The Real Cause of Unhappiness

The real cause of unhappiness
Unhappiness comes from fear. There are two main fears: the fear of not having enough, and the fear of not being enough.7 If you think about it, it makes sense. All the worries about money, job security, possessions, bigger houses, and power come from the fear of not having enough. The worries about what other people think, not being loved, not being able to do something well, or getting fired come from the fear of not being enough.

But why is fear such a huge part of our lives? By world standards, we are incredibly well off, so why are we still afraid of not having enough? And we were obviously good enough to get as far as we are, so why are we still afraid of not being enough? Where does all this fear come from?

The answer is in the structure of the brain. The brain stem, which we share with lizards, is the part with the fight/flight/freeze response. Our ancestors needed this part for the dangerous situations they encountered before we all started building houses and living safe, cushy lives indoors. If a big, hungry animal is after you, you don’t have time to ponder, you need the fear instinct to kick in with fight, flee, or freeze, immediately! This reaction is out of place in modern life, when the most dangerous thing most of us face is probably a stapler, but we still have the brain stem looking at everything with fear, because that’s what it’s built for.

In addition to the brain stem, we also have the amygdala, which we share with other mammals. The amygdala stores all of our bad memories and looks for patterns of things to be afraid of. Again, this was handy when people needed to notice the rustle of grass that meant a tiger was stalking, but not so great in the cubicle farm, especially since the amygdala triggers the endocrine system to release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. You need these hormones if you’re running from a tiger, but in modern life, they mostly just make you more likely to have a heart attack.

These two parts of the brain do the fear processing. Basically, they generate unhappiness. Luckily, we don’t have let them rule our lives—we have other brain parts that can override them.