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.


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