Evolution Doesn’t Care if You’re Happy

Things are probably not as bad as they seem.

Evolutionary psychology tells us that our brains evolved with a particular kind of quirk. It’s known as negativity bias. Because of this, we tend to pay more attention to what is wrong, difficult, challenging, or threatening than we pay to the many things that are beneficial, beautiful, healing and nourishing in our lives. Evolution doesn’t care whether we have a wonderful esthetic experience of a painting or a sunset. That might make you happy, but it plays no role in your survival. However, remembering where you saw the rattlesnake does matter to evolution, since this might influence whether we survive long enough to pass on our genetic material.

Another facet of evolution, however, can help us with this difficulty. For our brains are also what neurologists call plastic, meaning changeable. We can form new neural pathways that help us to be happier—something most of us care about even if nature is indifferent. For example, if we deliberately choose to focus our attention on what makes us happy, we can actually become happier. Just the simple act of writing down on paper 3 things that you are grateful for perhaps twice a week has measurable mood effects. Similarly, writing a letter of gratitude to someone who played a positive role in your life and reading it to them out loud, can lift your spirits for a month.

It may not matter from an evolutionary standpoint, but the capacity to be happier is possible. It takes only a little bit of consistent effort.

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