I’m Dr. Scott Bolland and my Ph.D. and 25-year background is in cognitive science, the scientific study of how the mind works spanning such areas as psychology, neuroscience, philosophy and artificial intelligence. And my passion is playing at the intersection of these fields, namely how to skill up individuals, teams and organizations to flourish in the modern world.
Today, I want to explore the science of mental well-being, and I’d like to start with an interesting conundrum. If you could choose any time to be alive in the history of humanity, on the surface, you couldn’t choose a better time to be alive than right now.
According to many external measures of success, we’re doing remarkably well. We live longer than ever before. We’re living in a time of amazing scientific and technological innovation and discovery. We’re working fewer hours than we were 100 years ago. And our standard of living is unlike anything experienced in the past.
However, mentally, we’re experiencing the opposite. Depression rates are around 10 times higher than what they were 50 years ago and is experienced at a much younger age. One in two of us will consider suicide in our lives and one in 10 will try. Young Australians are more likely to take their own life the to die in a motor vehicle accident.
Although today is one of the best times to be alive regarding our external success, it’s one of the worst times to be alive with respect to our internal mental health. So why might this be the case? One answer is that there’s an evolutionary mismatch between past human environments and our modern day living.
We are a Stone Age brain living in a world, and we’re simply not coping. One of the most fundamental guiding principles that underlines our previous evolutionary success, but also our current psychological challenges is a simple rule of thumb that we should approach experiences that give us pleasure and avoid experiences that give us pain. And our whole bodies are designed around this principle.
We have a parasympathetic nervous system that’s activated when we’re at rest and play and we have a sympathetic nervous system that controls our bodies in times of distress and threat. We were built to approach pleasure and avoid pain because that strategy worked. For example, fear of heights is a great fear to have as it prevents us from taking unnecessary risks.
And in our evolutionary past, having a sweet tooth was beneficial because it led us to consume fruits and vegetables, food that tasted good but was also good for us. The problem with modernisation has been that this correlation is no longer true. There are many things in our environment that are pleasurable and readily accessible that are not good for us. Much of our food that tastes good is filled with sugars, fats and additives that are unhealthy.
Similarly, we’ve replaced deep and meaningful relationships with a superficial clicking of a like button on social media platforms. We are now in an environment where there’s an abundance of pleasures that are simple to obtain but lacking in physical or psychological nutrition.
To live a full, rich, and valued life in today’s society is not simply a matter of doing things that bring us joy.
We have to be careful of where this may lead. Similarly, actively avoiding experiences that are negative may also be detrimental. For example, say I had an exam next week and I had the choice of studying or watching TV. Unfortunately, avoiding the pain of studying isn’t going to help me with my long term success.
Similarly, we might procrastinate and put off other important tasks because of the discomfort it evokes. We might not engage in physical exercise or meaningful hobbies because of the demand they involve. We may avoid difficult conversations that are around important challenges that need to be resolved, and we may even abuse drugs and alcohol to escape our pain.
The point is, that approaching things that give us pleasure and avoiding things that give us pain may not bring us the happiness we crave.
So the question I have for you is to simply look at the next week ahead and ask yourself if you were living a full, rich and valued life, what would you be doing differently?
Other things that you are doing that are pleasurable but are not of value in the scheme of things and other things that you are avoiding that are well-being, is not simply about doing more things that bring us joy and avoiding things that are painful. It’s often about the opposite. It’s about taking valued action, irrespective of how that may make you feel.