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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