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Wired to Survive Not Thrive

Despite what social media might want us to believe, our brains are designed for survival not happiness. That means that we have evolved to become highly sensitive to spotting danger or threat in order to keep us alive. This is the primary concern of the human brain because, put bluntly, nothing matters if you’re dead.

To this end, we have evolved to function on a ‘better safe than sorry’ basis. To help explain this, let’s think about an example.

Let’s imagine we are back in caveman days, and two cavemen are stood next to one another. One caveman says to the other ‘Oi Fred, look, do you think that’s a tiger over there?’ Let’s say Fred responds by dismissing the potential threat, and says something like ‘Nah Mick, wouldn’t worry about it’. So my question to you is which of these two individuals is more likely to survive? You’re right, it would be the more anxious Mick. He may have felt anxious and run away on occasions when he didn’t need to, but he survived and would then be more likely to pass on his more naturally anxious genes to his children following the pattern of survival of the fittest or natural selection.

Thankfully most of us aren’t in danger of being eaten by a tiger anymore, so the threats we face in our day to day lives are different. But the way we respond to threat remains the same, and we have basic primitive biological responses which get triggered regardless of whether the threat is a tiger or a work deadline. These responses are to focus in on threat, to think of the worst case scenario, to put a spotlight on this to the exclusion of other information which might contradict our fears. Because ultimately, our evolved brain tells us that we are “better safe than sorry”.

This isn’t to say that we can’t experience positive emotion, feelings of safety and happiness, but this isn’t our baseline state. We are primarily concerned with noticing danger to keep ourselves safe. But our brains are also furnished with the potential to access biological and psychological states of contentment, connectedness and safeness. But in order to access these states, we need to understand how our evolved human brains work, recognise when our threat focused mind is in the driving seat, and use skills of compassion to harness our brains amazing ability to flourish.