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 and our species, such as eating, having sex or playing (playing is good for us because it hones our skills) we are immediately rewarded with pleasure. That pleasure 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; instead they are rewarded with a milder, ongoing pleasure. It’s the relaxed, general feeling of wellbeing mentioned earlier: core happiness. Core happiness is evolution’s incentive, and reward, for engaging in beneficial ongoing behaviours.
‘What are those ongoing behaviours?’
Living in a tribe is one ongoing behaviour. In prehistory, hominids 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 a tribe were more likely to starve or be eaten.) This would be a trait going way back, because many mammals have evolved to live in groups.
‘What would keep us inclined to live in a tribe?’
The need to be with one another (to feel connected with one another) keeps us in groups. Some people refer to it as ‘the deep need to belong’. When we satisfy that need we are rewarded with core happiness, and when we don’t satisfy it we feel isolated and unsettled, even anxious.
Another ongoing innate need.
Although we evolved a need to live in tribes, at times we also had to leave the safety of the tribe to hunt or 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 die. To get the right balance we need to feel frightened in a dangerous situation yet feel we can handle it. When we achieve that balance we are again rewarded with core happiness.
‘How do we achieve 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 do you think will grow up anxious and unhappy?
I claim that the twin who learns how to handle those dangers, rather than avoid them, will most likely become the happier of the two. The twin who avoids those creatures will not learn how to handle anxiety, or life itself, and as a consequence will tend to suffer stress and unhappiness. That means: the best way to feel safe in life is not to avoid scary situations, but to learn how to handle them. As Helen Keller says, ‘A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.’
Many of us in this relatively 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 it. It becomes easy to be anxious, even over trivial things. Equally, it’s harder to be happy, because we are not getting that evolutionary reward for feeling capable.
We could, unwittingly, be fostering unhappiness. An increasing number of city children are not allowed to climb trees, walk to school alone, or do anything that might be considered risky. So, they don’t learn how to handle situations or 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, that our dinner will get cold — a myriad of fears. We can reduce those fears by developing our belief 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 of things that scare us is not to avoid the things, 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.” (Author unknown)
This book is not about helping you deal with anxiety; it’s about helping you to not become anxious in the first place. It’s about reducing our capacity to become anxious, and satisfying that ongoing innate need to feel that whatever happens in life we can handle it. That’s 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. Resilient people might express their pain by talking about it; they might cry and 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 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, 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, his family and 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, he continues to conceal his pain, day after day until finally, mercifully, he dies of natural causes. ‘He was a tough man,’ his friends might say. ‘A hard worker. Never complained. There aren’t many men like him left.’
Or, he doesn’t die. Instead, 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. He not only flourishes, but he keeps his stoicism. This time, however, his stoicism comes not from his ability to hide his pain, but from his ability to deal with it. He has become resilient.
Of course, a degree of stoicism is good to have. For example, we don’t want to burst into tears in awkward circumstances. However, if we develop resilience (the feeling that whatever happens, we’ll handle it) we tend to 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 may not be resilient in another. For example, someone who is physically resilient, as tough as wombat stew, may not be emotionally resilient. Or vice versa.
‘Are there other ongoing innate needs?’
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.
‘If I apply the umpteen keys when will I notice a change?
It may take a year or two, perhaps more.
The keys to resilience aren’t snappy catch phrases that are applied in five minutes. You will need to absorb their lessons gradually and apply them consistently over time. You don’t turn an ocean liner around in five minutes, and you are not going to change your life in five minutes.
‘But two years?!’
Those two years will come quickly. Also, it depends on how long it takes you to adopt each key. On an intellectual level you might easily grasp the precepts presented, but it will take time for you to fully believe them and for them to become an integral part of the way you live your life.
‘Two years is too long.’
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 – a useful quality to possess in life.
’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 complete transformation in your happiness levels may be unrealistic.
Recall a time when you were elated: you won a contest or just received a promotion. Would you hope or expect to maintain that feeling throughout your everyday life? No!
Now 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 regular cup of coffee and a great cup of coffee can depend on a 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 whole life will change significantly.
Ready? Let’s start.