Miserable About Life? The Reason May Lie in Evolution

Pete Ross

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“People get unhappy because they compare their lives to other people. I believe that’s the root of all unhappiness”.

Someone I know said that to me quite some time ago. It’s a reasonably true statement, but when I first heard it, even though I could see that it was true, I felt somewhat underwhelmed. It’s just too surface level, too obvious. Like saying people are fat because they eat too much.

Well duh, of course that’s true. The real problem isn’t that they do, but why? That’s where so much of what I’ve read or heard around the topic of modern unhappiness falls flat — it’s always missing one or more really important pieces of the puzzle.

I had a flash of insight recently, however, when listening to an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience featuring Jordan Peterson and Brett Weinstein. In a fairly offhanded conversation (and I say off handed because it’s 2+ hours of deep psychological discourse before this even comes up), they laid out an incredibly important explanation of the deep unhappiness, depression and anxiety that is plaguing young people. What’s even more remarkable is that I don’t even think they were trying to do that.

So why do we compare ourselves to other people so much? There’s a good chance that it’s an evolutionary response. As Weinstein postulated (and I paraphrase slightly), “if you have your little plot of land and your neighbour has his little plot of land, it makes sense for you to look at what he’s doing. Because if he’s raising 3 times more crops than you are, you want to know how he’s doing that so that you can survive better”.

Something bothered me about that too though, because agriculture is a relatively recent part of human existence. How could this extrapolate to the hunter gatherers that we were for the vast majority of our existence? Well, it still fits, I think, because throughout human history being able to model what someone else in your tribe was doing would have advantages. Whether it’s copying the guy who knows how to catch more fish, or the person who can attract a mate easily, or the person who can identify the best places to find that berry your tribe likes. There has always been an advantage to such a trait.

Unfortunately, like many of our evolved traits, it can rapidly turn to our detriment because it is so ill suited for the current environment we live in. From the time we were in tribes, even up to when we lived closely in small villages just a few hundred years ago, we knew everything about each other’s lives. There was no entertainment and everyone was very interdependent, so the fact that your neighbour might be better at growing corn than you probably wasn’t a big deal, because you knew all the ins and outs of his life and he didn’t live much better than you did.

It wasn’t like today, where you’re struggling in your seemingly crappy job trying to make ends meet, and the family next door is getting a new Lexus and going overseas every year. It doesn’t matter that they’re buried in credit card debt and that behind closed doors they’re deeply unhappy, because all you see is the surface.

The truth of this trait becomes apparent when we look at a very old piece of literature. The people that bound together the collection of stories we know as the bible recognised this trait in humans, and addressed it in the tenth commandment: thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife. As with everything in the bible, it’s not meant to be taken literally, because if you wanted to be less eloquent you’d write it as thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, his belongings, his career, his skills, his life, or anything else that he has that you wish you had.

I find it incredible that thousands of years ago, before people had anything but the most basic existence, that the wise among them already knew that looking too much at what other people had was a trigger for the malevolence buried deep within us to come out and wreak havoc upon our psyches.

In our current environment, this trait amplifies itself because we once had a clear sense of everyone around us. Now, we don’t. Instead of having insight into our neighbour’s life, we now see a curated stream on social media. Brett Weinstein made the point that we see the lives of celebrities and we want them so badly, not realising that none of it is real.

I think the effect is even more profound, however, when we look at our friends, family and coworkers. Celebrities are entirely unrelatable to us and always have been. The people around us though? They’re just like us, so when we see them doing “better” than us — and that’s all we see, it makes us crazy. We ask ourselves questions like “how can they afford that? Why did she get that promotion? And the worst of all, why do they have so many more followers than me?”

We look at the highlights of their life, but don’t dig any deeper to realise that they have just as many problems as we do, possibly more. Social media is a particularly egregious offender, because not only is it a highlight reel of someone’s life, it’s often a complete fabrication. I’ve met a couple of Instagram famous people who seem to live the most charmed of lives, but the reality is that they’re basket cases off camera and don’t earn anywhere near what people think they do. So while you struggle through your day, wondering why your life sucks so much in comparison to everyone else, you may well be doing far better than the person you idolise.

I believe this causes us so much psychological and emotional distress because of another one of our biological traits, our hunting instinct. We aim at our target, and we focus on that until we get it. This happens both in the literal sense of hunting of an animal, but also in the sense of us having goals we want to achieve. We’re the only species on the planet that understands the concept of time, the future and the fact that we can sacrifice in the present to get what we want later.

It’s also hard wired into our biology. Whenever we accomplish steps on the path to a goal, our brain rewards us with dopamine so we feel good and keep chasing after it. So we see others with the things that we have, and all our attention becomes focused on that. And because we don’t have it, we keep pursuing it without knowing why, making ourselves miserable in the process.

While this offered us an evolutionary advantage out in the wild, for life in the city it is psychologically catastrophic. If you’re living in the Western world and are lower middle class or better, you have a higher standard of living than even the richest people a few hundred years ago. Literally everything in your life is better, but because your eyes are so fixed on a target — the things that you don’t have, you begin to feel as though your life is unjust, that the world is unfair and that everything sucks.

So what’s the antidote to this? The gratitude journal is something that comes to mind because it’s been recommended a lot over the past couple of years by podcasters, Silicon Valley executive types and even philosophers, and I believe it’s effective because it acts as a direct psychological counter to what has been programmed by nature in our minds.

When you engage in a gratitude journal, you force yourself to stop looking forward with blinders on at the things you don’t have, and instead expand your sight outward to everything you do have in your life. It’s like a manual override to your natural programming. It’s amazing how quickly all of the little things that you really love about your life come to the forefront of your mind and you realise how good you actually have it.

I think perspective also forms an important part of this. Career and status is a driving force for so many of us, because it’s what our society and our biology tells us that we should have. It’s a message that’s very difficult to get away from, because even if you don’t watch a lot of television or consume a lot of media, you’re still reminded every day at work due to the fact that you’re in a dominance hierarchy.

Let’s face it though, even in your dream job, what makes you truly happy? What puts a smile on your face? Maybe an award that you received, maybe a joke someone made. Really though, the great moments and memories from our lives rarely come from work. I think of all the things that make me happy or satisfied in my life and it suddenly becomes clear that career angst is a waste of time, because none of it requires a great deal of money or status.

I’d wager it’s much the same for most people, and as long as you have a job that you don’t hate and provides enough for these activities, you can shift your perspective to focus on them rather than your place in the social structure, or the fabricated images that people want you to believe is their life.

Finally, I think it’s also incredibly worthwhile to read accounts of people whose lives are so much worse than yours are. Nothing gave me a bigger wake up call than when I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed. That was like a slap of reality to the face that everything about my life has been pretty damned great. Likewise watching a documentary called Queen Victoria’s Slum, about the working class in late 19th century England made me feel unbelievable lucky to have been born in such a prosperous country in a prosperous time.

At the end of the day, our lives are so much better than we think, but our biology is still tricking us into believing that we’re failures just because we aren’t at the top of the hierarchy. It’s hard to overwrite that kind of programming, because it’s been advantageous to us as a species for millions of years. The consequence of not being able to recognise and counteract this programming, however, is a life wasted thinking that we’re somehow not good enough.

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I write about career, performance, psychology, self development and business humour. I'm an author, former national competitor in judo and strongman and a former military instructor.

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