Failing to Find Lasting Happiness? Blame Your Brain

We’re obsessed with the idea of happiness. It’s engrained in our cultural DNA and codified in our Constitution. But for a bunch of people in dogged pursuit of happiness, we’re failing miserably.

More than ever, we’re anxious, depressed, unfulfilled, empty, or whatever else. We’re the opposite of happy. This is especially true in modern workplace where things like emerging technologies and increasingly competitive markets are placing strain on employee and organizational performance. One recent report found that 16 percent of people report that their jobs are a constant source of anxiety, depression, and other mental health symptoms.

It’s no fault for trying: We want to be happy, and we truly believe that the decisions we make on a day-to-day basis are good for our well-being. But we’re missing the mark on happiness. In fact, we’re aiming for the completely wrong target.

So what gives?

Psychology and neuroscience can explain.

Our evolved brains didn’t care about happiness. They only cared about fitness and survival: selfish genetic responses preprogrammed to play the game of replication. Survival, as it turns out, is completely antithetical to happiness.

Much of it comes down to our motivation, or, why we do the things we do.

Our brain misplaces motivation.

If our decisions and actions are a car, then motivation is the fuel that moves the car. The evolved brain playing the game of survival uses the fuel of extrinsic motivation. It tricks us into thinking that we want things that are of greater extrinsic value, rather than intrinsic. It causes us to mis-want things.

Extrinsic motivation has us doing things to receive an outcome that is outside ourselves. It involves tangible rewards and reinforcements that are more transactional in nature.Being directly observable and more immediate, our brains get a hit of dopamine each time an extrinsic reward is delivered to us. But these experiences are fleeting because dopaminergic activation subsides quickly in the brain.

The evolved brain craves more and more, never really feeling happy or content with the current situation. It’s a similar neural mechanistic loop that’s involved in addictions.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is a more long-lasting fuel source. It drives our behaviors with interests that are internal to ourselves. And despite being intangible and more abstract in nature (something the brain doesn’t like), these motivations are necessary for sustainable happiness and well-being in the modern world.

Indeed, extrinsic motivation is a happiness killer. In one classic study, psychologists found that if you give an external reward (i.e., extrinsic) to a person for completing an activity that was previously enjoyed for its own value (i.e., intrinsic), it actually decreases the likelihood that a person will want to engage in that activity in the future.

This holds true for prosocial behaviors as well. Most of us are intrinsically motivated to help others. But as soon as you offer an extrinsic reward for altruistic acts, it decreases a person’s willingness to offer help in the future. This is even the case for babies as young as 20 months.

It makes you wonder whether certain workplace processes are effective means of getting the best out of a person. Many of our systems are there to deliver extrinsic rewards, nothing else. Yet the findings are clear: These are guaranteed to a) limit the very behavior we’re wanting more of, and b) thwart lasting states of happiness.

Fixes for finding the right motivation.

Here are two exercises you can do to ensure your motivations are aligned to states of new-age happiness, not evolved-brain survival.

One is to draw up a table and dissect your day-to-day behaviors. List out the typical decisions you make, the behaviors you engage in, etc. Beside each one, list the reasoning for why you do it. Label and/or categorize the “why” into either extrinsic or intrinsic.

Which do you have more of? Are the majority of your behaviors extrinsically or intrinsically motivated? Moving forward, set an intention to make adjustments so that you create opportunity for more intrinsically motivated behaviors. Initiate small changes and monitor your happiness levels.

The second one is good for managers and team leads. Your role as a manager should be to cultivate intrinsic motivation in yourself and your team. This means assigning certain projects to certain people, and being strategic in how you coordinate the collective to-dos among people.

You could also grant more freedom for people to explore opportunities that they find engaging or interesting. First step here is finding out what your employees actually enjoy doing.

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