it encodes this information for later use. Dopamine then provides the motivation to seek out that reward when it becomes available (see here and here).
In other words, we feel good when we’re seeking a reward, not just when we attain it.
Well, no, not really. If there is value in attaining something, it makes sense that the brain would encourage us to attain it. Dopamine gives us the motivation to do the work to attain it by making it feel good to want it. Thus, the pleasure of wanting is born.
What may surprise you is that research has shown the pleasure of wanting to be greater than the pleasure of having.
That dream home you want? You’re probably getting more pleasure from thinking about getting it than you will from actually having it.
Same goes for that promotion, that relationship, that next technological toy you have your eye on.
No matter how strongly you look forward to receiving these things, once you do receive them, you feel much less pleasure than you thought you would feel. Or, if you’re like me, you may even feel pretty empty.
Although this sounds counter-intuitive, evolutionary psychology and natural selection provide a good explanation of why our brains would do this.
Natural selection and chasing desire
Our brains have been “designed” by natural selection to be exceptional at passing our genes along to the next generation.
By making the pleasure of anticipating a reward more pleasurable than attaining the reward, natural selection has ensured that we won’t linger long on any particular achievement. This means that we will quickly jump back on the so-called hedonic treadmill of pleasurably anticipating the next big thing.
And this makes perfect sense. If we felt permanent satisfaction after this morning’s breakfast, we might never eat again. This wouldn’t bode well for passing on our genes.
However, if we got some pleasure out of eating breakfast and then a couple hours later very much look forward to lunch, this ensures we will seek out our lunch and eat it, thus improving our chances for survival and passing on our genes.
But, it’s worth noticing that this applies to everything we seek.
The pleasure we anticipate having as a result of attaining some future goal is often grossly exaggerated so that we will be motivated to pursue it. Once we attain it, unfortunately, the pleasure of having it quickly fades, and we’re back to pursuing the next reward.
Are you beginning to see how and why our brains “trick” us into believing that by achieving our next goal our lives will be profoundly changed and we’ll be happy?
Your brain doesn’t care whether you’re happy
Natural selection only has one goal for us: pass our genes onto the next generation. That we’re able to feel all these emotions, like happiness, speaks to their usefulness in terms of achieving this end.
Natural selection doesn’t “care” about an individual, at least not in the sense that we “care” about, say, our children.
If our children get hurt, we care about relieving their emotional and physical suffering.
Natural selection, of course, has no compassion or empathy towards organisms. It only “cares” whether something is useful to survival and reproduction.
If the suffering of an individual in a particular way increases the probability of passing along her genes, then natural selection will “choose” that route.
This is why our brains can, and often do, act contrary to what will make us “happy”.
So, we chase after more and better because it’s been a useful strategy for survival and reproduction. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, it’s not a very useful strategy for happiness or fulfilment even though it can feel like it is.
Does that sound depressing?
Don’t worry, it’s possible to break out of the vicious cycle of chasing the pleasure of wanting and enter into a state of more enduring happiness.
It’s just not very easy.
The path to enduring happiness
Although our brains are primed by natural selection to chase after things that often do not cause us to feel fulfilled, it is possible to break out of this cycle.
First, we need to see for ourselves the truth of the hamster wheel we’re on. How can we do this?
As Robert Wright describes in his excellent book Why Buddhism is True, practicing meditation is a little bit like Neo taking the red pill in the movie The Matrix. When he did, he finally saw the truth about his predicament.
Practiced consistently and over time, meditation has given me a newfound perspective on my behaviours and emotions — a perspective that has allowed me to understand where my internal biases and assumptions are preventing me from seeing the world as it is.
Meditation can help us to see a “truth” of sorts — it’s just not as obvious as a robot apocalypse.
For me, meditation has provided an answer to breaking out of the cycle of wanting, attaining, feeling empty, and then wanting again.
If you are struggling with finding meaning in your life, and you’re tired of feeling unfulfilled even when you get what you want, meditation is a good place to start. You’ll be surprised by how little you understand your own mind. But don’t take my word for it — try it for yourself.
Meditation will help you break out of the illusion created by dopamine that achieving your next goal or getting that next something will give you what you’ve always wanted. Instead of mindlessly chasing after the things that don’t make you feel fulfilled, you will more mindfully decide whether the chase is worth it at all.