I've been meaning to point out an interesting piece by Robert Frank in the business section of the NYTimes, a subject mindblog has touched on in several posts. It's a bit of a gloss, but I pull out a few clips:
…people are particularly inept at predicting how changes in their life circumstances will affect their happiness. Even when the changes are huge — positive or negative — most people adapt much more quickly and completely than they expected…Paradoxically, our prediction errors often lead us to choices that are wisest in hindsight. In such cases, evolutionary biology often provides a clearer guide than cognitive psychology for thinking about why people behave as they do…the brain has evolved not to make us happy, but to motivate actions that help push our DNA into the next round. Much of the time, in fact, the brain accomplishes that by making us unhappy. Anxiety, hunger, fatigue, loneliness, thirst, anger and fear spur action to meet the competitive challenges we face…pleasure is an inherently fleeting emotion, one we experience while escaping from emotionally aversive states. In other words, pleasure is the carrot that provokes us to extricate ourselves from such states, but it almost always fades quickly…The human brain was formed by relentless competition in the natural world, so it should be no surprise that we adapt quickly to changes in circumstances.
Most people would love to have a job with interesting, capable colleagues, a high level of autonomy and ample opportunities for creative expression. But only a limited number of such jobs are available — and it’s our fretting that can motivate us to get them....Within limits, worry about success causes students to study harder to gain admission to better universities. It makes assistant professors work harder to earn tenure. It leads film makers to strive harder to create the perfect scene, and songwriters to dig deeper for the most pleasing melody. In every domain, people who work harder are more likely to succeed professionally, more likely to make a difference...The anxiety we feel about whether we’ll succeed is evolution’s way of motivating us.