As a conclusion to the study unit ‘The Biology of Struggle: Evolutionary Insights into Everyday Problems’ which I have been delivering to satisfied students as part of the University of Malta’s Programme for Liberal Arts and Sciences, comes the evolution of happiness. There’s a reason why it sits quietly at the end of the line, waiting for its turn after a trip through topics that are both more interesting and more of a match to the title of the course – things such as the great struggles of life, getting a grip on emotions, facing problems with parenting, understanding the male-female sex divide, figuring out to what extent personality traits shape people’s behaviour, and the very modern problem of eating the right type of food – and that reason is that I secretly hope to run out of time and not be able to discuss it.
Luckily for everyone involved, this tactic didn’t work the last time we ran the course, because when I asked students to choose topics for a tutorial session, there came a request for happiness that I couldn’t refuse. Let’s start with what this topic is all about. Basically, this is where we take a look at how the same evolutionary perspective that sheds light on the nature of our troubles and anxieties can also offer insights on the major obstacles that stand between us and happiness.
In reality, there is nothing very new or surprising. One of these barriers comes from the famous ‘evolutionary mismatch’, the discrepancy between the modern environment, this strange world in which we are surrounded by straight lines, rigid schedules, angry mirrors, mobile cameras, and bright cities, and what we romantically call the ancestral environment, the Pleistocene savannah, or the home of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This evil mismatch, in case you were wondering, is the culprit behind some of our odd behaviour, including irrational fears, uncontrollable addictions, and our obesogenic, carcinogenic, diabetogenic, and cardiovascular-disease-ogenic diets.
Another impediment to finding happiness is our baggage of psychological tools, including things such as anger and upset, sexual jealousy, the many varieties of anxiety, and ultimate depression, the programme that shuts down all other programmes when things fail. Viewed from an evolutionary angle, these are all adaptations that have been designed to solve one problem or another, but because nature does not care for our happiness, the way they work is by producing distress, so we might be rid of one problem but lumped with the unhappiness, or worse, still troubled and unhappy in one go.
Evolution has produced another big obstacle on our way to happiness: competition. This one is easy to understand: one person’s loss is another person’s gain. It is precisely the reason why we often mistake interpersonal strategic interference between males and females at work for a conflict that belongs in the more aggressive battle of the sexes, and also why we take a few steps back to wonder what’s wrong with people who do not, under any circumstances, try to gain advantage at the expense of others, or take pleasure in the misfortunes of others, that type of feeling that is best captured by the German word ‘Schadenfreude’.
There are other barriers to happiness, but I risk running out of space, so I’ll skip some of the darker chapters and pass straight on to evolutionary recipes for happiness. As you can imagine, some of the remedies involve undoing the previous wrongs – things such as minding the gap between the modern and the evolutionary environment; reducing distress; and managing competition. The other method is a bit more intriguing because it offers a broader range of possibilities, and this is the fulfilment of our desire for valuables such as health, friends and family, professional success, intimacy, personal safety, romantic partners, food that tastes great, resources (mostly money), and aesthetic pleasures. I have produced advice about some of these pleasures before, including tips on how to extract joy by for example, making sure to meet a friend after 6 pm so you can drink wine rather than coffee; taking pictures of clouds on your way to work and then testing different filters; immersing yourself in a mist of your most expensive perfume for that boring Monday meeting; having an intellectual conversation with your dog; smelling soil and leaves (not necessarily after the rain); sorting and cooking vegetables by colour even when you’re not posting on Instagram; and getting yourself a precious gift on your birthday and also on a perfectly random day.
The truth is, we are not designed for happiness, we are designed to solve problems, which is why most of the natural adaptations we possess are intended to do just that. And if solving problems, for which we have been shaped, is hard work, just imagine what finding happiness entails! To begin with, you need to understand the source of your misery – and whether it is inherited, inevitable, ill-conceived, or a mix of the above – and then after peeling back the layers of misfortune one by one, you need to fill the void with ‘good things’. I guess there’s a reason why people over the age of 40, even when they’re supposed to begin life, continue to insist that ‘life is too short’ to be wasted on fruitless adventures.
Why we should stop chasing happiness should be clear by now, the next obvious question is what to chase instead. This is something I have thought about deeply myself, often in times of trouble, and in those moments when I fear the happiness gained will be lost on a soft whistle by the wind. I’m proposing we chase benefits – the benefits of treasured friendships that are forged in fire and that can carry you through a storm like a sturdy ship; the benefits of caring for children, irrespective of whether they are the ones living in your house; the benefits of nature, with its harsh edges and soft heart; the benefits of learning as a map to unlock the mind, and of physical training as a means to strengthen the body and sharpen the senses; the benefits of good food, whether prepared at the end of a long day or by one of the world’s most talented chefs; the benefit of staring at indescribable beauty until your eyes hurt; the benefits of discovering yourself and the power within; the benefits of becoming familiar with risks, dangers, and the smaller monsters of the jungle; the benefits of a life partner with whom you can exchange support and excitement; and the benefits of money, which you can either donate or use to buy additional benefits.
It becomes a cycle for fun.
Just try it.