Choosing what we care about
What we do not care about does not affect us. That gives us a kind of superpower to be happier, which we don’t always use as much as we could
An unexpected bonus, the person we want to spend the rest of our life with saying ‘yes’, the soccer team we support winning the title, a stranger letting us join an interminable traffic queue with a smile — these are some of the many things that make us feel good. On the other hand, losing our job, noticing our child is missing on the beach, the train breaking down in the middle of nowhere in the blazing sun, or dad who has forgotten our birthday yet again — all examples of what might make us unhappy. There is a wide range of things that can influence our mood, positively or negatively. But despite the fact that we intuitively understand this, we cannot really measure the inherent potential of an event or situation to affect us. Does its power to do so lie entirely in our own perception?
How we feel about the world around us has, as so many things in our cognition and our behaviour, its origins in evolution. In order to survive and pass on its genes, an organism must be able to detect whether a particular condition is beneficial to it, or detrimental. An organism that cannot distinguish between a nutritious environment and a toxic one, or between safety and threat will not survive for long, and one that cannot tell a potential mate from an inanimate object will not produce much offspring. The state that arises from evaluating an option as beneficial in these terms attracts us to it, or induces us to stay where things are good; the state that arises from judging an option as detrimental repels us and induces us to move, or stay away. These positive and negative states are the profound evolutionary roots of our happy and unhappy emotions, and we still respond to them in much the same way as our most distant ancestors.
Many of the things that, today, make us happy or unhappy can still be traced back to their ability to ensure our survival, our prosperity, and the persistence of our genetic material. A bonus means more resources, which can help us with all three, losing our job means fewer resources, diminishing our capability in all…