The Limits of Happiness?

I recently quoted some of Steven Pinker’s observations in How the Mind Works about an evolutionary perspective on happiness. Those ideas have stayed on my mind. The topic is comparatively new and it is complex: emotions are subjective, their names are approximate, and they don’t leave fossils. But the evolutionary viewpoint might shed added light on the nature of all the positive emotions that we put under the umbrella of happiness.

What I gather from Pinker is that we tend to think, inaccurately,  that the positive emotions such as happiness, pleasure, and contentment are similar to negative feelings such as fear and sadness in that all of them can range in intensity from mild to extreme and all of them, pleasant and painful alike, can range from brief to long-lasting. We know that people can be mildly sad for a couple of days or severely depressed for years. And in a parallel way, we think that people can be cheerfully happy for a few hours after a social event, which we can, or ecstatically happy for years—which, with rare exceptions, we cannot. “Happiness without limits.” Perhaps—my comment, not Pinker’s— our culture’s relentless messages about the “pursuit” and affordability of happiness have fostered an image of  happiness as a goal that we can reach, hold on to, and even get “better” at.  Not so, says Pinker.

happiness limits poster (

For starters, “There are twice as many negative emotions (fear, grief, anxiety, and so on) as positive ones.” This difference is one clue that the positive emotions are not exactly opposites of the negative ones. Another is that “[P]eople’s mood plummets more when imagining a loss in their lives…than it rises when imagining an equivalent gain.” There are not only more negative than positive emotions but the negative ones pack a stronger punch.

The reason, in terms of evolution, is that there are limits to the benefits of happiness that don’t apply to the negative emotions. Pinker: “The psychologist Timothy Ketelaar notes that happiness tracks the effect of resources on biological fitness. As things get better, increases in fitness show diminishing returns: more food is better, but only up to a point. But as things get worse, decreases in fitness can take you out of the game: not enough food, and you’re dead” (392).

In other words, the dangers of of injury, illness, and enemies call for variable levels of pain and emotional distress to signal the seriousness of the threat—emotional smoke alarms that can grow louder and last longer as the threat intensifies. On the other hand, the joys of health, sociability, creativity, and even spirituality don’t call for such an intensification. We would gain no improved fitness for survival from a growing intensity of feeling good to feeing joyful to feeling ecstatic for growing lengths of time. In fact, sustained joy at too high a level might mean letting our guard down; happiness with no limits could increase risks. The wisdom of  “too much of a good thing” seems more deeply rooted in our biology than we imagined.

This is a topic I hope to pursue again. Interesting related readings include a discussion over at Humanistic Paganism on the potential excesses of spiritual experiences. And this 2009 dissertation by Kenneth Lehman on Darwinian Happiness , while specialized, is informative in its opening pages about the definitions and assessment techniques that research psychologists work with in happiness studies.


Spirituality and Evolution

My wrestling with various late-life questions that might be called “spiritual” has taken me to a fuller appreciation of evolution and our biological history. The sequence here, the process—or so it has seemed to me—is that I’ve been looking for answers and the result or goal has been a new appreciation of our past. Those who believe in traditional religions often describe a similar sequence: their search for meaning leads them to God. The pattern seems to be that the human impulse comes first, the connection with a spiritual something-larger follows.

But what if the sequence is actually the other way around, if the something-larger has been doing the prompting in some way, if what we experience as our search is the work of the “larger” force. This idea is quite common in Christianity. Christians often say, more or less, “I was looking for God, but of course it was God all the time who wanted me to find Him.”

Maybe a similar reversal makes some sense for naturalists who replace God with evolution and biological history. That is, perhaps it has been beneficial for our survival and reproductive success to be inclined towards thinking about such topics as how we got here, where we go when we die, what the essence of life is. Perhaps spiritual thinking has been adaptive.

One writer who has made this case is a commenter on this blog who goes by the name of Discovered Joys. He or she seems to be both a skeptic and a broad thinker. In a comment on a post, he describes how most of the inanimate,“stateless” processes that fill the universe take place without connection to the past; matter and energy do what they do without any “adjustments” to how those reactions have taken place in the past. However, a few “stateful” bits of matter—i. e., us—adjust our responses and processes according to memories of previous conditions. To make such adjustments successfully, it helps to have an understanding of how and why things come about as they do. Discovered Joys writes,

I think it likely that stateful organisms such as us are inclined (as a result of evolutionary processes) to be selected for building ‘narratives’, ‘rules of thumb’ etc. to improve our stateful responses. As a consequence we are conditioned to try and find meaning and purpose…. For me, the hunger for spiritualism (meaning and purpose) is an individual’s evolutionarily driven behaviour.

In other words, natural selection has fostered the rudiments of spirituality in us, the inclination to look deeply at how and why things have happened, because that tendency has been to our advantage for survival and reproduction.

A different connection is fleetingly suggested by a pair of sentences from a very different source. Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl Wudunn’s A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity (2014) is a must-read about the current reformation in our knowledge of how to help other people effectively.

At one point the authors are discussing the well-established fact that our helping others benefits our own health because it creates social ties. Then they add this: “Maybe this deep-rooted social element in all of us explains our yearning for a life of meaning. We wonder about our purpose: we care about our legacy” (17).

In other words, maybe what happens is not that we help others in order to find a life of meaning. Maybe it’s the other way around: we seek purpose and meaning in the first place because unconsciously it prompts us to get out and make the social ties that are good for us. Kristoff and WuDunn don’t say more than that, but the “deep-rootedness” of the human social drive that is so important to our well-being does suggest that any quality that contributes to it, including spirituality, would have an evolutionary benefit.

Such discussions about evolution-driven spirituality are certainly speculative. Finding out if they have any foothold in reality would require a large study of whether people with so-called spiritual characteristics, whatever those may be exactly, are more successful at survival and reproduction than a random sample of the population. For all we know, the data may show that spirituality makes no difference at all in achieving evolutionary success. It may even carry a disadvantage; moody thoughtfulness about life and purpose might turn out to be a handicap for people struggling against hard circumstances. Still, the fact that spirituality is engrained in so many of us, even in our DNA, begs the question of why it got there.

The Fading Individual

I used to see people, including myself, as individuals first and as social creatures after that. Emotions and words, my own and others’, seemed the prime movers; groups, society as a whole, seemed a context, a setting, not an essence. I was me, Brock Haussamen, a unique bundle of thoughts and feelings, and I could insert that bundle into conversations, relationships, and social conventions or not, as I chose. This perspective came easily to an introverted young man. And it was supported by the great romance of male/Western/modern/American individualism.

But over the last decade or two I’ve come to see how life—all life, especially human life—is primarily and profoundly social. It’s been a disillusionment and a revelation at the same time. By social, I mean that living things are largely built by interactions with others and for such interactions. We like to think that we humans are distinguished from other species by our private consciousness and from each other by our winning personalities. But our consciousness and our individual traits turn out to be products of the joys, pains, love, violence, tedium, and necessity of our connections to other people and living things. The social underlies the individual, not the other way around.

Social bacteria, playing different roles (

Social bacteria, playing different roles

Many ideas and pieces of information have shifted my point of view.

Bacteria: The earliest and simplest life forms relied on interactions. Billions of years ago, bacteria made the great leap forward of developing a nucleus when they absorbed other bacteria. Natural selection took off when bacteria moved beyond cloning themselves to exchanging DNA with each other. And we in turn carry around several pounds of necessary bacteria, interacting with it constantly; our body is literally a community.

Darwin: The engines of evolution described by Darwin—competition and cooperation—are largely social. Even plants, indifferent to each other, are ultimate competitors. For early humans, the social experiences of hunting and village life over hundreds of thousands of years led to language, organization, and morality. Religion relies on concepts articulated by groups and reflects a sense of security in belonging to the group itself. And current research tells us that good health, physical and mental, depends in large part on our engagement with friends, family, and community.

A social animal (

A social animal

Brain: Our intelligence is more of a social instrument than we might think given how private our thoughts seem to be. Whenever we finish a particular cognitive task, such as figuring out a math problem, our brain almost always reverts to thinking about ourselves or other people. (Try it.) And our consciousness itself, our self-awareness, apparently has roots in our brain’s capacity to keep track of other people and relationships; as part of monitoring that complex network, it seems that the brain constructs an “I” as an on-going player.

Species success: Viewed broadly, successful species have acquired special skills that make them effective at living in their particular environmental niches. Our human survival skill seems to be our social intelligence, and our niche seems practically global.

Of course, the importance of our social nature is obvious to us, up to a point. Love, family, community, friendship, charity, compassion, hospitality are all almost universal values. And yet we can also push back hard against the dominance of the social. When the social network feels oppressive, we stand firm on our individuality, our rights. We deny the legitimacy of the social rules, we change allies, feud with the family, withdraw. We agree with Sartre that “Hell is other people” and insist that true peace lies within us. And yet such moves towards solitude never stray too far from how we perceive others and how we imagine they perceive us.

Nodes in a network.  (

Nodes in a network.

It’s tempting to conclude that we and all living things are essentially nodes, junctions, in a network of living things and that humans happen to be the kind of node with the bizarre illusion of being separate. But that might be going overboard. A better image is a Venn diagram with each of us a very small shaded intersection where the huge ovals of other people, other organisms, and the force of the past all overlap.