Why You Can’t Just Relax and Be Happy

Woman on beach relaxing and being happy

I heard some bad news the other day while driving my big, pickup truck down to New Jersey for the weekend.

I was listening to The Art of Charm Podcast and they were interviewing this dude named Neil. Neil is a Harvard MBA and Walmart Executive who has been writing about all things happy for years. He even did a popular TedTalk. So he was basically saying that the entire model for achieving happiness that our society follows is broken. And we’re not wired to be happy and content as human beings in the first place. We’ve actually evolved successfully only by being discontent and paranoid. Being discontent and paranoid is the only way we humans managed to survive, and then thrive and then eventually, take over the world.


The current happiness model we use, which winds up causing us much angst instead, is this:

Great Work –> Big Success –> Be Happy

And isn’t it true, if you think about it?

Count Calories & Exercise –> Lose Weight –> Be Happy 

Study Hard –> Get into College –> Be Happy

Work Hard –> Make Lots of Money –> Be Happy

Date Hard –> Get Married –> Be Happy 

The examples of how we try to follow this model in life are endless. But it doesn’t really work like that, does it?

Because as soon as we arrive at the ‘Be Happy’ part of the equation, something else pops into our minds that we believe we need to work towards before we can officially arrive. The end line is continuously moving further away from us as we go, like a fat, little donkey chasing a carrot on a string. (That’s a thing right?)

The model is broken, that formula does not equal happiness, and we all know this now. And we also know now (because Harvard tells us) that happy people tend to be more successful (which is super annoying).

Harvard Business Review reports that happy people are actually 31% more productive, have 37% higher sales and are three times more creative than their counterparts. Turns out, being happy is energizing, and it makes your brain work better. So Neil says that in order to be successful and what not, we need to be happy first.

If we choose to be happy first, we feel great, we do great work, and we create big success. But, can we just choose to be happy and change our snotty, little attitudes or something? Well, some say we can.

As William Blake said “The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.” And our boy Shawn Achor, happiness researcher out of Harvard linked to above says “It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality.” 

So if that’s all true, then why is it such a challenge to change our attitudes? Well, as it turns out, the reason is evolution.

We can’t just relax and be satisfied with what we have, because back in the day, it might have gotten us killed.

You see, 150,000 years ago, deciding to just be happy meant you might let your guard down and get eaten or murdered or starve to death. So you were never just content and happy with your lot in life. In order to survive to the ripe old age of about 30, you would’ve constantly been scanning your environment for danger, for areas of improvement, or how you could get more of what you needed, or protect what you already had. Being discontent and paranoid, allowed you to survive. If you just relaxed, and decided to be happy with what you had, you’d probably die.

And the thing is, our brain hasn’t really evolved past this impulse to be constantly scanning for problems.

You can’t just be happy with the 30 pounds you already lost, you have to focus on the last ten that you didn’t. You can’t just be happy with your strengths, you have to try to improve your weaknesses. You can’t just be happy with one house, you need two. You can’t just focus on where your team is thriving, you have to improve the .. areas of improvement.

Humans are quite naturally, always scanning for problems.

As Neil puts it, our minds work like this:

  1. Look for problem.
  2. Find problem. 
  3. Improve problem. 

That’s what our brains have been trained to do for two hundred thousand years. But because we scan the world for problems, sometimes that’s all we see. 

For some reason I found a sense of freedom in these words. We all have this negative tendency to constantly seek out problems, because at one point in the history of our species (not too long ago) it wasn’t negative, it was necessary. In fact, the entire reason our species was able to survive and proliferate and eventually take over the world, is because we never let our guard down. We constantly scanned our environment for problems and eventually started fixing them.

It’s just that now in our modern world, with an easier, basic survival and longer life-expectancy, when most basic needs are covered, scanning for problems has become less necessary. We actually could have the time now to just relax and be happy, and yet most of us are finding it difficult. Our brains simply haven’t caught up. Thanks a lot, evolution.

But don’t lose hope! Turns out there are lots of fun things we can do in our everyday lives to choose happiness first, to relax into contentedness and therefore improve our lives. I’ll get to them in another post soon.

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Author Dana

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