If natural selection were personified you could say she has one goal and one goal only – to get your genes into the next generation. She incentivises you to do things that will help you to do that through pain and pleasure. She doesn’t care if you’re happy and if being deluded about reality is an advantage, that went into our design.
The anxiety advantage
The early humans who didn’t worry about danger got eaten by saber-tooth tigers or fell off cliffs. The ones who were worried even though 99% of the times there was no danger, survived because of the 1% of times it meant they avoided it. Hence we’ve evolved to being a species of neurotic nutters.
It was an advantage for us to be deluded about the true levels of danger, and now we suffer the consequences. A very high proportion of the time we worry about things that will never happen or affect us.
The greed advantage
Scientists did an experiment to measure the dopamine (pleasure chemical) in rats when they gave them fruit juice. The dopamine hit lasted one third of a second. Think about the last time you indulged in a sweet treat for yourself. How many seconds do you think the pleasure lasted?
They then trained the rats to know that when they saw a light turn on they could expect the fruit juice to be delivered soon after. The dopamine hit for the anticipation of the fruit juice was far higher than for the actual tasting of it.
Not only that but when the fruit juice did arrive, in some cases no dopamine was released, so that all the pleasure was in the anticipation.
Natural selection wants us to crave things that will help us pass on our genes: food, sex, social status, and to feel pleasure when we get them. However, she doesn’t want us to feel satisfied for long so that we’re motivated to search for the next meal or person to mate with.
The status update advantage
I think this helps us to understand how we’ve become so addicted to social media. For early man, higher social status might have meant more opportunities to mate, being given food and protection. Rejection meant possible death, fending for oneself outside of the tribe.
Now we have a clear metric of our social status: the number of friends on Facebook, the number of ‘Likes’. Before, when we got a compliment, maybe no one else would see it. Now hundreds of people can see how popular we are.
You post something, get some likes, and experience a dopamine hit of pleasure… for a few seconds maybe? Then it wears off and you’re searching for the next hit. Hence the addiction.
Are we stuck like this?!
One of the things we’re learning to do in mindfulness is, instead of allowing thoughts and behaviours to be driven by our feelings and impulses, is to take a step back and just observe them so that we’re not controlled by them.
Mindfulness helps us to take back the reigns. It’s quite an ambitious project: essentially a rebellion against natural selection.
It’s definitely been working for me: I used to be addicted to social media for example, and I’ve now broken that addiction. I’m still quite addicted to biscuits though. Especially the chocolate covered stem ginger ones. But unshackling yourself from millions of years of genetic programming was never going to be a quick fix!
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