Everything is Amazing but No One is Happy

Comedian Louis C.K. unwittingly broached a poignant truth when he said, “Everything is amazing but no one is happy.” Over the past 30 years, U.S. GDP has more than doubled. But amidst all of this ostensible progress, rates of clinical depression in the United States are at an all-time high. Though difficult to decipher the relation between these two statistics, a look at our evolutionary history can illuminate certain conditions of contemporary life that are wreaking havoc on ye olde American pursuit of happiness. 

I will suggest that Mindfulness, the ancient Buddhist practice of nonbiased attention to the present moment, might be precisely the antidote we need to combat the crisis of mental health in this county.

So what is this “Mindfulness,” you speak of?  Images of mystic ohm-chanting Himalayan monks might very well come to mind. But these associations need some broadening. Though one can trace its origins back thousands of years to an ancient Buddhist practice, mindfulness has experienced a wave of popularity in recent years, evolving from its religious roots to an accepted psychotherapy technique practiced by clinicians and Fortune 500 companies alike. It has been characterized as “a kind of non-elaborative, non-judgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.” Mindful individuals learn to treat their thoughts and emotions as passing events, rather than evaluating them or assigning them too much importance. In short, Mindfulness makes you less vulnerable to emotional distress.

No longer relegated to the status of voodoo-ritual, mindfulness has drawn increasing attention from scientists who have successfully corroborated what Buddhists have known for centuries.  Numerous studies have documented the benefits resulting from mindfulness training, ranging from improvements in relationship satisfaction, anxiety and mood disorders, and productivity at work, to lowered levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Unsurprisingly, the benefits of mindfulness training have also been observed in the brain. For regular mindfulness meditators, neuroimaging studies have revealed a long-term increase in activity in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, regions associated with attention and awareness, and a significant curbing effect on the natural reduction of grey matter volume that typically occurs with aging.

When we closely examine the origins of our emotion, the importance of mindful awareness becomes even clearer. That is, human emotion can be understood as a signaling system that has evolved to respond to events in the external world—to be sensitive to potential threats and opportunities. It is the unique human capacity for symbolic representation, to simulate events in the past and future, which can activate the emotional signaling system in response to contingencies that do not exist in the external environment, but are of our own mental creation. Of course, it is precisely these symbolic representations that have endowed humans with critical problem solving abilities and enabled the many faces of human flourishing (see: language, music, science, gelato), but problems arise when these simulations are treated by our primitive neural pathways as “urgent” threats that must be addressed with a high degree of priority and emotional output. It is no surprise, then, that emotional disorders arise when a person chronically excites his or her emotions in response to mental rumination about the past or future. Case in point: If you knew the amount of horror and self-re-evaluation I endured last week while scanning/deleting my Facebook pictures from freshman year (yeah, jobs don’t appreciate drunk cross-dressing either), you would have a hard time believing that I was actually sprawled on my couch in the safest town in the safest state in America.    Unless trained to do so, our emotional signaling system will fail to distinguish between symbolic threats and things as they actually are in the immediate environment—which are, in most cases, not very threatening at all.

If we accept that much of our current mental architecture evolved to meet the survival demands of hunter-gatherers on the plains of prehistoric Africa, then a further examination of the ancestral environment can illuminate the ways in which our minds are not ideally equipped for the conditions of contemporary life. First, consider that our ancestors probably had far less symbolic threat to contend with because they lived in what social psychologist Leonard Martin has termed an “immediate-return” environment. That is, the ultimate objective (food) of the hunter-gatherer’s “work” (hunting) was achieved as a direct output of his labor. In such an environment, humans probably had little need to look more than a day or so into the future, since the requirements for survival were very clearly achieved or unachieved on a daily basis.{C}[i]

In contrast, most humans today live in a delayed-return environment, in which critical outcomes might not be realized for weeks or months into the future. The farmer labors daily to tend to crops that might not be harvested for months, while the college student studies pulls an all-nighter to earn good grades, in the hopes of eventually graduating, landing a job, and earning a paycheck with which to sustain her livelihood. Understandably, this delayed-return environment requires considerable amount of planning, worry, and anxiety­—all conspiring to make emotional duress nearly inevitable, and the benefits of mindful awareness hardly attainable.

One of the most defining features of the times, and evidentially a formidable barrier to happiness, is choice. For our ancestors, there were no cities to move to, no careers to choose between (hope you like hunting! Or gathering?), and no potential mates to consider outside of one’s relatively small hunter-gatherer clan. According to Barry Schwartz’s research on “The Paradox of Choice,” Americans today are forced to choose among more options in more parts of life than has ever been possible before. Surely there is an intuitive appeal to the multitude of options spawned by technological innovation, as travel and telecommunications have removed the ceiling on options for careers, relationships, entertainment—any and all ways we choose to spend our time. We have the ability browse the 20 million members on EHarmony, the 3,000 movies on Netflix, or the 2 million toothbrush varieties at CVS.

However, we should be wary of equating choice with progress. Though the United States GDP has more than doubled in the past 3 years—inciting an explosion of choice—suicide and clinical depression have never been more prevalent. Schwartz has discovered that “maximizers,” those who always aim to make the best possible choice, are typically less satisfied after a purchase than are “satisficers”—people who aim for “good enough”—even though maximizers make objectively better choices.[ii] Perhaps not surprisingly, individuals characterized as high maximizers also tend to brood or ruminate more than satisficers do and are more likely to be depressed. Why? Because the explosion of choices faced by many modern human beings raises the opportunity cost (the lost opportunities offered by alternative options) of every decision we make, making us less satisfied with even the most preferred choice. We are constantly plagued the thought of what could have been, and it is making us miserable.

The advent of the Internet and telecommunications has ensured that a choice to do nothing is always a choice not be working, optimizing, planning, advancing—because the potential to be “working” is no longer subject to the confines of the 9-5 work day. The joy and necessity of simply being present in one’s immediate surroundings is constantly thwarted by the knowledge that one could be checking e-mails or could be working for some potential payoff in the future. Ample research confirms the critical benefits of taking the time to engage with the present moment, in its raw, unevaluated form, but the demands of The Information Age rarely make room for this simple practice. There’s a reason that even companies like Google and Goldman Sachs, the very goliaths driving the trajectory of the economy, are asking employees to take time our of their day to simply sit. And do nothing.

This endorsement of mindfulness should not be construed as an appeal to halt the inexorable march of the U.S. economic machine.  There’s no stopping that. But unless evolution (or designer drugs) calibrate the human mind to the increasingly absurd habitat of 2013, don’t expect the misery to abate. The faculty of symbolic representation, that defining mark of humanity that catapulted us to the domination of the biosphere, is currently fueling self-generated misery through abuse of our emotional apparatus.  The paradox of choice, delayed return environments, and other features of contemporary life are chronically disengaging us from what is right in front of our eyes.  Perhaps Mindfulness guru Eckhart Tolle said it best: “Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the Now, have your dwelling place in the Now and pay brief visits to past and future when required to deal with the practical aspects of you life situation.” Our sanity may very well depend on it.

[i] The Curse of the Self, by Mark Leary.

[ii] “The Tyranny of Choice” by Barry Schwartz