The Evolution of Happiness: Improving Human Happiness (Part Three)

Increase closeness of extended kin

If being deprived of extended close kin leads to depression in modern environments, individuals can take steps to remain in closer proximity or to maintain greater emotional closeness to existing kin. Modern electronic communication, including email, telephone and video conferencing might be exploited to this end when physical proximity is not possible. With people living longer, opportunities to interact with grandparents and grandchildren expand, offering the possibility of strengthening the network of extended kin.

Develop Deep Friendships

According to Tooby and Cosmides, people may suffer a dearth of deep friendships in modern urban living. It is easy to be sometimes friend when times are good. It is where you are really in trouble that you find out who your true friends are. Everyone has experienced fair weather friends who are only there when times are good, but finding a true friend, someone that you know you can rely on when the going gets tough, is a real treasure. People take pains to express their appreciation, communicating that they will never forget the sacrifices made by those who helped them in their darkest hour.

The loneliness and sense of alienation that may feel in modern living, a lack of a feeling of deep social connections despite the presence of many seemingly warm and friendly interactions, may stem from the lack of critical assessment events that tell them who is deeply engaged in their welfare.

Several strategies may help to close this gap between modern and ancestral conditions to deepen social connectedness. First, people should promote reputations that highlight their unique or exceptional attributes. Second, they should be motivated to recognize personal attributes that others value but have difficulty getting from other people. This involves cultivating sensitivity to the values held by others. Third, they should acquire specialized skills that increase irreplaceability. If people develop expertise of proficiency in domains that most others lack, they become indispensable to those who value those competencies. Forth, they should preferentially seek out groups that most strongly value what they have to offer and what others in the group tend to lack, find groups in which their assets will be most highly cherished. Fifth, they should avoid social groups where their unique attributes are not valued. A sixth strategy involves imposition of critical tests designed to deepen the friendship and test the strength of the bond. Those who pass the tests and provide help during these critical times make the transition to true friends marked by deep engagement.

Selecting a mate who is similar – Reducing jealousy and infidelity

One strategy is to select a long term mate or marriage partner who is similar to you on dimensions such as values, interests, politics, personality, and overall “mate value”. A large body of empirical evidence supports the hypothesis that discrepancies between partners in these qualities lead to increased risk of infidelity, instability of the relationship, and a higher likelihood of eventual breakup. Selecting a mate who is similar, conversely, should lower the likelihood of infidelity, and hence the agony experienced as a result of jealousy. Because jealousy appears to be an evolved emotion designed to combat threats to relationships, anything that reduces its activation should reduce the subjective pain people experience.

Education about evolved psychological sex differences

Education about fact that men’s and women’s minds house somewhat different psychological mechanisms, and that the differences can be deactivated under certain conditions, may help to reduce the frequency of strategic interference.

Managing Competitive Mechanisms

Perhaps the most difficult challenge posed by our evolved psychological mechanisms is managing competition and hierarchy negotiation, given that selection has fashioned powerful mechanisms that drive rivalry and status striving. Status inequality produces a variety of negative consequences, such as the impairment of health. One potential method of reducing such inequalities is to promote cooperation.

Evolutionists have identified one of the key conditions that promote cooperation – shared fate. Shared fate occurs among genes within a body, for example – when the body dies, all the genes it houses die with it. Genes get selected, in part, for their ability to work cooperatively with other genes. A similar effect occurs with individuals living in some kinds of groups. When the fate of individuals within the group is shared – for example, when the success of a hunt depends on the coordination among all members of the hunting party, or when defense against attack is made successful by the cooperation of a group’s members – then cooperation is enhanced.

Axelrod, an evolutionary political scientist, suggested several ways in which this can be done. First, enlarge the shadow of the future. It could be accomplished by making interactions more frequent and making a commitment to the relationship which occurs, for example, with wedding vows. A second strategy is to teach reciprocity, which not only helps people by making others more cooperative, it also makes it more difficult for exploitative strategies to thrive. A third is to insist on no more than equity. Greed is the downfall of many. By promoting equity, tit-for-tat succeeds by eliciting cooperation from others. One more strategy is to cultivate a personal reputation as a reciprocator. Cultivating a reputation as a reciprocator will make others seek them out for mutual gain. The combined effects of these strategies will create a social norm of cooperation, where those who were formerly exploiters are forced to rehabilitate their bad reputations by becoming cooperators themselves. In this way, cooperation will be promoted throughout the group.

The Fulfillment of Desire

Just as humans have evolved adaptations that create subjective distress, they have evolved desires whose fulfillment brings deep joy. Studies of private wishes reveal an evolutionary menu: the desire for health, professional success, helping friends and relatives, achieving intimacy, feeling the confidence to succeed, satisfying the taste for high quality food, securing personal safety and having the resources to attain all these things. Success at satisfying these desires brings episodes of deep happiness, even if people might habituate to their constant occurrence. Having adequate resources to fulfill desires, making progress toward fulfilling them, achieving a state of flow in the process of achieving them, and succeeding in fulfilling them, and succeeding in fulfilling them in particular domains such as mating provide a few of the evolutionary keys to increasing human happiness.

From the article “The Evolution of Happiness” by David Buss (2000)

The Evolution of Happiness (Part Two)

Adaptation that Causes Subjective Distress

A second impediment to human happiness is that people have evolved an array of psychological mechanisms that are “designed” to cause subjective distress under some circumstances. These include psychological pain, varieties of anxiety, depression, specific fears and phobias, and specific forms of anger and upset. These are all proposed to be evolved psychological mechanisms designed to solve specific adaptive problems. If these hypothesis are correct, they suggest that part of the operation of the normal psychological machinery inevitable entails experiencing psychological distress in certain contexts. For example, jealousy exists today in modern humans because those in the evolutionary past who were indifferent to the sexual contact that their mates had with others lost the evolutionary contest to those who became jealous. As the descendants of the successful ancestors, modern humans carry with them the passions that led to their forbearers’ success. The legacy of this success is a dangerous passion that creates unhappiness, but the unhappiness motivated adaptive action over human evolutionary history.

Anger and upset, according to one evolutionary psychological hypothesis, are evolved psychological mechanisms designed to prevent strategic interference. These negative emotions function to draw attention to the interfering event, alert a person to the source of strategic interference, mark the interfering events for storage in and retrieval from memory, and motivate action designed to eliminate the interference or to avoid subsequent interfering events. Because men and women over evolutionary time have faced different sources of strategic interference, they are hypothesized to get angry and upset about different sorts of events. The subjective experience can be extremely painful and disturbing, reducing the quality of life a person experiences.

Adaptations Designed for Competition

A third impediment to happiness stems from competition inherent to evolution by selection. Reproductive differentiantials caused by design differences make up the engine of evolutionary change. Selection operates on difference, so one person’s gain is often another person’s loss. As Symons observed , “the most fundamental , most universal double standard is not male versus female but each individual human versus everyone else”. The profound implication of this analysis is that humans have evolved psychological mechanisms designed to inflict costs on others, to gain advantage at the expense of others, to delight in the downfall of others, and to envy those who are more successful at achieving the goals toward which they aspire.

Three Additional Evolutionary Tragedies of Happiness

These obstacles do not exhaust the evolved impediments to well-being. Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker described several other tragedies of happiness. One is the fact that humans seem designed to adapt quickly to their circumstances, putting us on a “hedonic treadmill”, where apparent increments in rewards fail to produce sustained increments in personal happiness, simply nothing is ever good enough long-term.

A second tragedy of human unhappiness stems from the fact that evolved mechanisms are designed to function well on average, although they will necessarily fail in some instances – what maybe called instance failure. For example, mechanisms of mate guarding are designed to ward off rivals and keep a partner from straying. It means that even if mate-guarding mechanism succeeded on average over the relevant sample space of evolutionary time, it still may fail for individuals.

A third strategy of human emotions is the asymmetry in affective experience following comparable gains and losses. The pain people experience when they lose $100, for example, turns out to be affectively more disagreeable than the pleasure they experience when they win $100. As the former tennis star Jimmy Connors observed, “I hate to lose more than I like to win”. Evolved emotions may have been well-designed to keep people’s ancestors on track in the currency of fitness, but in some ways they seem designed to foil people’s efforts to promote long-term happiness.

From the article “The Evolution of Happiness” by David M. Buss (2000), Image by Chato B. Stewart.

The Evolution of Happiness (Part One)

“An evolutionary analysis leads to several key insights about barriers that must be overcome to improve the quality of human life. These include discrepancies between modern and ancestral environments, evolved mechanisms that lead to subjective distress, and the fact that selection has produced competitive mechanisms.

Modern living has brought a bounty of benefits to present day humans. Medical technology has reduced infant mortality in many parts of the world to a fraction of what it undoubtedly was in ancestral times. People have the tools to prevent many diseases that afflicted their Stone Age forebears. The psychological pain of depression and anxiety can be reduced with lithium and Prozac and other psychotropic drugs. Modern technology give people the power to prevent the pain inflicted by extremes of cold and heat, food shortages, some parasites, most predators and other Darwinian “hostile forces of nature”. In many ways people live in astonishing comfort compared with their ancestors.

At the same time, modern environments have produced a variety of ills, many unanticipated and only now being discovered. Although people have the tools and technology to combat food shortages, they now vastly over consume quantities of animal fat and processed sugars in ways that lead to clogged arteries, heart disease, diabetes and other medical ailments. Depletion of the ozone layer may lead to skin cancer at rates that were unlikely to have afflicted their ancestors. The ability to synthesize drugs has led to heroin addiction, cocaine abuse, and addiction to a variety of prescription drugs.

Evolutionary psychological analysis suggests several other ways in which modern psychological environments cause damage. Consider the estimate that humans evolved in the context of small groups, consisting of perhaps 50 to 200 individuals. Modern humans, in contrast, live in a massive urban metropolis surrounded by thousands or millions of other humans. Ancestral humans may have had a dozen or two potential mates to choose from. Modern humans are surrounded by thousands of potential mates. They are bombarded by media images of attractive models on a scale that has no historical precedent and that may lead to unreasonable expectations about the quality and quantity of available mates.

Women subjected to successive images of other women who are unusually attractive subsequently fell less attractive themselves, showing a decrease in self-esteem. Men exposed to descriptions of highly dominant and influential men show an analogous diminution in self-concept. The effects suggest that exposure to media images may lead to dissatisfaction with current partners and reductions in self- esteem, they may interfere with the quality of close relationships and hence the quality of life.

Ancestral humans lived in extended kin networks, surrounded by genetic relatives such as uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, cousins and grandparents. Modern humans typically live in isolated nuclear families often devoid of extended kin.

Why would rate of depression be rising in modern environments, despite the greater abundance of creature comforts and the presence of technological solutions to former ancestral maladies of life?

Nesse and Williams offer one hypothesis: Mass communications, especially television and movies, effectively make us all one competitive group even as they destroy our more intimate social networks… In the ancestral environment you would have had a good chance at being the best at something. Even if you were not the best, your group would likely value your skills. Now we all compete with those who are the best in the world. Watching these successful people on television arouses envy. Envy probably was useful to motivate our ancestors to strive for what others could obtain. Now few of us can achieve the goals envy sets for us, and none of us can attain the fantasy lives we see on television.

According to this analysis, the increase in depression stems from self-perceived failures resulting in erroneous comparisons between people’s lives and the lives they see depicted so glamorously in the media.

A related explanation of an increase in depression invokes the fact that modern living conditions of relative anonymity and isolated nuclear families deprive people of the intimate social support that would have characterized ancestral social conditions.

In modern America, for example, kin members often scatter in the pursuit of better jobs and promotions, yielding a social mobility that removes the social support of extended kin and make social bonds more transient. If psychological well-being is linked with having deep intimate contacts, being a valued member of an enduring social group, and being enmeshed in a network of extended kin, then the conditions of modern living seem designed to interfere with human happiness.

These are just a few examples that suggest that some discrepancies between modern and ancestral conditions impede a high quality of life. Other possibilities include the lack of critical incidents by which people might establish true friendships, the sense of powerlessness modern humans feel in large anonymous organizations compared with small social hierarchies of the past, and the increased opportunities for casual sex lacking in deep intimacy, that might lead people to feel emotionally empty. These discrepancies between modern and ancestral environments may interfere with the quest for a high quality of life.”

From the article The Evolution of Happiness” by David M. Buss (Jan 2000)

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