By about every metric you can muster, we are better off as a society today than at any point in human history.
We're safer, live longer, and have an overabundance of creature comforts at our literal fingertips. And yet, happiness levels have largely remained stagnant for decades. In fact, rates of clinical depression and anxiety in young Americans have been on a steady incline since the 1930s. In Canada, the economic cost of mental illness is estimated at $51 billion a year.
It's a trend that has led researchers to wonder if this collective malaise is a product of society's rapid modernization, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it is. Rampant obesity fuelled by poor diets and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle is one culprit. Rising inequality, driving competition and, in turn, social isolation, are other potential factors.Author Robert Wright, who has spent years exploring the link between evolutionary biology and religion, takes a slightly different view on the ultimate source of our unhappiness, however. The Princeton alum posits that, while modern society has indeed accelerated our discontent, its root cause is as old as mankind itself. In his bestselling book, Why Buddhism is True, Wright says that we've been hardwired as a species to be perpetually dissatisfied. "We are condemned to always want things to be a little different, always want a little more," he said in an interview with NPR's Fresh Air last month.
When you think about it, this makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint: Natural selection has designed us to carry out certain essential tasks — namely, eating food to stay alive, and having sex to procreate — in order to bring our genes into the next generation. But if those acts came with a sense of "permanent gratification," as Wright put it, we would never feel the need to eat or have sex again — not exactly a successful recipe for the long-term survival of a species.
The problem is, we've evolved to the point where the primal urges that used to fuel that survival are no longer as necessary in an age of instant gratification. Hungry? Crack open the fridge. Horny? There's a website for that. Bored? Choose from literally thousands of entertainment options available at a moment's notice.
What's more is this plethora of choice has made it so that we rarely have to endure any form of negative emotion for too long. It used to be that the struggles of daily life were an accepted, if not welcome reality. Farmer Joe had no problem breaking his back toiling in the field from dawn 'til dusk because he knew failing to put food on the table was not an option. Today, the instant we feel a twinge of dissatisfaction, we rush to reverse it instead of sitting in the feeling, processing it, and coming out on the other side that much better for having done so.
For Wright, this is where behavioural psychology and mindfulness overlap. Cognitive behavioural therapy seeks to challenge the often-failed logic behind our anxieties — which can be traced directly back to those pesky evolutionary needs.
"We live in an environment so different from the environment that natural selection designed us for that we have these counterproductive feelings, like fear of public speaking," he said. "So evolutionary psychology gives a back story, explaining why it is that we so often are misled by feelings."
It's a problem with the human condition that Buddhism diagnosed long ago: In the Buddha's first sermon following enlightenment, he recognized the inherently fleeting nature of happiness caused by our unrelenting desires. The cure? Mindful meditation, the foundation of which encourages us not to steer clear of our difficult feelings, but rather observe them from a critical distance.
"What I can say about meditation is that it attacks the levers that natural selection kind of uses to control us, at a very fundamental level," Wright said. "By our nature we just seek good feelings and avoid bad feelings, that's just our nature. Buddhism... remarkably came up with a technique that allows you to actually disempower those levers, to no longer respond to the fundamental incentive structure of trying to avoid painful feelings and try to always seek the thing that promises to be gratifying. That's an amazing thing — that it can work."
So with that, I urge you to lean into those pesky thoughts keeping you up at night. Meditate, be mindful, suffer. You might even like it.