As I get older I become increasingly convinced that the center of happiness is gratitude. I receive this message in many different forms.
Practically, I notice that much of the top advice on how to become more happy starts with making lists of things you’re thankful for.
In terms of common wisdom, we hear things like,
Be thankful for what you have.
You never know what you have until it’s gone.
But I think he most powerful source of this signal comes from evolution. I think gratitude is a deeply primal thing that relates directly to survival and reproduction—and therefore meaning.
As Bertrand Russell wrote about often, original human happiness came from overcoming severe obstacles. Examples include creating shelter from the winter, fighting and killing an attacking enemy force, or taking a lover as a mate and starting a family.
Those were things that made us feel happy because the alternatives were dark and severe. They were freezing to death, being killed or taken as slaves, or failing to attain romantic companionship.
In early times these meant death.
So winning was obviously something to celebrate, and…yes—to be thankful for.
When parents look around a dinner table and see healthy children, or at the log roof over their heads in the freezing mountains, they know that they were a hair’s width from perishing, and they feel the hormone reward from the body telling them they did a good job and preserving their genes.
Evolution rewards us for propagating genes, in other words. It rewards us through hormones that produce happiness.
But today in the west we don’t have much struggle against the elements, or against attacking armies, or even to find someone to hang out with of the opposite sex. We are ejected from the womb with all of our needs satisfied.
I don’t think evolution likes that.
Where’s the challenge? Where’s the struggle? Where’s the victory and defeat? Where’s the meaning?
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Said differently, if you can’t lose then how can you possibly be thankful for your victories?
I think the solution is to reset the brain. To trick it. To reject the meaningless plenty that overflows our society, and to simplify our lives back to the essentials.
It’s not easy for most to do, but sometimes life does it for us. A relationship is failing. Your lover prefers to be with someone else. Your health is failing. You can’t find good work, and it may affect your family’s prosperity.
These are external things that serve as proxies for the deadly winter and the approaching army.
But what we need, as a society, is a way to reach the state of gratitude without being existentially threatened. We need a way to appreciate the things we have as if they were almost just taken from us, but we somehow managed to keep them or win them back.
We have to maintain that state of gratitude. For our health. For our friends. For our family. For the leisure to read millions of books in a safe community. For the ability to go with a friend or lover to the cinema and enjoy a film.
There is no path to happiness that doesn’t start with appreciation of the things we have in our lives.
If you’re not happy, I urge you to start there.