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: I can see that. If we are rewarded with pleasure when we eat, we will eat. That way, we are more likely to live long enough to pass on our genes. And, by finding sex pleasurable we are more likely to have it, and have offspring. But playing?

Uncle: Playing hones our skills.

Nephew: So when we engage in short-term behaviours that benefit us, we are rewarded instantaneously with short-term pleasure. Fair enough.

Uncle: And if we don’t satisfy those needs we feel stressed and unhappy.

Nephew: 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, hominids born with an inclination to live in a tribe were more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes. Those who didn’t feel inclined to live in a tribe were more likely to starve, or be eaten, and not pass on their genes.

Nephew: So now we all have an inclination to live in a tribe. Is that what you are saying?

Uncle: More specifically, we evolved the need to feel connected with one another, to contribute to the tribe and to feel valued for our contribution. Some people refer to that overall feeling as ‘the deep need to belong’. When we satisfy that innate need we are rewarded with core happiness. When we don’t satisfy that need we feel unsettled, even anxious.

Nephew: We are more connected that we have ever been. With a phone I can speak to plenty of people, wherever they are.

Uncle: Do the people you know know each other? For hundreds of thousands of years our species lived in small communities and each person in that community knew one another. The ‘village’ really did raise the child. To find food was hard work and each person had a job to do. They not only knew each other, they relied on each other. Each person contributed to the tribe and were valued for their contribution. Even the elderly were valued, for their knowledge.

Nephew: I read that when an elderly indigenous person dies, a library is lost.

Uncle: Exactly. People in tribes have real connection. Yes, the connections we have are far more extensive, but they lack substance. They are mere shadows of what could be and should be.

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

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

Nephew: Huh?

Uncle:  At times we had to leave the safety of the tribe to hunt the food to keep ourselves fed. If we felt too much anxiety we would be too afraid to leave the tribe, and we’d starve. With too little anxiety we would take too many risks, and die. To get the right balance we need to feel frightened in a dangerous situation yet feel we could handle it. When we get that balance right we are 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. We’re safe, yet many of us are not happy.

Uncle: We may be safe but that doesn’t mean we feelsafe. 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: It’s obvious.

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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