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The happiness delusion

No foraging, no reward. Getty

The greatest delusion ever sold to us by modern advertising isn’t that we need to buy bottled water or that “rocks make good pets”, says Tanith Carey in The Spectator. It’s the idea that “we should expect to be happy all the time”. This concept would certainly have been news to our ancient ancestors – they became top species because their brains evolved to be “survival machines, not happiness generators”. The feel-good chemical dopamine isn’t there to make us enjoy our lives, as many think now. It’s there to push us to seek out more nutritious food and to procreate to keep the species going.

When early humans found a bird’s nest full of eggs or a beehive full of honey, they got a hit of dopamine – but its effect is “designed to be short lived”. Once they’d eaten, dopamine levels quickly dipped back down, leaving a yearning to go back out and do it again. Some researchers argue that the reason humans have been so successful compared to other primates is that we overproduce this “molecule of more”. The trouble is, many people can now satisfy their survival needs without ever leaving the sofa – and that has led to the ultimate trap of modernity. For most of human history we’ve instinctively known that “happiness is designed to be a fleeting state, not a constant one”. But the convenience (and advertising) of modern life has fooled us into thinking “happiness-on-tap” is our birthright. And this is why we shouldn’t be surprised that, “despite all its luxuries and comforts”, modern life doesn’t make us happy. It isn’t meant to.