How your brain sabotages happiness

  •             Perhaps the single greatest source of unhappiness in our lives is this belief:  If I get what I want, then I’ll be happy.  Decades of scientific knowledge has shown, instead, that if you get what you want, you’ll soon take it for granted and want something else instead.  Economists call this the “Hedonic Treadmill.”  How many times has it happened to you? But though you know the pattern and know you'll be disappointed, when you're really caught up in craving you feel you have to have it--whatever "it" is. Though we experience this for ourselves over and over during the course of our lives, we keep forgetting about it.  Scientists know that this forgetting is the result of the dopamine system at work in the brain.  Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with craving.  It’s a part of all addictions, but even in healthy minds dopamine is so powerful that it can make us really believe that if and only if we just get that new outfit (new car, new wife), then we’ll be satisfied and content for the rest of our lives.  Dopamine is part of the caveman brain that kept us alert, motivated, and competitive when danger was all around.  We can’t get rid of it, but we can learn some tricks to control it.

                Besides dopamine, our genetic inheritance has left us with several other ways the brain can fool us about happiness.  For instance, we keep believing that price has something to do with value.  When people are tasting the same wine, but with different labels and price tags, the higher the posted price, the more they like it.  The researchers, looking right into the brain as this experiment was going on, found that the pleasure circuits in the brain were indeed lighting up more as the price rose, though the taste circuits remained the same.  So it’s not as if we fool ourselves into thinking that price means value; the brain does that for us all by itself.

                All the evidence suggests that we’d be much happier if we stopped caring about promotion or the size of our house and went and did volunteer work or some activity that inherently brings us joy—using our hands, growing a garden, learning to paint or play the piano.  And of course there are many realistic reasons why this is hard to do: but we could be organizing our lives with those kinds of goals in mind, instead of slogging away on the Hedonic Treadmill.



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