Last time I talked about the brain’s negativity bias, the innate tendency of our primitive threat systems to focus on problems and dangers (both imagined and real). But our brains are also equipped with reward centers, also relatively primitive, which focus on short-term gratification and basic pleasures, such as eating, drinking, and having sex.
These centers routinely lie and mislead us about our desires in four ways. First, they overestimate the amount of satisfaction we’ll derive from getting what we want. Second, they overestimate how much suffering and discomfort we’ll experience if we don’t get it. Third, because they focus on short-term gratification, they routinely overestimate the costs of things that are good for you, such as: exercise, resisting the pull of addictions, or setting aside your own position to empathize with someone else’s. Fourth, they aren’t very good at distinguishing between needs and wants, so they create a sense of urgency indiscriminately about all sorts of things that don’t contribute to our survival or well-being, such as consuming sugar and intoxicants; acquiring the latest consumer goods; looking for love in all the wrong places; pounding home one’s point; or fighting to win every argument in a relationship.
We can say that the human brain functions unconsciously on the basic philosophical assumption of hedonism – that happiness results from gratifying our immediate desires. What I find interesting here is that one point on which all of the world’s wisdom traditions seem to agree is that this common sense idea is completely wrong – they all say that the pursuit of happiness through gratifying desires is actually the greatest obstacle to finding it.
It’s easy to see why this is true. When we are occupied all day long with pursuing our desires, we devalue the present and constantly lean into the future. Even when we do get what we want, our satisfaction inevitably evaporates, because everything is in constant change. Consequently, we live with a background sense of frustration, dissatisfaction, and unease, and we’re prone to feel disappointed, thwarted, and driven. But because we believe that pursuing what we want will relieve these pains, we crave and cling all the more – not understanding that these are the very habits that are causing our suffering in the first place. All of this is rooted in our biology. The pleasure and pain circuits of the brain evolved to manipulate our ancestors into doing things for their survival by overselling them about apparent sources of pleasure and overly alarming them about apparent risks. Your brain routinely lies to you, promising more pleasure and threatening more pain than you will actually experience.
Fortunately, we aren’t condemned to be slaves of the wanting mind, because we’ve also evolved a cerebral cortex which can observe and reflect on the whole process and alter our responses to it. We loosen the grip of wanting by using our capacity for self-reflection to see through the brain’s distortions: to observe the ways in which desiring itself feels subtly tense and uncomfortable; to notice the frequent discrepancy between the pleasures we expected to get from fulfilling a desire, and what it actually feels like to fulfill it. We can reflect on the costs of pursuing the things we want, and the costs of trying to avoid some of the actually beneficial things we don’t want. Finally, we can remember that, since every pleasant experience must inevitably end, it isn’t possible to find permanent happiness through fulfilling wants.
The key to real happiness in life is to pursue life-affirming desires with enthusiasm and skill, but without falling into the trap of being driven by them – to pursue satisfactions without craving and clinging, without demanding that they continue, and without panicking or feeling victimized when we don’t get what we want. When we aren’t conned by the brain’s lies, it becomes possible to hold our wants more lightly. And when we can do this, surprisingly, we find a sense of contentment and well-being that is always in the background of our experience, but which is subtle and easily overlooked when we’re preoccupied with the noise of the wanting mind.