When I was twenty-one, I spent six weeks backpacking in South America.
The first part of the trip involved volunteering in a village in the Amazon rainforest to help improve the local water supply.
Our group’s task was to build toilets (from scratch) which involved a lot of basic, and hard manual labour – mixing concrete, digging holes with shovels, etc.
Although it was challenging work, it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Our group was filled with amazing people from all over the world, I experienced a completely foreign culture first-hand, and found myself immersed in the breath-taking scenery of the Amazon rain forest.
One of the things that surprised me most was the local villagers.
These people had little money, few possessions, and lived a very simple life. By Western standards, they were well below the poverty line.
But as far as I could see, they were content.
They seemed to have a strong sense of community. You would see families, friends and their neighbours sitting out in the evening enjoying food, socialising and laughing. The kids would regularly be playing football in the street. There was a beach in the town where the local boys would have stone throwing competitions, while the girls watched on in admiration.
When I compared their way of life to what I was used to back home, something occurred to me.
These people had next to nothing in terms of material wealth, but as a community, they were much happier than what the ones I had experienced back home.
I mean, how often do we get together with neighbours to sit and enjoy an evening? How often do you see kids out playing in the street? In our culture, neighbours are usually strangers and we’re more likely to spend our evenings in front of a screen.
The experience made me wonder about happiness.
What really causes it?
And why, despite our material ‘wealth’, are so many of us discontent in the modern world?
‘Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.’Theodosius Dobzhansky
The best theory we have about how the world works is Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Therefore, if something doesn’t make sense, evolution can often offer a helpful lens to look through.
So, what does evolution have to say about happiness?
In ‘The Social Leap‘, Professor Bill von Hippel explains the evolutionary psychology of happiness, why it evolved and how this affects us in the modern world.
In this post, we’ll explore three insights from evolutionary psychology you can use to set your life up for long term happiness and fulfilment.
#1 – Enjoy the Hunt
‘Happiness is not something you postpone for the future; it is something you design for the present’Jim Rohn
Above all else, our genes want to survive and be passed on to the next generation.
Therefore, we have evolved emotional reward systems that get activated when we do something that increases our genes’ chances of survival.
For example, our systems get flooded endorphins when we exercise, dopamine when we achieve a goal, and oxytocin when we bond with an intimate partner.
This might offer a suggestion as to the fleeting nature of our happiness.
Our goals as hunter gatherers were often related to hunting wild animals. If happiness evolved as a way to motivate us to engage in behaviours that helped our genes to survive and reproduce, then it makes perfect sense that feelings of happiness after achieving a goal would be temporary.
To illustrate this, let’s compare two hypothetical cavemen – we’ll call them Dave and John.
Dave goes out, kills a mammoth, and lives happily ever after. He now stays at home in the cave and tells the story of his epic adventure for the rest of his days.
John, on the other hand, also kills a mammoth, and feels happy for a day or two. But soon, his happiness fades, he becomes discontent and this motivates him to get back out hunting again.
Who, of the two, do you think would be more likely to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation?
If you’re reading this, the chances are, you are descended from a long line of Johns, rather than a long line of Daves.
We can see from this example that the happiness we get from goal achievement didn’t evolve to be a lasting state.
It evolved to motivate us to get out hunting again for the next kill.
This suggests that if we want to build long term happiness in the modern world, it would be wise to learn how to enjoy the journey towards our goals (the hunt), rather than just postponing happiness until we eventually achieve them (the kill).
Otherwise, we’ll exist in what Scott Adams refers to as a state of ‘pre-success’ failure for most of our days – only enjoying those rare fleeting moments when we reach our goals.
#2 – Be Embedded in a Community of Likeminded People
‘For a social species, to be on the edge of the social perimeter is to be in a dangerous position. The brain goes into a self-preservation state that brings with it a lot of unwanted effects.’John Cacioppo
For millions of years, our survival depended upon fitting into a close-knit group.
With dangerous predators around every corner, safety came in numbers.
A lion could easily pick off one human on their own, but would have great difficulty in approaching a group of thirty.
Because survival depended on belonging to a group, our bodies have developed acute stress signals that make us feel pain when we are excessively isolated. The purpose of the pain is to motivate us to go find our tribe again.
Think about it…
If you were isolated in the jungle, you were in real, physical danger.
Our genes want to survive, so evolution needed to develop a mechanism that would motivate us to return to the group. This is why, when we feel lonely (even in the modern world), the stress hormone cortisol is released.
When we have excessive amounts of cortisol in our system, it creates a toxic internal environment which weakens our immune system, and ages us prematurely. Research has found that loneliness can be as bad for your health as obesity and smoking, and that lonely people are much more likely to die young than those who feel embedded in a community.
Therefore, one of the most important things you can do to guarantee long term happiness is to embed yourself in a community of likeminded people.
Notice how I said likeminded there?
Well this part is critical, because it’s also important to feel emotionally connected to those around us.
Again, there are evolutionary reasons for this.
Groups that shared emotions in our distant past would have been more cohesive and therefore more likely to survive than those who didn’t.
For example, if a group of early humans spotted a predator on the horizon, and all felt fear simultaneously, then they would flee together and be more likely to survive.
Now compare this with a rival group who see the same predator on the horizon but experience different emotions.
Some members feel fear, while others feel excitement.
The excited members want to attack, and the fearful members want to flee. Because of this, groups who did not share emotions were more indecisive, less cohesive, and therefore less likely to survive than those who did.
As we are descended from the successful groups that did share emotions, this means that we have built in emotional reward systems that get activated when we spend time with people who we feel emotionally connected to, with similar values and beliefs.
Oxytocin, for example, is a feel-good hormone that gets released during social bonding situations. Interestingly, research has found that oxytocin makes people more cooperative with their group and make us see our own group as superior to other groups.
Therefore, if you want to set your life up for long term happiness and fulfilment, one of the most effective things you can do is to embed yourself in a community of likeminded others.
#3 – Invest in Experiences
‘We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.’Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
As hunter gatherers, resources (and our ability to generate them) were a signal that we had good genes.
Therefore, the females in our groups were attracted to resourceful males.
This, in turn, gave males a very strong evolutionary incentive to accumulate resources and symbols of status. Because the more resources they had, the more likely they were more likely to pass their genes on to the next generation.
This ancient motivation still affects us in the modern world.
We have a strong tendency to want to accumulate things because on a very deep level, the primitive part of our brains’ think that if we accumulate things, we increase our status, and therefore are more likely to pass our genes on to the next generation.
Hence why we buy Ferraris, huge houses, gold watches, etc.
They are an indicator of evolutionary fitness.
However, although our primitive brains want to spend money accumulating things,the science suggests that if we want long term happiness, a different approach is required.
Research shows that people who spend their money on experiences are much happier than people who spend their money on things.
There are a few reasons why this might be the case.
First, the experiences we spend money on usually involve spending time with other, likeminded people. As mentioned earlier in this post, being around likeminded others is one of the best ways to guarantee long term happiness.
Second, these experiences tend to have high levels of novelty. Brain research shows that putting your brain in novel situations leads to a rush of dopamine and heightened states of awareness.
Third, experiences stay with you for the rest of your life. They become part of you. Let’s say you have £1,000 to spend and you are struggling to decide on whether to use the money to buy the latest iphone or go on an adventure trip with some friends.
If you spend the £1,000 on the iPhone, you’ll feel good for a while.
But inevitably, those feelings will go away, and after a few weeks, it’ll just be like having any other phone again. However, if you invest the £1,000 in the trip, that experience becomes part of you and will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Reflecting on it can bring you joy 10 years, 20 years, even 50 years in the future.
When writing the opening of this blog post about my trip to South America, I noticed I became flooded with positive emotions about it.
That trip was seven years ago and I’m still benefiting from it.
Evolutionary psychology tells us that our brains evolved to help us survive in an environment that is very different to the one we live in today.
Therefore, if we want to better understand ourselves, it can help to take an evolutionary perspective.
Because if you know why happiness evolved in the first place, and the circumstances that are most likely to lead to it (in the long term), then you can proactively take action to improve your quality of life in the modern world.
Learning to enjoy the hunt, embedding yourself in a community of likeminded people, and investing in experiences are three effective ways you can do that.