What do you do when every traffic light you approach turns red when you’re running late? And when gloomy weather and rain accompany you on your island holiday? When an injury robs you of your dream to become a top athlete, do you despair? Will you curse at your bad luck and cry at your misfortune? If you do, you are only human. Bad luck is responsible for so much misery and melancholy that one may wonder if it is the devil itself in disguise. What is perplexing, though, is not why bad luck exists but why people let it play with their emotions at will. If there is nothing you can do about red lights and rain, why fret over it? Why let the ‘devil’ drain your energy and spoil your mood when such reactions are futile? The red light won’t listen to your complaints and treat you better next time; the rain will not ask your permission on your next holiday because you wallowed in its wake. So why do it?
No one really knows for certain why we pointlessly despair at bad luck. One reason could be that we anthropomorphize the harbingers of bad luck – such as the red light and the rain –, irrationally believing that that they act with intention. Maybe we believe that it is not the red light or the rain but some anthropomorphic higher power that causes traffic lights and rain to terrorize us with unrepentant glee; some people call this higher power, “God.” Since ages immemorial, people have tried to cajole gods in order to control luck, believing that they can somehow influence it; even humans have been sacrificed in the belief that such sacrifices of the highest order may please the gods – synonymous for luck – that control the weather, among other things. But has it really worked? Did the sacrificed humans really bestow good luck upon their murderous civilizations? Evidence clearly points to the negative: the very civilizations that sacrificed humans were wiped out by famine and disease and it was not much different for civilizations that did not sacrifice anything at all. Why? It is because our creator – or god if you want to call it that – has no power over luck and does not care for us anyway because it has no mind or heart to care.
It is common knowledge now that our creator is no other than natural selection, which is based on random mutation – a completely chance-based incident. Natural selection is apathetic about human suffering and happiness; it operates objectively – coldly, you could say – and does not base its decisions on mood or volition like the typical ‘God’ supposedly does. However, through pure accident, it has endowed us with the capability for both suffering and happiness. Robert Wright, an evolutionary biologist, echoes this thought in The Moral Animal by calling natural selection the logical and unconscious mechanism behind our behaviors that, unfortunately, does not care for our happiness. In fact, lots of our behaviors, such as status-seeking and competition that are beneficial for our genetic success also bring us suffering and misery. He even goes as far as calling suffering an adaptive trait, without which we wouldn’t engage in behaviors that propagate our genes into future generations.
As most of our behaviors, if not all, were carefully selected by natural selection, it is very likely that our futile reactions to back luck also have an evolutionary basis. These reactions may be a by-product of a more obviously adaptive and evolutionarily beneficial trait such as the ability to recognize that others are acting with intention. If other people do something that we do not like then we get angry at them, thus reducing the chance that they will do the same again. This same tendency is likely to be at work when we fume at the red light, at rain, or any other unfortunate vehicle of bad luck that is beyond our control. Thus, this originally adaptive trait has not found its proper boundary yet. However, as humans, we have another unique trait that gives us the capability to overcome the misuse of this trait.
Natural selection has imbued us with such complex mental organs that we do not come quite as pre-programmed as most animals do and, therefore, have the greatest free will in the animal kingdom. Free will proved to be so fruitful in giving humans the capability to adapt to changing environments in the past that it was naturally selected. Ironically, and, fortunately, we now have so much free will that we are capable of acting in ways that have little to do with genetic success and more to do with other goals such as happiness that might be antithetical to genetic success. Importantly, using our free will, we can also correct the errors of natural selection such as misplaced anger at inanimate objects and futile frustration at bad luck. Simply by recognizing that we are acting irrationally, we can relax instead of explode at red lights and rain by exercising our free will.
However, while being aware and alleviating our frustrations might be relative easy to do when it comes to trivial things such as red lights, when certain uncontrollable incidents have devastating impacts on our lives – such as a career-ending injury to a professional athlete, the loss of a house due to a natural disaster – a flood of emotions completely swamp our rationality such that free will becomes impotent. During times of extreme bad luck when the things we cherish the most are taken away from us, we are simply unable to stave off emotions that drown out any sense of objectivity. It often happens that when non-believers encounter an extremely traumatic crisis that changes their entire life-course, they surrender to “God.” They refuse to believe that the traumatic event was random, a concoction of cold luck, because such a meaningful event in their life surely could not have come from a meaningless source.
Despite abundant free will, humans are nonetheless restricted by certain biological predispositions. For example, we cannot be happy just by wanting to be happy; we cannot will happiness. So many feelings stir in the subconscious that even when conditions are fertile for happiness, we can be constantly hassled by undercurrents that unconsciously drag us into melancholy. These feelings are remnants of natural selection: these same feelings that conspire against our happiness prompt us to behave unwittingly in ways that further our genetic interests. The ‘selfish gene’ keeps sabotaging our happiness.
According to evolutionary biologists, emotion, the very thing that makes us lose control of ourselves, is the favorite weapon of natural selection. It is through emotion that natural selection commands us to fulfill its purpose of furthering the interest of our genes. And sometimes, despite our conscious intentions, we are helpless against our commander and we simply obey, even when we know that obeying is wrong and even when we know that obeying will lead us to misery.
Emotions such as frustration and disappointment do evolutionary deeds in our genetic interest much better than our cognitions – thinking – can. While feelings evolved to keep us in line with evolutionary success, thinking evolved to deal with the here and now – to adjust to changing environments. This means that thinking, by going against feeling, has the potential to lead humans astray from the path of evolutionary success. Just like evolution can get in the way of happiness, thinking can get in the way of evolution. However, this may not always be a bad thing. The goal of natural selection does not have to be our own life goal. Evolution is random, purposeless, and meaningless but this does not mean that our life has to be purposeless and meaningless. Our interests might be very different from the interest of our genes. So, which interest do we give priority to? Our own interest, of course, because fulfilling our interests gives us satisfaction and meaning while our genes, which do not have a conscious mind of their own, do not really care if their interests are looked after or not. They are there simply by chance and they could care less if they disappeared by chance. Emotion is a tool designed to further the interest of our genes and cognition has the potential to further our interests. Thinking has the potential to steer us in a direction that ‘we’ deem worthy, so we have to utilize our thinking to get to a goal that we set for ourselves such as happiness – of self and of others.
With thinking, we can become more aware of what we are feeling and why we are feeling the way we are. And by being aware of our feelings that are unproductive and averse to our happiness, we may eventually learn to control them even if we fail to do so the first few – or even more than few – times as emotions are often more powerful motivators than cognitions. Even though thinking might lose its battles against feeling, it has the potential to eventually win the war.
This, of course, is not to say that all thinking is good and all feeling is bad. After all, happiness is a feeling and not a thought. Thus, the function of thinking is to nurture ‘good’ feelings and conquer the ‘bad’ and wasteful ones. We cannot consciously produce feelings but we can consciously produce thoughts. By producing enough good thoughts we can create a mental landscape which is favorable to positive emotions and averse to negative ones. A gardener cannot fully control which plants grow in a garden – many weeds simply appear – but by nurturing the right plants and regularly cutting the troublesome ones, she can create a beautiful garden. Therefore, just as the gardener is aware of which plants are good for her garden and learns with practice how to control the unwanted plants, we, too, by being aware of our feelings and learning to nurture the good feelings and curtail the bad ones, can create a happy life.
The greatest happiness-inducing cognitive gift we have is optimism, a ‘good’ thought to shape our mental landscape with. Optimism is simply exercising free will to think positively when presented with a choice of reacting positively or negatively. Every situation in life presents us with this choice: will you suffer or will you be optimistic? Our instinct – through feelings – makes the right choice for us when things go our way by making us cheerful but makes the wrong choice when things don’t by making us miserable. However, we can correct this wrong choice by simply calling forth our gift of optimism. Being human is reacting instinctively to bad luck with frustration but, at the same time, being human is also realizing that you’re only making yourself unnecessarily unhappy by doing so and then deciding to be optimistic. That sums up what being a human is: an instinctual animal with the ability to exercise free will and correct its instincts – to a degree – in the attainment of higher goals such as happiness.
In the modern world, a hectic lifestyle brings with it many opportunities to suffer bad luck, from malfunctioning alarm clocks to broken dreams and everything in between. In other words, we are constantly presented with a choice to despair or to remain optimistic. In the end, happiness is more or less a simple count of the number of times you choose to be optimistic minus the number of times you suffer disappointment every time you encounter bad luck or failure. Therein lies the human potential for happiness.