How did happiness evolve?

Nephew: Okay, I understand how natural selection works. I ask again: you said core happiness comes from satisfying long-term, ongoing innate needs. What did you mean?

Uncle: First let me say that it is hard to speak of evolution without inadvertently attributing to it intent. I might say, ‘beetles evolved to fly’, which sounds like the beetles had a choice in the matter. Of course they didn’t. Or, I might say, ‘evolution guides us’, or ‘evolution wants us’. No, evolution can’t guide us or want us to do anything. It’s not a sentient entity, it’s a process. I use these expressions because they are a convenient shortcut to refer to the process of natural selection.

Nephew: Are you avoiding my question?

Uncle: We evolved happiness in the same way we evolved our eyes, ears and kidneys. Happiness serves a purpose. Look at the first kind of happiness, pleasure: when we engage in short-term behaviours that benefit us and our species, such as eating, having sex or playing, we are immediately rewarded with pleasure. That pleasure is evolution’s way of persuading us to engage in those behaviours.

Nephew: How does playing help us?

Uncle: Playing hones our skills.

Nephew: Alright. So, when we engage in short-term behaviours that benefit us, we are rewarded instantaneously with short-term pleasure. Fair enough. What about the other kind of happiness you mentioned, core happiness?

Uncle: Evolution also wants us to engage in long-term behaviours. However, long-term behaviours cannot be rewarded with instantaneous pleasure; they have to be rewarded with a milder ongoing pleasure: a relaxed, general feeling of wellbeing.

Nephew: Core happiness?

Uncle: Yes. Core happiness is evolution’s incentive, and reward, for engaging in long-term, ongoing behaviours that benefit our species.

Nephew: What sort of ongoing behaviours are we talking about?’

Uncle: ‘Living in a tribe’ is one. In prehistory, hominins born with an inclination . . .

Nephew: What’s a hominin?

Uncle: I am referring to our early ancestors, the primates that preceded human beings.

According to the Australian Museum, hominins are “the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors.” Hominids are “the group consisting of all modern and extinct Great Apes (that is, modern humans, chimpanzees, gorillas and orang-utans plus all their immediate ancestors.)”.

Nephew: Oh.

Uncle: Those born with an inclination to live in a tribe, and did so, were more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes. Those who did not feel inclined to live in a tribe were more likely to starve, or be eaten, and not pass on their genes.

Nephew: So?

Uncle: So, we evolved a need to contribute to the tribe and to feel valued for that contribution. We evolved to feel connected. Some people call that need the ‘deep need to belong’. When we engage in behaviours that satisy that need, we are rewarded with core happiness.

Nephew: Alright, we have a deep need to belong. What’s another ongoing innate need?

Uncle: The need to feel safe. Note, it’s not the need to be safe, it’s the need to feel safe.

Nephew: Huh?

Uncle: In pre-history, our early hominin ancestors had to leave the safety of the tribe to hunt food and find resources. Dangers awaited them. If they felt too anxious to leave the tribe they would starve, but if they felt too little anxiety they would take stupid risks and find themselves dead. Our ancestors had to get the right balance – they had to put themselves into scary situations, yet feel they could handle them. Once they got that balance right they were rewarded with core happiness. 

Nephew: But in the Western world most of us are safe. We don’t have to worry about catching the plague, or cutting ourselves and dying of infection; we don’t have to worry about bandits or tyranny; we don’t have to worry about starving to death in a famine. Nowadays, with a few precautions we can live safe and well. Yet many of us are not happy.

Uncle: We may be safe but that doesn’t mean we feel safe. Remember, to truly feel safe we have to be able to feel frightened in a situation, yet feel we can handle it.

Nephew: I don’t get you.

Uncle: Think of pygmy twins. One is raised to hunt spiders, snakes and crocodiles; the other is raised to avoid those creatures. Which twin do you think will grow up competent and confident, and as a result, happier? Which twin will grow up anxious and unhappy?

Nephew: The hunter?

Uncle: Yes. The twin who avoids those creatures will not learn how to handle anxiety, or life itself, and as a consequence will tend to suffer stress and unhappiness. That means: the best way to feel safe in life is not to avoid scary situations, but feel you could handle them. As Helen Keller said, ‘A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.’

Nephew: Who is Helen Keller?

Uncle: She was a woman who from an early age was deaf, blind and mute. Yet despite her disabilities she learned how to handle life. Many of us in this safe, comfortable western society don’t. So, it becomes easy to be anxious, even over trivial things.

Nephew: Does that explain why so many people seem happier in poorer countries?

Uncle: It might. People in less fortunate societies learn how to handle hardship, and as a result gain an inner confidence that they can handle life. So, when nothing bad is happening – when they’re not starving, and not diseased, and not in danger – they’re happy.

Nephew: They gain a confidence we don’t have?

Uncle: I think so. We could, unwittingly, be fostering unhappiness in our society. An increasing number of today’s children are not allowed to climb trees in case they hurt themselves, or walk to school alone, or do anything that might be considered risky. So, they don’t develop the confidence that they can handle life. Instead, they learn how to avoid scary situations, and that’s a recipe for anxiety.

Nephew: Should kids hang out with pygmies?

Uncle: What?

Nephew: I get it. We have an innate need to satisfy our deep need to belong, and an innate need to feel safe. When we satisfy both those needs we are rewarded with core happiness. Simple really.

Uncle. Yes. And no doubt there are other long-term innate needs we need to satisfy.

Nephew: And when we don’t satisfy them, we feel lousy. That’s Nature’s way of prompting us to change the situation?

Uncle: Yep again.

Nephew: Right now I have a deep need to belong somewhere else.

Uncle: Then clear off.

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