The reason people are unhappy in relationships is that we were never designed to be happy in relationships. Human beings, like all life, evolved for evolutionary fitness, not for romantic satisfaction. Therefore, a lot of dissatisfaction is the result of urges people have that they believe will make them happy, but in fact do the opposite.
I’m using relationships as an example, but this disconnect between our urges and what fulfills us is everywhere in life. Humans have evolved with the urge to eat foods with lots of sugar and fat, rare for most of our history. But today, those same urges work against people, where excessive calorie intake results in obesity.
There’s a popular idea within goal-setting, the idea that you should strive after everything you want. No doubt this is an improvement over apathy. Going after what you want is better than wandering through the world indifferent and pessimistic.
However, what happens when the things you want are the things that hurt you? When your urges don’t correlate with what will provide genuine happiness. Either because your urges were designed for simpler times (like the desire for sweets) or because your urges were never designed to make you happier in the first place (like adultery when you’re in a loving relationship).
Evaluating Your Wants
If you aren’t setting goals and actively pursuing them, that’s square one. But, I’m guessing that most people who are reading this blog, have some interest in self-improvement and suggesting goal-setting isn’t going to cause a revolution.
But if you’re past that, then square two has to be evaluating your wants. Are your urges you’re chasing after going to fulfill you? Or will they just leave you as empty as before?
A few years ago I read Neil Strauss’s book, The Game. The book chronicles his discovery and eventual adoption into the pickup and dating community. What struck me most about the book wasn’t the sexual exploits of the characters of the book, but how many of the characters remained utterly unhappy and depressed despite their newfound success with women.
I’m not trying to say working to improve your dating life is a lost cause. Or even that the pickup community won’t be able to help a few guys. But, I think what became clear from the book was that many of the characters were following their urges to decide what would make them happy in relationships, and often that made them feel no better than when they were alone.
Naive Goal Setting
I think the naive approach to goal setting is to chase after what you want. It’s naive because it assumes that what you want and what will satisfy you when you reach it are the same thing. Sometimes they are, but there are many times when they aren’t.
In the book, Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert provides dozens of studies that demonstrate that people are fairly bad at determining what will make them happy. We aren’t perfectly rational, and blindly chasing after what you want is a bad way to reach satisfaction.
I believe people need a more sophisticated approach to goal-setting, that starts with what you want, but goes beyond that. Deliberate goal-setting also evaluates your wants themselves, deciding whether they are worth chasing after. Or if your wants are appropriate, figuring out how far it is worthwhile to chase.
Following Your Heart
There are obvious areas of life where people control their urges. When someone goes on a diet or avoids laughing during a serious discussion, are clear examples. But while there are some areas where people express self-restraint, there are other areas where society sees it as a virtue to stop thinking.
In many parts of life, and especially relationships, following your urges even when they don’t make sense is not just undeterred but celebrated. Every romance movie celebrates the heroine who follows her heart and ends up with prince charming. But for every movie ending, there are dozens of women who stick with an abusive spouse because they love him and want him to change.
Similarly, every story of the successful entrepreneur/actor/athlete encourages people to follow their dreams. But with every success story, there are many more cases of people who missed out on a quieter happiness keeping their passion as a hobby while they worked on a career they could actually be the best at. For every glamorous movie star, how many people are waiting tables, barely getting by?
I suspect I’ll get a lot of angry comments from readers who are holding on to these “follow your heart” narratives. Even suggesting they aren’t true is a sign you’re a jaded cynic who has lost the spark for life.
I disagree, I think that whenever you follow your heart you should follow your brain as well. There is no reason you can’t chase after what you want, but you do need to evaluate what you want carefully so that you don’t get tricked into dead-ends.
Follow Your Brain
Instead of following your heart, I think you should also follow your brain. Evaluating your urges carefully so that you can get both what you want, and make sure that chasing after it won’t burn you in the end.
I think chasing after the perfect man or woman will lead to relationship unhappiness. It often encourages people to chase more physically attractive or exciting people who aren’t necessarily going to be interested in you, or when they are, perhaps aren’t the best partners. Following your brain means redefining what perfect is to you, instead of chasing the person who has no flaws on your checklist, find someone who is attractive enough, fun and will love you.
I think chasing after a perfect career will lead to career unhappiness. It often encourages people to chase incredibly competitive fields where the chances of success are low to impossible. Following your brain means redefining what the perfect career is to you. Something you enjoy and can be exceptionally good at, so good that you can dictate the terms of your life.
Just as stuffing your face with chocolate and burgers results in feeling fat and sick, chasing after every desire isn’t the best route to happiness. The solution isn’t to become distant and cynical to every dream you have. Instead, it’s to look at those dreams carefully, to see that you aren’t distracted by the most colorful pictures when what you really want is sitting innocuously in the corner.
Following your brain makes for a bad movie plot, so I don’t expect to see the perfect narratives disappearing anytime soon. But I feel following your brain is an ultimately more satisfying way to live.