When people are asked what they want out of life, quite a few will answer, ‘I want to be happy.’ This is a fairly universal desire, but finding happiness is not so easy. There is the matter of finding happiness and then sustaining it. Everyone has their own story, though we all share one larger story, which is the evolutionary story. There are numerous reasons why happiness can be illusive; I’ve long suspected that our evolutionary past is one of them.
An Old Problem
Let’s go back in time somewhere around 200,000 years ago and imagine what life was like. Modern humans (Homo sapiens) were in their infancy. People lived in relatively small groups and were hunter gathers. This life style was the norm for several thousand years until the birth of agriculture at about 9,000 BC. Agriculture would eventually lead to civilization and the society we have today.
Organized society is new from an evolutionary perspective, so new that modern humans lived absent form it for nearly 190,000 years. This means that in order to appreciate how our evolutionary history affects us today, we need to think about how people lived in the distant past. Furthermore, one can go back as much as 2 million years and take into account pre-modern humans (they would have lived in much the same way). That’s a long time for evolution to shape human beings and some markers remain.
Given the challenges our ancestors faced, dissatisfaction could very easily have been a selected trait. There was no time for complacency, when food supplies were tenuous and predators or enemies were lurking. In order to survive and reproduce in primitive conditions, a satisfied and happy individual could have been at a disadvantage over a hungry and restless one. A human who was longing for more food, more power, more sex etc. should on average out-perform (from an evolutionary stand point) a satisfied and comfortable one. Traits which were acquired at times of scarcity or danger—useful for thousands of years—can be difficult to turn off. The desire for more has largely been selected over satisfaction. In simple terms, satisfaction is designed by natural selection to be temporary and evaporate.
A Modern Interpretation
It is important to keep in mind that evolution knows nothing of suffering and is not concerned with our happiness. So that leaves us to sort out the feelings and desires which are inherent. I’m pretty sure we can all relate to short-lived satisfaction in various aspects of our lives. Each stage of life has its milestones and once reached, it usually doesn’t take long before something else seems to be missing. There are always other obstacles to overcome; some are self-conceived, while others arise unexpectedly. There exists a hunger for more or better in varying degrees, depending on the individual. This could mean more money, increased status, better relationships or more of anything.
Now let’s do a though experiment: We will take as a given that happiness is high on the list of objectives in life. People are given two choices, 1) They can continue to live their lives as usual and let it play out or 2) They can be given a happy pill which is guaranteed to work regardless of what happens going forward. What would the majority of people choose? Some would probably take the happy pill and rest easy. Maybe there situation is such that they can’t live with the present or foresee a hopeful future. However, my guess is that the happy pill would be untenable for many. Taking the happy pill would be akin to going through life drunk.
I think what people mean when they say, ‘I want to be happy,’ is deeper than just a feeling. They want a feeling which reflects the quality of their lives. Happiness is mostly a by-product of a life well lived. If I’m correct in my assumptions, evolution plays a vital role. Our shared evolutionary past makes it difficult to hold on to happiness as a permanent state. Maybe that’s a good thing and evolution has it right. Just as dissatisfaction and restlessness would have helped our distant ancestors survive, it can also be a driving force for progress. This is as true in the modern world as it was in the past. The desire to learn more, do more and improve our circumstance is often fueled by some degree of dissatisfaction along the way.
If happiness is pursued as something one can get or have, then frustration is prone to follow. Perhaps it is more realistic to think about happiness as analogous to an ocean wave arriving on shore. We can let it wash over us, knowing it will pass, yet likely to return. At times when we are feeling dissatisfied with our life situation, it might be useful to see it as an essential part of the human condition. It is normal to feel unhappy at various times in our lives. In fact, periods of unhappiness have most likely accompanied humankind for practically 200,000 years.