You’re Not Wired To Be Happy – The Adaptive Dilemma

What has allowed human beings to become the dominant species on the planet?  At the top of the list is our ability to adapt — because of our evolved brain and processing skills, humans are able to adapt to changing situations and environments better than other animals. 

In fact, our ability to adapt is at the heart of survival and being able to manage the constant barrage of information and inputs coming at us. 

In today’s world, we’re subjected to thousands of advertising and marketing messages a day, never mind the millions of more subtle and constant stimulations vying for our attention.

Think about the simple act of going to a coffee shop, getting your favourite drink and sitting for a while and writing in a journal. 

If you were to pay attention to every signal and input available to you, such as..

.. the sounds of the customers placing their orders, the clattering of cups and dishes

.. the shrill release of steam and grinding of beans as the drinks are made

.. the murmur of multiple conversations going on at different tables around you

.. the odd gentleman that’s talking to himself and acting strangely

.. the background music that’s just quiet enough to keep you from identifying a mildly familiar chorus

.. the flashing light on the smoke detector that needs it’s battery changed

.. the honking of car horns outside as impatient commuters try to get to work on time

.. the baby that keeps dropping it’s rattle and occasionally shrieks ..

…. the inputs and demands for your attention never end.

Fortunately, the human brain has developed a sophisticated and highly effective strategy to cope with this constant onslaught of demands for attention. 

Over thousands of years, our brains have developed the specialized skill to filter out thousands of inputs that come at us on a real-time basis, so that we can focus on what the brain estimates is the most important for us to consider in any given moment.

Imagine that you’ve heard over and over about this fabulous restaurant that gets rave reviews for brunch, and in particular, for their home made cinnamon buns that are made in-house.  Anyone who’s been to the restaurant goes on about the cinnamon buns and how incredible they are.

One day, you make reservations and go to the restaurant with a friend.  The moment you walk in the door, you’re overcome with the incredibly delicious smell of cinnamon buns that permeate the restaurant. 

Your taste buds literally begin to salivate as you imagine how amazing they must taste, especially after all that you’ve heard about them.  You can’t smell or think of anything else in that moment. 

You get seated with your friend, and they share a struggle they’ve been having at work.  A few minutes into the conversation, you’re engrossed in the conversation — and you don’t even notice the smell of the cinnamon buns any more.

Has the smell dissipated in the restaurant? 


The existence and strength of the aroma has remained the same the whole time.  Your brain has simply decided to take that stimulus and literally turn down the volume of it in your brain.  Your mind has adapted to that smell, and is now filtering it out from being such a dominant stimulus to you.

Your brain is filtering out countless competing signals and messages like this at any given moment, trying to allow your mind to focus on what it believes in the priority in the moment. 

You don’t notice the couple behind you arguing, the tag on your new shirt that was bothering you when you first put it on in the morning, or how hard the chair is that you’re now sitting in.

You excuse yourself to go to the bathroom, and after a few minutes you open the bathroom door to return to your seat.  Suddenly, the delicious aroma of the cinnamon buns hits you again, just as it did when you first walked into the restaurant.  The smell was there the entire time — it’s just that your brain muted the smell so that you could move on and focus on the next thing to focus on.

Your brain is doing this constant filtering and adapting constantly, adjusting the “volume” of different inputs like a DJ, and you’ve probably never even noticed it. 

The same thing happens if you use essential oils in your home – you notice the strong, fragrant smell initially but after a few minutes, the smell seems to weaken and go away.  It’s still there — your adaptive mind has simply normalized the smell, allowing you to notice other stimuli that are coming into your senses.

This automatic process happens under the surface, and without it, you would likely go insane.  The constant attack of unfiltered sensations and stimulations would otherwise be too much to handle.

While this neural adaptation is incredibly helpful and essential to our very ability to manage moment to moment, it’s this same process that can explain why happiness is such a fleeting and challenging thing to achieve in life.

The Adaptive Dilemma

Think of something in the past that you’ve really wanted to obtain or achieve — perhaps it was as simple as a new shirt that looked amazing on you, or something more significant like the new car that you always dreamed about.  It might have been a promotion at work, or maybe it was the goal of achieving a certain revenue target in your business.  It doesn’t matter what the goal or aspiration was — you knew that by achieving it, you would gain a sense of happiness and joy.

You felt your anticipation build as the possibility of achieving your goal drew closer, and then finally .. one day, you achieved it.  You felt that sense of accomplishment, of joy, and of pride.

Now, fast forward a week or a month .. did that accomplishment or thing still deliver you the same level and sense of happiness and joy?

With very few exceptions, the answer is probably no.  Even though you were really excited to wear that new shirt out the first time and have everyone comment on how great it looks, after the third or fourth time of wearing it, you simply didn’t get the lift and pleasure out of it like you did initially.

And over time, that shirt slowly made it’s way further back in your closet, replaced with all of the new shirts that you’ve since bought in pursuit of that feeling of joy and happiness.

This is what I refer to as the Adaptive Dilemma. 

It seems almost like a cruel joke — but as much as your ability to adapt is such a powerful force in many ways, it also means that anything you obtain or achieve will have a diminishing emotional return over time.

How often have you thought to yourself, “I’ll be happy when ..”, and you fill in the blank with whatever seems to fit at the time?  You’re convinced that the achievement or accomplishment or acquisition is going to bring the happiness that you’ve been seeking.

Only, it never does.  At least not for long.

Human beings are inspired and driven by things that challenge them, and that causes them to push further than they have before.  The inherent human drive to explore and grow means that once a certain outcome or level is achieved, it’s natural for the mind to start thinking about the next challenge or adventure.

While you may think that that certain things or accomplishments are going to give you a sense of happiness and fulfillment, the critical step is to recognize that pleasure and happiness are not the same thing.

And while the consumer marketing machine has done a great job confusing most people, it is critical to differentiate between the two.

Pleasure is a momentary sense of gratification that often has to do with external circumstances or outcomes.  Pleasure is temporary and fleeting, and diminishes over time.

On the other hand, happiness is a deeper, internal sense of contentment and joy that has more to do with the process or journey itself, as opposed to the outcome.

The Ancient Greeks defined happiness as “the joy you feel moving towards your potential”.  It’s that internal sense of accomplishing something that matters.

It’s not the “thing” or outcome or place you arrive that makes you happy .. it’s the process in achieving it where the meaning and fulfilment actually lives.

To the extent that you tie your happiness or meaning to external accomplishment, outcomes or goals, you will forever be a victim of this relentless pursuit to reach a place that cannot be reached.

In 2012, I travelled to a remote village in Uganda, Africa to attend the opening of a new school that my company had been involved with developing.  While the entire experience was life-changing, what struck me most about visiting with these incredible human beings was the utter sense of joy and happiness on their faces

The rags they wore hung off their bodies torn, dirty and tattered, and the homes they lived in were little more than piles of cinder blocks with partial covering for when the rains came — barely the size of a typical closet in North America. 

Interacting with such amazing people allowed me to see for the first time what happiness truly looks like.  They literally smiled with joy with the feel of the sun on their faces, and they saw everything in the world as a miracle. 

Rather than being concerned about the outcome or circumstances, they simply enjoyed the journey and experience of being alive. 

While many people would look at how they live and feel sorry for them compared to their own lifestyle in the West, the irony is that these people were truly happier than anyone I’ve ever met who lived in a huge house or drove an expensive vehicle.

Their lives were not about seeking pleasure and instant gratification from external things — they were simply excited about the day and experiencing each moment as it came. 

Imagine how much lighter and happier you’d feel if your primary goal was to just experience everything as it is, and be grateful for what life has given you in this moment?

It was a truly sobering experience for me, because it made it obvious how far off track we’ve gotten in the “developed” world when it comes to understand happiness and living a great life.  That trip caused me to have some huge realizations about my own life and priorities, and helped reset a few of my expectations and goals.

I began to think about the goals and vision I had for my life through the lens of pleasure and instant gratification, compared to things that really fed my soul.  When I got really honest with myself, I realized that many of my own goals were tied to some kind of external outcome that likely would not give me the payoff of happiness I was hoping for.

I’ve long been a fan of setting specific goals and using visualization as a tool to motivate and inspire yourself into action.  One thing I would caution, however, is that if you have a set of goals that you’ve outlined for yourself, it’s worth doing an honest assessment of them and think about how many of those goals are tied to external events or circumstances. 

If you really dig into each of your goals and drill down into what the true motivation is behind each one, you will likely be surprised.

The Adaptive Dilemma is alive and well, and perhaps one of the frustrating things is that it’s not something that you can eliminate. 

It’s a deeply engrained and highly evolved gift that human beings have, and you’re stuck with it, for good and bad.  While you can’t eliminate it from going to work on you, there are definitely ways you can work with it to bring more true happiness and fulfilment in your life.

1. Recognize that happiness won’t come from things outside of you.

The idea that your happiness can be conditional upon accomplishing a goal or acquiring a thing is misguided at best, and dangerous for the most part.  Start thinking practically about some of the goals you have that tie to external things or factors.  Be honest with yourself that the new laptop or the latest iPhone isn’t really going to contribute to your greater happiness.

2. Give yourself permission to seek some pleasure.

It’s not practical to try and eliminate seeking pleasure in life – that’s one of the things that can make life fun and exciting to experience!  Don’t feel guilty if you decide you’re going to buy that new shirt because it does make you feel fantastic.  The point is to recognize that it’s just a shirt, and don’t lie to yourself that you’ll be happier as a result.  Don’t get trapped into thinking that a series of pleasures is going to make for a happy life.  It won’t.  Advertisers and marketers spend billions of dollars each year to convince you that their product or service will bring the happiness you yearn for.  Don’t fall for it.

3. Get real with the internal drivers of your own happiness.

Often times, people pursue external goals and circumstances as a way to avoid or substitute what it is they truly want in their life.  Loneliness, depression and anxiety are at all time highs and are incredibly common.  It’s a valuable exercise to try to notice when you are looking for an external solution to an internal problem.  If you’re feeling lonely and have the impulse to go to the mall to walk around, stop yourself and allow your mind to process that feeling.  For once, instead of running to the mall or going online to Amazon, try going for a walk with yourself.  Listen to some music you love.  Call a friend you haven’t spoken to in some time.  Allow that momentary need to distract or consume to pass, and see what thoughts come in your mind.  It can be an uncomfortable process, but getting to know your internal dialogue can be a very powerful thing — and leads to getting into closer touch with what it is that will actually being you more happiness and joy.

4. Focus on human connections to increase your happiness.

The secret to achieving greater happiness in your life isn’t really a secret at all — the longest running and most in-depth study in the world on the subject of happiness (known as the Grant Study) boiled it down to one thing: meaningful connections with other human beings.

If you’re yearning for more happiness and fulfilment in your life, it all comes down to cultivating and deepening close connections with other people.  Whether it’s family, friends or people you associate with through work, hobbies or otherwise, having a sense that there are people close to you who know you well, understand you, and are there for you when you need them — that’s truly where happiness is cultivated and thrives.