Evolution and the Negativity Bias

“We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones.” -Robert Wright

The human brain evolved over millions of years through natural selection to keep us alive in order to transmit our genes to the next generation. From an evolutionary perspective, that is the not-so-inspiring meaning of life — gene (and species) survival.

This is the reason our minds tend to dwell more on negative thoughts and emotions than positive. We have a built-in negativity bias, which is designed to make us more vigilant against potential threats to survival. Historically, it was better to be on high-alert, despite continuous stress, than dead.

But much of the world no longer faces actual daily threats to survival (particularly those in developed countries). Unfortunately, the “software” running on our brain has not yet caught up to this reality. Rather, our brains unconsciously misperceive everyday challenges as potentially dire, triggering much more stress in our lives than necessary.

The question is, if we’re competing against millions of years of evolution, is it possible to somehow reprogram our brain for less negativity and greater happiness and wisdom?

Brain Structure: Our Outdated “Hardware”

“Positive thoughts and emotions are like Teflon, while negative thoughts and emotions are like Velcro”. –Rick Hanson

It’s helpful to understand how the structure, or “hardware”, of our brain helps promote the negativity bias. In short, and in a useful oversimplification, the brain can be divided into three main parts:

1. The Reptile (Instinctual) Brain: the oldest part, which we share with our reptile ancestors. It is unconscious and instinctual, and controls basic, automatic functions like respiration, digestion, heart rate, and transmits information between the brain and body through the spinal cord.

2. The Mammal (Emotional) Brain: also known as the limbic system, and located near the center of the brain, is the second oldest component, arising with the first mammals about 200 million years ago. It supports various functions including emotion, memory formation, motivation, and it relays sensory information throughout the brain.

3. The Primate (Thinking) Brain: also known as the cerebral cortex, is the newest and largest part of the brain, which we share with other primates. It is responsible for or plays a major role in cognition, consciousness, memory, perception, language, rationality, and executive function.

These structures evolved sequentially, one on top of the other, each making us more sophisticated than the last. But the older structures still hold great influence over us. As psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, the Primate brain relative to the older Mammal and Reptile brain structures is like a rider on top of an elephant. The rationality and executive function of the rider is often overwhelmed by the powerful emotion and instinct of the elephant.

This can be problematic because the elephant, namely the amygdala and HPA axis within it, is responsible for triggering our fight or flight response, which causes the release of stress hormones into our body when we perceive a threat. This is the root of our negativity bias.

The elephant has other advantages over the rider, including:

· It’s faster: The elephant receives sensory input from the outside world (through the five senses) faster than the rider, allowing it to signal a threat and activate a stress response before the rider is even aware of the incoming information. So, our stress response always has a head start on our thinking mind.

· It works undercover: Even when the rider thinks its being entirely rational, it’s actually always communicating with the elephant at an unconscious level. And the elephant is always slipping emotional and instinctual content into our seemingly rational thoughts, outside of our awareness.

This isn’t to completely malign the elephant, which is also responsible for many vital functions and positive emotions like affection and compassion. Even our so-called negative emotions deserve much credit for getting us to this point evolutionarily. Stress, to a significant degree, confers important benefits — ramping us up for important meetings and deadlines at work, responding to an injured child, or escaping a catastrophic weather event — as examples. In short, the stress response gives us the motivation, energy, and courage to face challenges.

But the problem is:

1. Our stress response too often overshoots the mark, going beyond what’s truly necessary in the moment, because it can’t tell the difference between a real threat and an emotional threat, and

2. In our modern world, we’re bombarded with stimuli that trigger too many false positives — stress responses that aren’t truly necessary given the actual circumstances.

In summary, our brain’s ancient hardware, as miraculous as it is, is a blunt instrument relative to the modern world. But perhaps we’ve reached a remarkable place in history, where modern science can help guide us in evolving ourselves, in a sense, to recalibrate our brains to a less threatening world. This is not to advocate for the end of all stress, but for the ability to see things clearly for what they really are and modulate ourselves accordingly. In that vein, we need to understand the building blocks of happiness so that we can properly chart a course.

The Happiness Continuum

Happiness: “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.” — Sonja Lyubomirsky

People’s general level of happiness or unhappiness lies on a continuum. Psychological scientists attribute this variability to 3 main factors — genetics, life circumstances, and our own intentional activities. Studies have narrowed in on these three factors and found that:

· About 50% of our happiness level is caused by our genes. We’re actually born with a genetic happiness set-point, based on some combination of our parents’ genes, that tends to be consistent throughout life.

· Surprisingly, only about 10% or our happiness can be attributed to our life circumstances (i.e.: race, gender, geography, wealth, popularity, career success, beauty, etc.).

· The remaining 40% results from our own intentional activities, meaning our deliberate thoughts and behaviors.

This gives us helpful insight into how we can modify our lives to increase happiness. We can’t change our genetic make-up, but we can influence our life circumstances and intentional activities, to some degree, which can help offset a lower genetic set-point. The key is knowing where to focus most of our energy.

Suggestion: Get Off the Hedonic Treadmill

“All we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” -Buddha

Westerners, especially in the US, have been conditioned to believe that happiness primarily results from moving up the ladder of life’s circumstances — more money, power, prestige, popularity, fame, nicer things, better looks, and so on. Scientists call these image-related goals extrinsic rewards, and have found in study after study that they do not lead to lasting happiness.

In fact, chasing extrinsic rewards can lead to disillusionment. Upon reaching these goals after much striving, we often find that the promised satisfaction quickly fades, or never arrives at all. Instead, our achievement is no sooner forgotten and replaced by a new extrinsic goal, the next rung on the ladder.

Scientist have coined the term hedonic adaptation (aka the hedonic treadmill) to explain this phenomenon. We quickly adapt to changes in our environment, good or bad. A great new job, house, or love interest can cause a short-term spike in happiness, but eventually we get used to the change and gravitate back to our genetic happiness set-point. Similarly, negative life events, like job-loss and even permanent injury, have amazingly little long-term impact relative to our happiness set-point. This probably evolved to prevent complacency and promote resiliency — both crucial for survival.

But it follows that hedonic adaptation limits the ability of changes in our life circumstances to improve happiness. That’s not to say they don’t matter at all. Again, scientists believe circumstances are responsible for about 10% of the equation. It’s been found, for example, that people living above the poverty line tend to be happier than those below it. No surprise there. Yet, beyond reaching average household income, additional gains have very little impact on overall happiness, with happiness topping out around $75,000 per year, according to one prominent study. Surprise!

This implies that life circumstances are important to the extent that our basic needs, and some wants, are met — that we have enough. This is basically a foreign concept in our fast-paced culture of striving. Even when we pay lip-service to it, we’re often deluding ourselves nonetheless, vaguely aware that we’re keeping up with the Joneses (and stressing about it). And in fairness, it’s biologically and culturally programmed into us.

But the science shows that we really would be better off not craving and striving after the next extrinsic reward. So long as we’re not living day-to-day (worrying about how to get our next meal or pay our next bill), we’re already in a great position to be happy.

So, rather than focusing on extrinsic rewards, we’re wiser to concentrate on and cultivate how we think and act every day, moment to moment — our intentional activities, as they’ve been named by positive psychologists. Our lives are just a series of moments, the content of which is determined by where we place our attention, among countless possible choices. By choosing to engage in the right kinds of thoughts and behaviors, we gradually come to train our attention to more naturally and habitually reside on the happier end of the continuum. So, we can literally reverse-engineer, or reprogram, our own happiness. And in so doing, we find that we already have everything we need to be happy now.

Intentional activities have the power to rewire our neural pathways to create lasting changes to the software running on our brain’s ancient hardware, helping our newer primate brain (the rider) gain more awareness and control over the powerful emotions and instincts of our underlying mammal and reptile brains (the elephant).


“Neurons that fire together, wire together”. — Attributed to Donald Hebb

Over the last several decades, scientists have debunked the previously-held idea that our brains are fully developed by adulthood. Instead, the brain continually undergoes changes in its neural networks throughout our lives, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. Moreover, we can influence this rewiring through repeated, habitual thoughts and behaviors, a process known as activity-dependent plasticity.

But for new circuits to form and strengthen, repetition is key, because it takes recurrence of the activity stimulus to carve and maintain new pathways. This does not occur with the achievement of extrinsic goals, which happen at single points in time, the satisfaction of which, again, dissipates quickly due to hedonic adaptation. So, the key to leveraging intentional activities for greater happiness is repetition, and ultimately habituation. We also need to know which activities work best.

Intentional Activities

“I prefer to think of the creation or construction of happiness, because research shows it’s in our power to fashion it for ourselves.” -Sonja Lyubomirsky

Fortunately, scientists have discovered many of the most optimal activities that we can integrate into our lives to increase happiness. Here are 3 that I find particularly helpful and compelling, and that I’m trying to integrate more into my own life:

1. Meditation: There is mounting evidence that meditation is one of the best things you can do for your health and well-being. It’s essentially exercise for your brain, and like physical exercise is for the body, meditation has profound benefits for the mind. I won’t cover the how of meditation here, but you can check out the many great websites, articles, books, podcasts, and retreat centers throughout the US and world. The only brief note I’ll make is that there are many types of meditation — concentration meditation, insight (or mindfulness) meditation, compassion meditation, and both “dual” and “non-dual” forms, among others — which have different benefits. So, it’s helpful to do more research in this regard to find the right meditation practices for you.

Many neuroscientific studies have been conducted over the last 15 years and have shown numerous benefits, among the many types of meditation, including:

· Meta-Awareness: It promotes greater ability to dispassionately observe what’s going on in your mind — thoughts, feelings, perceptions — and how they interact to cause happiness or unhappiness.

· Attention Control: It trains and increases your power of attention and concentration, creating more focus and clarity in your mind.

· Emotional Regulation: It increases activity in your prefrontal cortex, allowing you to more quickly and clearly identify negative thoughts and emotions as they arise and pass in your mind without getting carried away or reacting to them. Instead you’re able to respond to situations more calmly and rationally.

· Decreased Stress Response: It has been shown to reduce activity in the amygdala, and limbic system generally, which decreases the frequency and magnitude of the stress response.

· Reduced Depression and Anxiety: It increases activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, which has been shown to increase positive thinking and reduce depression and anxiety.

· Reduced Negative Rumination: It reduces activity in the default mode network of your brain, which is responsible for mind wandering and negative self-rumination.

· Increased Health: It reduces inflammation and disease in the body, and increases life span.

In short, over time, meditation can literally rewire your brain. But again, the key, as with other brain changing habits, is repetition. Its not necessarily an easy habit to form, particularly in the beginning when you realize how difficult it can be to sit with your breath, thoughts, or other sensations, without your mind wandering off. But it gets easier with practice and is worth the effort. Meditation creates a great foundation for many other happiness-generating activities as well.

2. Cultivate Optimism: Much of our happiness is determined by the common narratives that play in our mind, or the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. For people who are more predisposed to the pessimistic side of this scale, deliberately cultivating a more optimistic mindset can make a huge difference. This doesn’t mean you have to bury your head in the sand. We can become realistic optimists, maintaining an accurate view of the world, while also choosing to look at the bright side, finding what’s right about a situation, and choosing to feel good about the present and future, rather than pessimistic. Cultivating optimism has many benefits, including:

· Reduced Stress: It reduces stress hormones in the body, increasing physical health and life span.

· Increased Happiness: It increases dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain, which increase happiness, energy, as well as courage in the face of challenges.

· Reduced Anxiety: It increases gray matter in the left orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, which corresponds with reduced anxiety.

As with meditation, there are many great resources on how to cultivate optimism, including Learned Optimism by positive psychologist Martin Seligman. Another scientifically validated method is to visualize or write about your Best Possible Self. Writing, in particular, also exercises the left side of your brain, which is more active in optimists than pessimists. Hacking your brain in this way (repeatedly) to generate more left hemisphere activity will cultivate a stronger neural network there, resulting in more natural optimism going forward. I understand these types of activities can feel corny to some in the beginning, but studies have shown results for many people.

3. Kindness & Generosity: There may be no better way to create your own happiness than, ironically, to focus on others more than yourself. Our survival instinct and negativity bias, because their goal is self-preservation, lead us to focus on ourselves most of the time. And the over-focus on and exaggeration of the self is one of the main causes of stress and unhappiness. This includes a more pronounced comparing, craving, conflict-oriented mind, and one that’s more prone to greed, hatred, anger, guilt, regret, confusion, and many other negative thoughts and emotions. Focusing instead on the happiness of others takes us outside of and reduces this inflated sense of self, and has many other benefits, including:

· Increased Positive Emotions: It increases the hormone oxytocin in the brain and body, which generates positive emotions, and reduces inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

· “Helper’s High”: It increases dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain that can result in a “helper’s high”.

· Increased Vitality: Generally, kindness and generosity have been found to increase happiness and energy, and decrease stress, anxiety, and depression.

· Ripple Effect: Kindness has a ripple effect that can spread many degrees of separation outward, and so even small gestures can have much wider impact than you think.

Kindness and generosity take many forms, most of which do not require any grand gestures, nor does the recipient even need to be aware. It just needs to be an intentional choice on our part (vs. something we feel forced or obligated to do) for it to have a positive effect on our minds. Perhaps the best form of generosity is simply to be completely present for another person, a surprisingly rare gift. There are many other resources out there to give you ideas and guidance, such as I Like Giving: The Transforming Power of a Generous Life, by Brad Formsma.

Other Strategies

There are many other intentional activities that have been found to increase happiness, which aren’t necessarily novel or surprising, including:

· Exercise

· Cultivating Flow experiences

· Practicing gratitude and/or “taking in the good

· Nurturing positive relationships

· Seeking experiences vs. things

· Spending time in nature

Some activities will be better fits for you than others, and it’s worth spending some time figuring that out. There are many great resources in this regard as well, including Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness.

It’s also important to be aware of your true intentions or motivations when performing any of these activities, which given our biological and cultural programming, can easily become more extrinsic reward-oriented if we’re not careful. Exercise can suddenly become motivated more by beauty, Flow more by career success, or meditation more by “spiritual attainments” or self-righteousness, than by the happiness of ourselves and others, for its own sake.

The bottom line is that incorporating some relatively simple and brief, but consistent and genuinely-motivated intentional activities, that you’d otherwise overlook in your fast-paced daily life, can have a big impact on your happiness.

Having said all that, some people win the genetic lottery, born with a higher happiness set-point (like my lovely wife), in which case perhaps much of this post is irrelevant or redundant. On the other hand, others lose the genetic lottery and are predisposed to depression and/or anxiety, in which case it’s very possible that intentional activities like these are not enough. Instead, professional therapy and/or medication is needed to offset the greater genetic/biochemical obstacles to happiness, to get to a more workable baseline (this is particularly true for those with the most severe psychiatric disorders, which require medication to manage.)

However, for the majority of us, intentionally adding some of these habits to our routine can make a very significant difference in our well-being.


We all want to be happy, and this can be difficult given our evolutionary tendency toward negativity, our specific genetic makeup, and our culture of relentless striving. And rather than looking outward to find happiness externally, it’s more effective to look inward, to create our own happiness by changing our own habitual thoughts and behaviors. This requires a long-term, intentional effort for most of us, which is challenging given all the competing demands in our lives. But it’s worth the effort.

And this is not some selfish or narcissistic thing to take on. It has much broader implications than just for any of us individually. Unhappiness is one of the leading causes of conflict in the world — within and between individuals, families, organizations, cultures, and countries. When we’re not happy, we more easily treat ourselves and others poorly, which ripples outward. The more people that take responsibility for their own happiness, the greater the positive ripple effect, and the greater the likelihood we can resolve many of our most pressing issues and create a better world for our children and beyond.

Originally published at medium.com