1. Instinct puts survival before happiness without us realizing it.
2. In survival situations emotions overpower thought, wisdom and common sense.
3. Instinct unconsciously causes us to repeatedly do dumb things, to fail to learn from experience, to lash out when we are afraid and to give up on the brink of success.
4. Becoming aware of this unconscious influence is necessary to be happy in spite of yourself and to reduce the collateral damage of instinct keeping us alive.
5. Overcoming our fear of feeling bad is the key to minimizing the negative influence of instinct on happiness and on the sometimes awful ways we treat each other.
6. Having a simple routine to do this is the key to being happy in spite of yourself.
Most of us seek happiness, we know how good it feels. But our experience of this great feeling is that it does not last. We have been led to think that when it doesn’t, there must be something wrong— something wrong with our upbringing, our schooling, our relationships, our work, our friends, with our security, our health, our faith, ourselves, with the world. We become unhappy when we are frustrated that our happiness doesn’t last.
Feeling and thinking that there is something wrong, we look for solutions. This search for solutions often leads us to decisions and actions that initially seem to make us happy. These choices are aimed at changing, getting rid of, or avoiding old things and acquiring new things (new house, new baby, new relationships, new friends, new job, new clothes, new car, new bike, new diet, new phone—anything new). But any happiness that comes from these decisions inevitably wears off. When it does, we return to being unhappy and often enough regret our actions. It seems that the consequences of many of our deliberate attempts to be happy have a significant later role in the ongoing focus of our unhappiness (e.g., disappointment, stress, and debt).
This book rests on the idea that there is an important reason happiness is only temporary.
Evolutionary psychology views unhappiness and the many negative feelings associated with sadness—discontentment, frustration, anxiety, anger, depression, guilt, resentment, envy—as essential for survival. These negative feelings of dissatisfaction keep us motivated to do better, to look for improvements. They also keep us on edge and ready for action. They keep our guard up. From an instinctive survival perspective, not happy is the default human condition. Although we have been, can be, and will be happy, happiness is not a natural, ordinary state.
This perspective might seem a bit pessimistic and might lead to thoughts like, “Well, what’s the point of surviving if you can’t be happy?” Yet this perspective is not saying you can’t be happy. You can and will be happy. Random life events, including the positive reactions of others toward you, will ensure that you are happy every now and again. What this perspective is saying is that every episode of happiness you experience has to fade to keep you safe. Instinct makes this so. The pendulum swing of our moods between happiness and unhappiness, contentment and discontentment, satisfaction and dissatisfaction is natural, ordinary, and necessary for our species to thrive.
Swinging moods do not automatically mean that something is wrong.
There are two parts to this book. The first six chapters explain why instinct needs us to be unhappy. They also explain how our unconscious survival instinct ensures that any happiness that does come our way never lasts for very long.
The second part of the book demonstrates how a conscious effort on feelings, thoughts, and actions can initiate and extend periods of happiness when they occur and cushion the dampening impact on our mood when they inevitably fade. The chapters in the second part of the book illustrate this process in a range of life scenarios that we will all face eventually. These situations include:
• Relationships, socializing, breaking up. • Parenting. • Work and competition. • Dealing with bureaucracy. • Retirement, aging, and chronic pain.
Chapter 7 is the link between the understanding of Part One to the practice of Part Two. “Lifting the Fog of Instinct” details the three-step habit we need to develop to moderate the negative effect of the human survival instinct on the quality of our life. When you realize that your instinct is undermining your happiness and see it for what it is—a normal and necessary automatic reaction to life’s challenges—you are on the way to being happy in spite of it.
This book is about how to become aware of your automatic, instinctive reactions; how to release the emotional tension they cause; how to consciously regulate them with deliberate intention; and how to put intentions into action and create opportunities to be happy in spite of yourself.