The concept of the pursuit of happiness is everywhere – in our offices, communities and, and even in our homes! And obviously, it’s companion unhappiness is rife in society which ensures we buy more, consume more and desire more in order to heal our unhappiness. We’re constantly asking ourselves if we’re happy and what recipe would make us happier: More money? A bigger house? A more prestigious job? A better partner?

But if you’ve pursued any of the above goals, you’ll know that once you get there, somehow you still feel incomplete and not happy… yet. So, you pursue the next goal, the next achievement, and buy yourself your next possession; always hoping to find the happiness you so desperately want and deserve.

So, if the answer to what makes us happy isn’t the perfect life with all the bells and whistles, then what can make us happy? The answer to this question is in understanding human nature.

In this article, we’ll will explain how and why we function as we do, and how unhappiness has served our evolution as a species. This is not to say that we should be unhappy or strive for dissatisfaction by any means, what we’ll aim to explain is why we are this way so that we can better understand, learn, and grow from simply surviving to thriving.

Unhappiness as a Means of Survival

As we all know, our survival as a species has required us to be alert and aware of dangers so that we can protect ourselves and our loved ones. While we have evolved massively into a modern, tech-savvy, and aware species, this instinct is still intact and is controlled by the oldest part of our brains, known as the reptilian brain.

This reptilian brain is situated at the back of the brain and is responsible for fight, flight, freeze, feed, and fornication. So, while the threats may have changed in our environment, we’re still wired to scan for danger.

In Positive Psychology this is known as the negativity bias, and while it is necessary for human survival on a day to day basis, it can limit our ability to be happy. If we’re constantly looking for the negative in our environments, how can we home in on the positive?

Hedonic Adaptation: A Safety Strategy which Leads to Unhappiness

The second component to our survival is hedonic adaptation or the hedonic treadmill.

The basic concept of the hedonic treadmill is that no matter what happens in our external circumstances, we’ll always return to our individual happiness set point. In fact, this set point is said to make up 50% of our overall happiness and well-being.

This ability for us to return to where we started serves us hugely when we encounter traumatic or difficult times in our lives. However, this hedonic adaptation is happening continuously in our daily lives and may be the root of our unhappiness and feelings of dissatisfaction.

In our offices, homes, and communities we seek structure, routine and stability. This serves us as it helps us feel secure – we can switch off our reptilian brain and be productive. This ability to find a new comfort zone and stick with it is helpful, as the more stability we have around us the more we think we are able to meet our survival, physical, social, emotional, and psychological needs.

While this is true for most of us, there is a downside to hedonic adaptation which is that we become complacent, lacklustre, and jaded by the system we have worked so hard to build and maintain. We adapt to our situation so effectively that we lose our sense of joy and excitement.

Hedonic adaptation leads to discontent with what we have. We stop feeling excited about where we’re going, and adapt so well to our routines that we no longer see our lives for all they encompass. This leads to unhappiness and the pursuit of what could make us happier.

The hedonic treadmill also results in fear of doing something new and stepping out of our comfort zones because it may threaten the status quo we’ve worked so hard to build. We make the decision to rather be comfortable and unhappy, than try something new which we believe could be a threat to our survival and could also make us even more unhappy.

The irony of our unhappiness is that the opposite of this is actually true. Because we have a happiness set point, if we get outside of our comfort zones or have to manage a difficult event, we not only return to this happiness set point but can actually surpass our previous level of happiness and thrive.

Breaking the Cycle of Unhappiness: Moving from Surviving to Thriving

At 4Seeds we design and deliver team, leadership, and organisational programmes which helps us to counter your innate negativity bias with scientific and practical strategies to increase your happiness levels.

We meet individuals where they are, and through a process of scientifically meaningful workshops and interventions can help your organisation step out of its comfort zone, out of fear and stress to develop even greater resilience, productivity, and progress

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

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