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We're Hard-Wired for Happiness

Despite all the awful things that happen to human beings during their lifetimes, we seem to be genetically optimistic. When we marry, we never think we'll get divorced. When we get a new job, we don't expect to be fired. And it's not just the young who are optimistic: A 2005 study found that adults over 60 are just as likely to see the future as being better as young adults are. A growing body of scientific evidence concludes that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain because in order to make progress, we need to be able to imagine better realities--and believe that we can achieve them.

Most of us also remember the past as being better than it really was. In the December 31st edition of the Guardian, Tali Sharot writes that scientists who study memory have an interesting theory: "Memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future--to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, (instead) it is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted."

Humans are probably the only creatures that are smart enough to realize that they will die someday. Nature has hard wired us not to think about that (or to invent "heavens" that will receive us when it happens) so we will continue to strive and evolve.

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