Dear Darwin: Evolution doesn’t want you too happy
March 17, 2010
Research has shown that when portions of various foods – meats, pies or other types of rations – are divided equally and then passed out to recipients, some will feel that they’ve been cheated and that the person next to them got a bigger serving, a larger endowment.
And if a bigger slice of pie makes people happy, what else elevates the human spirit?
Well, for the more emotional members of our species – the abstract thinkers who are in touch with their feelings and who are likely to gab for hours on over tea and lady finger cookies (such as male snowboarders) – it appears that house flies might be the key to happiness. Actually, this may apply to all males.
Two words: target practice. A report on National Public Radio investigated a strange phenomena that’s been unfolding in the men’s restrooms of Amsterdam’s main airport. It appears that flies aren’t just camping out in the homes of Amity Ville anymore. They’ve gone from haunting East Coast residences to hanging out it in European airports. Talk about a flight upgrade. But not so fast; they’ve only made it as far as the urinals. They’ve sacrificed themselves for the greater good: Their doing their part to help cure male-pattern wayward flow.
Actually, the flies aren’t real. They’ve been placed there by the cleaning staff. The winged replicas apparently inspire men to direct their output toward the fly, thereby keeping it where it belongs. Keep in mind that men are highly complex beings that require much stimulation and nurturing to be happy. Yeah whatever. It doesn’t take much to keep guys entertained. A few flies, beers, and an airport will keep them amused for hours.
Fun stuff aside, what’s the real key to happiness?
If we approach this topic by realizing that nature – evolution – may not want us to be all that happy in the first place, our happiness deficit will make more sense. This idea can be summed up in the following quote by evolutionary psychologist Laura Betzig, “Happy people are not ambitious; they do not build civilizations.”
What she means is that nature intentionally keeps happiness out of reach. If we were always happy and content, we would not be motivated to improve our state: Things would be just peachy, 24/7. By keeping the happiness carrots – karats? – dangling in front of our twitching little noses, nature inspires us to keep reaching for more.
And it’s actually been found that people tend to overestimate the level of happiness they will experience when they reach a desired goal. For example, research carried out by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert has found that the promotion, BMW, or dream house that you’ve been working vigorously toward, when ultimately acquired, will make you happy, but only for a short time. The envisioned happiness quickly fades after attaining these landmark achievements.
He calls this process “affective forecasting.” Regardless of what it’s called, from your genes’ point of view, the improvements were made.
And that may be the whole point. It may be that our genes drive us toward these goals to improve our lots – so that we become more enticing mating candidates or so that we provide more for our families.
So what really makes people happy? In the words of yet another Harvard psychologist and author, Steven Pinker, “It is not the rich, privileged, robust or good looking who are happy; it is those who have spouses, friends, religion and challenging, meaningful work.”
For guy snowboarders though, it’s apparently cookies and tea served on silver platters complete with doilies. Well, maybe not for Shaun White.
Robert Valko is a graduate of Northwestern University and currently is writing two books on evolutionary psychology. E-mail Robert with column ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.