To fully understand what emotions are, we need to take a step back, and understand that if we have made it this far in the history of human evolution, it is because an innate survival mechanism has enabled us to continue to populate this planet we call earth.
The men and women who came before us had to face daily challenges that put their lives at risk. Despite the fact that our current situation differs greatly from the way things were, the way our brain works has not changed: it is still programmed to be on the look-out for possible danger, always ready to detect anything that can go wrong, and to ignore everything that is positive.
Way back when, being rejected by one’s own tribe could have proven to be a threat to a person’s survival; today our fear of being rejected causes us pain and suffering, even though the consequences of that happening are in no way comparable to what would have happened to someone ousted from their tribe years ago.
All this is to say that we have a natural bias towards negative events and our brain does not know how to distinguish imaginary threats from real ones. The truth is that our brains were not programmed to make us happy, but to ensure our survival.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that activates our pleasure centre; everything that gives us pleasure increases its levels, and this increase gives us a sense of fulfilment. The primary function of a dopamine release is again, survival, because it pushes us to do things such as satisfy our hunger and find a mate, it helps keep us alive and ensures the survival of the human race.
Our society sells us a version of dopamine which, in the long term, leaves us feeling unhappy, because we become addicted to it. Marketers have perfectly understood how this pay-off and pleasure mechanism works, and they use it to get us hooked on social networks, our digital devices and food or other material objects. In addition, our mind gets used to new conditions easily, and that is the mechanism behind our belief that “when I have *insert object here*, I will be happy”. Once we obtain that thing that we had dreamt would make us forever happy, it should, in theory, leave us eternally satisfied, but what actually happens after a short while, is that we find ourselves down in the dumps again, and dreaming of the next object or experience that is going to make our lives better. In the long term, it is not external events that determine our level of happiness, but our attitude to life itself that influences our ability to be happy.