Saturday, May 12, 2007

The evolution of happiness

Our genes, containing the recipe for making us, do not care about our feeling. All they care about is replicating themselves. Whether their host is the most depressed anxious, suicidal person out there doesn't matter to the genes as long as they get into the next generation, preferably in great numbers. In a sense we are merely the means to obtaining a goal: replication of our genes.

So why do we have emotions? Why are we not just insensitive robots that do not break down because of something silly such as your dog dying, or too much stress at work? The reason is of course that emotions are adaptive in many important ways, and people who lack emotions evidently do not succeed very well in our society. Fear makes us avoid many dangers; pleasure makes us come back to the things that induced it. Guilt and shames tells us we have not been fair and that we should try to fix it, and so on. In other words, we are not born to be happy. Of course we are not born to be sad either; rather we are born with a spectrum of emotions, all of which are probably important in some ways.

What I want to argue here is that, by learning more about evolution, our ancestry, and which situations are likely to produce different emotions we will be able to form our lives as well as our society in such a way that happiness occurs more often, and sadness not so often. David Buss (see picture) from the University of Texas, have written an interesting article on this topic in which he lists the lessons that research in evolutionary psychology have taught us. For example, Buss argues that our anonymous metropolis society is bound to cause distress and anxiety due to a lack of belonging. You can easily live your entire adult life without really getting to know someone today. Our genes, because they are used to a society containing no more than a hundred or so individuals (read about ancestral environment), may feel distressed in the big cities today. Buss advices us to try to get closer to our extended kin, and to make use of today's technology in order to keep in touch with family as well as friends.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, two evolutionary theorists from University of California, Santa Barbara (where I used to go to school), have done some interesting research about the meaning of deep friendships. David Buss writes about this research in his article as well. Without going into any details, it can be said that deep friendships are good for all kinds of reasons (e.g. live longer, less stress, happier etc). Talking about your problems is simply good for you (there is no ambiguity in the research on this point), so go get good friends!

Other examples of advice that Buss gives us in his article include, (1) Educating people about evolved psychological sex differences (I believe that sex differences, without proper understanding, can destroy any relationship), (2) Managing our competitive mechanisms, and (3) Fulfilling your desires and dreams (go do that thing that you have always dreamt about!).

Another thing that makes us happy is democracy. If you ask people whether they are "happy" and "satisfied with life as a whole", and then correlate that with the degree of freedom in the country, you will find a very nice positive correlation (see diagram). In other words, countries with democracy, free elections, and elective rule have happier citizens, than dictatorships. So here is a lesson for the society as a whole, don't vote for dictators, and keep fighting for freedom of speech…

Some people say that a belief in evolution by natural selection will corrupt a person into immorality. In contrast, I think that evolution is one of the keys to create a society in which people are happy, or as my former teacher put it:

"Go save the world, but do it using what you know about human nature"


Jan Thurin said...


To begin with I must admit that I agree that human happiness and democracy are good things.

However, does Evolutionary Psychology really exist as a topic? I have realized lately that the probability for a continuous development of human language, memory, and thinking is very low. If you are interested in these ideas they are summarized in the first week of my blog (

I have judged the probability to be so low that a creation must have propelled us into the being of modern man. I also believe that the concept of the first cell also needs a creation. The evolution would then be the time between these two creations. Thus I argue scientifically for the need of creations.

For example, does human happiness exist at all in animals or is it uniquely human? It is a little like with romantic love as described by Helen Fisher, an anthropologist. She believes romantic love exist in mammals. I do not. The evolution of love is perhaps like the evolution of happiness--a relatively recent affair?


Tobias Malm said...

"ur genes, containing the recipe for making us, do not care about our feeling. All they care about is replicating themselves."

Actually, they dont care about that either. Their reproduction are no more than a logical consequence of their nature and the environment in which it exist. Now, you probebly just simplified it all by saing what you did, but some people actually think that genes have a will to replicate them selves. So it is always good to be clare about these things. :)

In general I agree with your post completely!

rasmussenanders said...

Tobias, Of course you are right. Genes doesn't "care" about anything, it only seems that way because we only see the genes that, because of their attributes, were able to get into the next generation...

I should probably have made that clear in the post...

rasmussenanders said...

To Jan,

First I would like to thank you for your comments, I do not agree with your stance, but I like critical input.

Having studied evolutionary psychology unders Leda Cosmides, I would say that the topic is very much real and alive. I think that the many important finding they have done by looking at how our ancestors lived suggest that we are indeed the decent of apes. Just to name one example, Cosmides group have been able, for the first time ever, to make their subjects ignore the skin color of people. Coding according to race was considered more or less innate before, but why should that be so, after all, in the ancestral environment we did never encounter different races, why an evolved mechanism involving race would be unlikely.

There are many more succees stories like this one, which I take as evidence that we are indeed decendents of apes and "ape people" (don't know if that is really a term).

Concerning human characteristics such as language, memory, happiness, and love, I would argue that animals, at leat some bit up into the hierarchy have all of these. One Ig Nobel prize was recently given to a recearcher who showed that love is very much a biochemical phenomenon, which can be measured and looks similar to obsessive compulsive dissorder :). Likewise, there is a bunch of researchers who claim that chimpanzies do indeed have language. I really depends on where you put the line, but properly trained apes can communicate using symbols, so the gap is not so great. The same argument applies for memory. Even snails have memory, apes have a much better memory, and we may have an even better memory than monkeys, but there is a gradual shift, just like evolutionary theory would predict..

Everyone who have studies cells I think will admit that they are extremely complex, and their development is still somewhat of a mystery, and perhaps it was a very unlikely event. There are however good theories that could explain how it happened, so I don't think it is necessary to bring in a creator...

I think the biggest problem with your reasoning is that it doesn't solve anything. Say there is a smart creator who have accelerated the evolution or created brand new species. How did that creator get here, how do you explain him/her/it?

Jan Thurin said...


I agree, your friend Cosmides seems like a very competent scientist. I was just intentionally provocative.

I guess we confirmed that the question of whether for example language is created or not is a question of belief in science. It is 50 years ago since Noam Chomsky lade down his theory of "deep structures", thus biologizing language, and they still have no evidence for genes that direct human grammar. The question in my mind is how long time the evolution paradigm is going to allow such a failure.

Happiness, as we noted, is another question of belief. However, my gut-feeling is that it is a true human emotion due to the fact that I talk about the opposite of melancolia. Depression is a human affair, like schizophrenia. There are no animal models for study.

I don't agree about a gradual increase in memory from the chimpanzees. A high school student have 50,000 words and a chimp manages only about 200-300.

It would indeed be great if you could give me a reference to a good theory about the first cell. I know of no such theory.

You end by saying that I do not solve anything with my theory. However, I did solve the problem with the first cell and the creation of language, declarative memory and thinking. I changed the focus of future work on the problem for myself. I can now focus on the creator. I don't have to work on the futile problem of how the components of a cell statistically will ignite metabolic life. Even devout Christians cannot argue about that since the Credo states that Jesus, i.e., God was materialistic (became flesh). Jesus was both human and divine. Finding out what God is is also a scientific task.


rasmussenanders said...

Everything in a sense is beliefs in science, however, I think the case for evolution is so much stronger than the belief in creationism. Sure, you solve pretty much every problem by saying that there is a creator who created everything. However, in doing so you get a much more difficult problem:

How did the creator arise?

Certain trained apes that I have read about have known up to about 3000 different symbols. An ape doesn't have our memory, and a dog doesn't not have an apes memory, in other words there is a gradual change over evolution.

Concerning the genetics of language it is very difficult, and for many characteristics, impossible to say that there is a certain gene responsible, language. There is however indirect evidence in that certain genetic diseases such as autism is associated with speech dissorders. Dyslexia is also a heritable disease.

The cell theory is simply that, when a lot of proteins, and lipids get together in a warm solution then the lipids can spontaneously form a bilayer (just like soapbubbles), around a bunch of proteines which would then function like a primitive kind of cell. Life is unlikely, but to invent a creator just makes the problem more difficult.

Z said...

Today i'm writing about a type of musical "sign language" which has definitely evolved through the centuries.
Although it's of course based on human language.

"our genes, containing the recipe for making us, do not care about our feeling. All they care about is replicating themselves."
Actually, they dont care about that either. "

Question is: Do WE care? What is CARING, really, described with biological terms? And does this caring concept actually exist at all?

rasmussenanders said...

Interesting, I will take a look at your post when it is up.

About caring I would say that "we" (as in humans) care about all kind of things. I certainly care about my feeling, I care about my well being, and I care about the people around me.

It is important to distinguish between us and our genes. The genes do not care about anything. However, genes that have made humans who care about things have had a higher fittness (evidently) throughout evolution, that is why we care about things.

Caring in biological terms I would say (right on top of my head) is that you have some sort of biological response to a stimuli

Anonymous said...

Ditt fina diagram är oehört skrattretande. Där diagrammet listar Sverige högt, högt, går WHO in och tillrättavisar Sverige för att den stora mentala ohälsan bland unga i vårt land. Och ohälsan ökar.

Det här med att anse sig ha skäl för att vara nöjd (vilket svensken som rationell går på - "jo visst har jag det bra, jag har du den rättighen och den.." (och knappast några skyldigheter)) och att verkligen vara lycklig är ju som kanske bekant ofta två helt olika företeelser.

Sverige har under sossarnas tid vid makten varit förträffliga på att sprida bilden av Sverige som "the happy leading nation" internationellt - i många avseenden så långt man kan komma från en långt mer bister verklighet.

Vi är i många avseenden långt ifrån ett föredöme vad gäller en kultur i vilken människor odlar sunda relationer, tar hand om sina barn och mår förehållandevis bra.

Ulf Pettersson said...

Jan Thurin:
"...still have no evidence for genes that direct human grammar"
So what? The human genome was mapped only very recently.

"...50,000 words and a chimp manages only about 200-300."
If the mechanism to store words is there, you may not need very many genes just to code for an increase in storage area.

"Finding out what God is is also a scientific task."
If we are to be consistent with our scientific principles we ought to judge this a completed task. Despite thousands of years of hard searching no evidence of god(s) has materialized. Furthermore, prediction after prediction made by religious doctrine have turned out to be wrong. Ergo, there are no gods.

Att ohälsan ökar har föga med diagrammet att göra. Inte heller är en ensam datapunkt relevant vid jämförelser med andra länder.

Åtskilliga lyckostudier placerar svenskar främst, eller bland de främsta.

Sverige är verkligen en "happy leading nation" internationellt. Finns hur mycket forskning och statistik som helst på det.

rasmussenanders said...

To Ulf Pettersson
Thank you for responding to the arguments, now I don't have to...

kiki said...

i would really caution against extended families. this leads to much fighting & paybacks.actually children usually get much more positive nurturing and focus from the parents in nuclear families or very small family units. society as a whole stagnates in primitive societies that practise the extended family system. the children can be horribly neglected whilst mum or dad is busy relating to large numbers of distant kin. relatives actually distract the parental focus from the offspring. the parent /child bond can have no hope of forming properly in these extended family societies. crime & chaos result with child abuse a big factor. traditional lifestyles cause riots in australia with people able to mobilize 200 relatives to a fight.
maybe civilization is dependent on people not knowing their relatives.
hej sa lange kiki

rasmussenanders said...

To Kiki,
Do you have any evidence to support the view that contact with extended kin is bad, becuase Buss data seems to suggest otherwise.

In my own experience extended kin can be good in terms of taking of some of the pressure on the parents and also in terms of helping with many other aspects of life (e.g. finding a good job, having a place to stay).

I am not dogmatic on this point though, proper evidence could definetly sway me in the other direction...

Z said...

I agree with Kiki on the fightbacks and the feuds.

But atren't these caused by poverty, really? I don't know.

Philip Florip said...

Happiness is not a destination. It is a method of life. This is a quote by Burton Hills and I firmly believe in it.