First, we need to look at how happiness evolved.
The evolution of temporary happiness (pleasure):
When we engage in short-term behaviours that benefit us or our species, such as eating, having sex, or playing (playing is good for us because it hones skills) we are rewarded immediately with pleasure. That pleasure reward is evolution’s way of persuading us to engage in those behaviours.
The evolution of core happiness:
We are also rewarded when we engage in beneficial ongoing behaviours. But ongoing behaviours cannot be rewarded with instantaneous pleasure, so they are rewarded with ongoing pleasure: a relaxed, general feeling of wellbeing: core happiness. Core happiness is the incentive, and reward, for engaging in beneficial ongoing behaviours.
What would those ongoing behaviours be?
Here is one: living in a tribe. In prehistory, hominids (our early human ancestors, long before we became human) that were born with an inclination to live in a tribe were more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes. (Those who didn’t live in tribes were more likely to starve or be eaten.)
What would keep us inclined to live in a tribe?
Having a need to be with one another – to feel connected with one another. That need kept us in groups. Some people call it ‘the deep need to belong’. When we satisfy that need we are rewarded with core happiness. When we don’t satisfy that need we feel isolated, unsettled, even anxious. That’s evolution’s way of nudging us to change the situation.
We examine that need in my other book, The Umpteen Ways to Satisfy Our Deep Need to Belong.
Another ongoing innate need.
Although we evolved a need to live in a tribe, at times we also had to leave the safety of the tribe to hunt, or to explore our environment for new resources.
With too much anxiety we would be too afraid to leave the safety of the tribe, and we’d starve. With too little anxiety we would take too many risks, and soon die. To get the right balance we need to feel frightened in a scary situation yet feel we can handle it. When we achieve that balance we are again rewarded with core happiness.
How do we get that balance?
Consider pygmy twins: one is raised to hunt spiders, snakes and crocodiles; the other is raised to avoid them.
Which twin do you think will grow up competent and confident, and as a result, happier? Which twin will grow up anxious and unhappy?
I claim that the twin who learns how to handle those dangers, rather than avoid them, will become the happier of the two. The twin avoiding those creatures won’t learn how to handle anxiety, or life itself, and as a consequence will become unhappy. Which means: the best way to feel safe in life is not to avoid scary situations, but to learn how to handle them.
‘A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.’
Many of us in this safe, comfortable western society learn (like our anxious pygmy) to fear our environment, because we don’t get the opportunity to discover that we can handle life. Then it becomes easy to be anxious, even over trivial things. And it’s harder to be happy, because we are not getting that evolutionary reward for feeling capable.
Our society could be fostering unhappiness. Some children are not allowed to climb trees, or walk to school alone, or do anything that might be considered risky. So, they don’t learn how to handle situations, or to handle their fears. Instead, they learn how to avoid them, and that’s a recipe for anxiety.
Every day we experience fears: the fear of failure, of rejection, of looking stupid, the fear that our dinner will get cold — a myriad of fears. We can reduce those fears by developing the feeling that whatever happens, we can handle it.
‘I can handle failure. I can handle rejection. I can handle looking stupid. I can handle my dinner getting cold.’
If you feel you can handle those things you are not going to fear them, are you? In her book, Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway, Susan Jeffers points out that we only fear what we think we can’t handle. The trick then to reducing our fear is not to avoid the things that scare us, but to learn how to handle them.
‘Peace is not only in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. Peace is in the midst of things as they are, when there is calm in your heart. That is the real meaning of peace.’
This book is not about helping a person deal with anxiety; it’s about helping a person to not become anxious in the first place. It’s about reducing our capacity to become anxious. It’s about satisfying that ongoing innate need to feel that whatever happens in life we can handle it.
It’s about developing resilience.
Our reward? Core happiness.
Happiness and resilience.
Let us not confuse resilience with stoicism, or toughness.
A resilient person might endure hardship, but will recover. That’s what resilience means: having the capacity to recover from hardship. A resilient person might express their pain by talking about it; they might cry; they might express so much emotion it scares the pants off the rest of us. But they recover.
A stoic, or tough person can endure hardship without revealing their pain. That stoicism doesn’t mean the person can bounce back afterwards and recover. It doesn’t mean the person is resilient.
A man might be stoic his entire life. He might endure hardship and worry, day after day after day, desperately hiding his pain, believing that if he were to reveal his suffering he would be seen as weak and unworthy, and would be letting himself down, his father down, his grandfather down, his family down, his manhood down . . . and in that ‘weakness’ he would feel shame so damning, so overwhelming, it would split his world apart.
At least, that’s how it feels to him. That’s the threat. And so, this poor man continues to hold in his pain, day after day after day until one day, mercifully, he dies of natural causes.
‘He was a tough man,’ they might say. ‘A hard worker. Never complained. There aren’t many men like him left.’
Or, he doesn’t die. Instead, one day he cracks. He suffers a breakdown no one sees coming. ‘What happened?’ they ask. ‘He seemed to be coping. Who would have thought?’
Or, he doesn’t die. Wonderfully, he seeks help, and gets it. In his growth he not only gets to flourish, he gets to keep his stoicism. But this time his stoicism comes not from his ability to hide his pain, but from his ability to deal with it. He has become resilient.
Stoicism is good to have. We don’t want to burst into tears in awkward circumstances. But if we develop resilience (the ability to deal with our pain and return to normal afterwards) we develop stoicism as well. Why? Because knowing that we will recover from the pain makes that pain easier to bear. That makes us stoic.
Not everyone who cries and talks about their pain is resilient. It is not the ability to express our pain that make us resilient, it’s the ability to deal with our pain. Expressing it is just one way to deal with it.
Further, a person resilient in one area of their life might not be resilient in another. That’s why someone physically resilient, as tough as wombat stew, might not be emotionally resilient. And vice versa.
In the following chapters I have the enormous pleasure of presenting to you what deep down you already know: the umpteen keys to resilience.
Q. ‘Are there other ongoing innate needs we need to satisfy to be happy?’
Yep. You might already be satisfying the other ongoing innate needs. The need discussed in this book – to feel that we can handle life – is one of the big ones, and one many people lack.
Q. ‘If I apply the umpteen keys when will I notice a change?’
In a year or two. Perhaps more. I don’t know.
The keys to resilience aren’t snappy catch phrases that sound good but drift away in the next breeze. It’s real stuff. You don’t turn an aircraft-carrier around in five minutes, and you are not going to change your life in five minutes.
‘But two years?!’
Don’t let that put you off. Those two years will come quickly enough. Imagine if you had started two years ago?
‘But two years?!’
It depends on how long it takes you to adopt each key. On an intellectual level you might find it easy to believe the precepts presented, but for you to fully believe them, for them to become an integral part of the way you live your life, it will take time.
‘Two years is too long.’
Ask yourself that in two years time. Anyway, you might already be applying most of the keys to resilience, in which case, you’re halfway there.
You won’t notice the changes happening, but one day you will look back and see that you have changed. You will see that you have created a more confident, accountable person. You will gauge your happiness and see that your effort has been rewarded.
The changes you will be making don’t rely on willpower, but on awareness. That can’t be a bad thing to have in life anyway.
Q. ’If I apply the umpteen keys to resilience, how much will I increase my core happiness?’
Enough to be pleased with the difference. To expect a huge change in your happiness levels would be unrealistic.
Recall a time when you were elated: you won a contest, or you just received a promotion. Now, would you hope or expect to maintain that feeling throughout your everyday life?
Imagine you are outside playing a game, but it’s nippy. You want to enjoy yourself but keep being reminded of the cold. If it were just a couple of degrees warmer you could forget about the chill and enjoy yourself. A small change could make a big difference. Or, think of a cup of coffee. The difference between a cup of coffee and a great cup of coffee can depend on a just few drops of milk. Again, a little thing can make a big difference.
In the same way, if you can increase your core happiness even a little, your life will change significantly.
Ready? Let’s go.