Our bodies and brains seem to always keep us wanting more. A new job, a new house, a new sexual partner all seem to be able to bring us pleasure, excitement, and joy, but those pleasant feelings soon fade and the things we like tend to become our new baseline. The house we loved when we moved in becomes normal and we don’t appreciate it as much after a few years. We settle into our job and can become bored or uninterested. Our love for our partner may go from red hot to cool.
There are evolutionary explanations for why our brains and bodies seem to respond in this way. If we became complacent in our current lives and living standards, we might not push for more and might not make new discoveries, work for new thing and improved status, and might not try to have more sex with more partners. Failing to make new discoveries means that our entire tribe doesn’t advance and could get wiped out by a neighboring tribe that did make a new discovery. Failing to try to do more and become a more impressive person means we don’t improve our social status, and don’t get as many mates, so our genes don’t get passed along. And settling for just one sexual partner means we have fewer chances to procreate, again decreasing the chance that our genes are successfully passed along.
“Perhaps it’s not surprising, then,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “that evolution has molded us to be neither too miserable nor too happy. It enables us to enjoy a momentary rush of pleasant sensations, but these never last forever.”
Harari is not the first to make such an observation. This observation is part of the core of Stoic thinking. Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations wrote about the ways in which we always want more and how we lose our value in the things we have that become ordinary to us. Stoic thinking encourages that we reflect on this reality and work to avoid becoming unhappy with things that are truly great and spectacular. Stoics suggest that we practice focusing on our gratitude at having such things, rather than focus on what more we could have. There will always be more we could strive for, and our brains and bodies will always push us to have more, but that doesn’t mean it will make us any happier. Our biology is destined, thanks to evolution, to keep us from being too miserable and too happy, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a valuable place where we accept this reality and enjoy our lives, appreciate what and who we are, and strive to be great, without overreaching and becoming unhappy with what we have.