Humans aren’t designed to be happy

Summary: Researchers argue humans did not evolve to be consistently happy but primarily survive and reproduce. Evolution, they say, placed an advantage on depression, preventing humans from engaging in risky or hopeless situations.

Source: The Conversation

A huge happiness and positive thinking industry, estimated to be worth US$11 billion a year, has helped to create the fantasy that happiness is a realistic goal. Chasing the happiness dream is a very American concept, exported to the rest of the world through popular culture. Indeed, “the pursuit of happiness” is one of the US’s “unalienable rights”. Unfortunately, this has helped to create an expectation that real-life stubbornly refuses to deliver.

Because even when all our material and biological needs are satisfied, a state of sustained happiness will still remain a theoretical and elusive goal, as Abd-al-Rahman III, Caliph of Córdoba in the tenth century, discovered. He was one of the most powerful men of his time, who enjoyed military and cultural achievements, as well as the earthly pleasures of his two harems. Towards the end of his life, however, he decided to count the exact number of days during which he had felt happy. They amounted to precisely 14.

Happiness, as the Brazilian poet Vinicius de Moraes put it, is “like a feather flying in the air. It flies light, but not for very long.” Happiness is a human construct, an abstract idea with no equivalent in actual human experience. Positive and negative affects do reside in the brain, but sustained happiness has no biological basis. And – perhaps surprisingly – I reckon this is something to be happy about.

Nature and evolution

Humans are not designed to be happy, or even content. Instead, we are designed primarily to survive and reproduce, like every other creature in the natural world. A state of contentment is discouraged by nature because it would lower our guard against possible threats to our survival.

The fact that evolution has prioritized the development of a big frontal lobe in our brain (which gives us excellent executive and analytical abilities) over a natural ability to be happy, tells us a lot about nature’s priorities. Different geographical locations and circuits in the brain are each associated with certain neurological and intellectual functions, but happiness, being a mere construct with no neurological basis, cannot be found in the brain tissue.

In fact, experts in this field argue that nature’s failure to weed out depression in the evolutionary process (despite the obvious disadvantages in terms of survival and reproduction) is due precisely to the fact that depression as an adaptation plays a useful role in times of adversity, by helping the depressed individual disengage from risky and hopeless situations in which he or she cannot win. Depressive ruminations can also have a problem-solving function during difficult times.


The current global happiness industry has some of its roots in Christian morality codes, many of which will tell us that there is a moral reason for any unhappiness we may experience. This, they will often say, is due to our own moral shortcomings, selfishness, and materialism. They preach a state of virtuous psychological balance through renunciation, detachment and holding back desire.

In fact, these strategies merely try to find a remedy for our innate inability to enjoy life consistently, so we should take comfort in the knowledge that unhappiness is not really our fault. It is the fault of our natural design. It is in our blueprint.

Advocates of a morally correct path to happiness also disapprove of taking shortcuts to pleasure with the help of psychotropic drugs. George Bernard Shaw said: “We have no more right to consume happiness without producing it than to consume wealth without producing it.” Well-being apparently needs to be earned, which proves that it is not a natural state.

The inhabitants of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World live perfectly happy lives with the help of “soma”, the drug that keeps them docile but content. In his novel, Huxley implies that a free human being must inevitably be tormented by difficult emotions. Given the choice between emotional torment and content placidity, I suspect many would prefer the latter.

This shows a happy face painted on a ball surrounded by unhappy faced balls
Where is happiness located? The image is in the public domain.

But “soma” doesn’t exist, so the problem isn’t that accessing reliable and consistent satisfaction by chemical means is illicit; rather that it’s impossible. Chemicals alter the mind (which can be a good thing sometimes), but since happiness is not related to a particular functional brain pattern, we cannot replicate it chemically.

Happy and unhappy

Our emotions are mixed and impure, messy, tangled and at times contradictory, like everything else in our lives. Research has shown that positive and negative emotions and affects can coexist in the brain relatively independently of each other. This model shows that the right hemisphere processes negative emotions preferentially, whereas positive emotions are dealt with by the left-sided brain.

It’s worth remembering, then, that we are not designed to be consistently happy. Instead, we are designed to survive and reproduce. These are difficult tasks, so we are meant to struggle and strive, seek gratification and safety, fight off threats and avoid pain. The model of competing emotions offered by coexisting pleasure and pain fits our reality much better than the unachievable bliss that the happiness industry is trying to sell us. In fact, pretending that any degree of pain is abnormal or pathological will only foster feelings of inadequacy and frustration.

Postulating that there is no such thing as happiness may appear to be a purely negative message, but the silver lining, the consolation, is the knowledge that dissatisfaction is not a personal failure. If you are unhappy at times, this is not a shortcoming that demands urgent repair, as the happiness gurus would have it. Far from it. This fluctuation is, in fact, what makes you human.

Funding: Rafael Euba is affiliated with Oxleas NHS FT and The London Psychiatry Centre, which offer rTMS as a treatment for depression.

About this neuroscience research article

The Conversation
Media Contacts:
Rafael Euba – The Conversation
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

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  1. I am sorry, but I have to agree with much of the criticism of this article. It does read more like an opinion piece than objective fact. Rafael Euba, again with no theological credentials, considers himself a Christian theologian, commenting and blaming Christianity’s ‘failure’ to deal with our lack of Happiness. No direct quote from the bible or anything, just a general assertion on morality. I wonder why he chose to comment on Christianity and not a similar statement about Islam or Hinduism. Again we get to see simple assertions guised in an academic shroud treating significant theology as a simple ‘straw man’ and claiming it as fact. Mr Euba, can I recommend that you stick to your lane and comment on Psychology and leave theology to those truly trained in it. I cannot comment on the psychology, my training is only a couple of subjects. But I did think the main idea will probably prove true – happiness is not a ‘natural state’ for a human being.

  2. What teaching from Christianity postulates that contant happiness is attainable in life? Do you not know that the scriptures says that “if only in this life we have hope we would be people most miserable”? (1 Corinthians 15:19) Or don’t you that the Lord Jesus warns not to store our treasures on earth because they’ll be be inevitably vulnerable? Go and seek the truth which the Lord graciously offers for our dying souls that are contantly yerning for its creator. God bless!

  3. I think several terms are used interchangeably in the article but don’t carry the exact same meaning. Happiness, pleasure/ absence of pain and satisfaction are written about as though they are synonymous, but they all carry their own subtle meanings. The article could have brought more clarity by defining and distinguishing between key terms. After all, is a life with frequent pleasure and little pain deeply satisfying of itself or do we also need to live in accordance with our values to feel satisfied? Is a life with ongoing pain necessarily unsatisfying or do people find satisfaction in doing something meaningful that connects them to something broader than solely narrow self interest? Nice discussion on the potential functionality of unhappiness which makes sense to me for many circumstances, but this article misses out a lot of what makes us human.

  4. It’s a shame that this article completely skips past all the things we as humans can do to increase our happiness levels, all of which are backed by research. We are programmed by evolution (or, as the title would have it, ‘designed’?!) to procreate but here I am at 38 with no children… Also been programmed to gorge on high calorie food but managed to keep a healthy weight… It’s something anyone can work at, and after a couple of years of reading around the subject and regular mindfulness I can honestly say I am happy for a large majority of the time.

  5. There are several things I dislike about this article.
    Particularly the frequent use of the phrase “we are designed to…” – we aren’t designed at all. We have evolved. There is no watchmaker.
    Plus the sentence as commented above that some old dudes quote on wellbeing being earned proves anything.
    Plus the absolute misunderstanding, oversimplification and inaccuracies about functional neuroanatomy.
    It’s a shame, because two key points, thst depression has an adaptive function, and that the pursuit of happiness is doomed to fail, are important. Shame this is lost amongst all the rubbish.

  6. Is this satire? What a bizarre, fact- and logic-sparse declaration.

    Probably my favorite line:
    “Well-being apparently needs to be earned, which proves that it is not a natural state.”
    Yes, that follows quite obviously. (???)
    How does an odd quote against selfish consumption “prove” that earning something disqualifies it from being natural? Especially discordant with the fact that life and reproduction must constantly be earned, but the only consistent message from the piece is that these are the ur-natural states.

  7. I call bullshit on this research. It reads more like an opinion than objective facts. Depression and it’s ilk lead to almost zero libido and sometimes suicide. Also the suicide rate in the USA is on the rise.

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