Why Happiness?

You can’t be happier than the person you’re with. I’ve tried. It doesn’t go over well. Scott Adams

Why did evolution makes us (sometimes) happy? One standard story, and in fact the only story I’ve found so far in a quick search, is that happiness is just our mind’s way of telling us what we want. We consciously want to be happy, and so to direct our behavior our subconscious tells us that we are happy doing what it wants us to do.

But this can’t be the whole story. Not only are we well aware of wanting as a different feeling from happiness, we know of many systematic differences between our wants and our happiness. For example, even though we expect these choices to make us less happy, we expect we’ll pick money over sleep, shorter commutes, leisure time, friends, family, and legacy. We’ll pick school over a social life, and a career-helping internship over interesting one. And we’ll pick attending a favorite musician’s concert over a friend’s birthday party or reporting a crime. (Source) Two other fascinating cases:

To reconcile the intuition that Americans today are better off than in the past with the finding that average SWB [= subjective well-being] has remained flat in the U.S. over the past decades, we ask respondents to rank being born in 1950 versus being born in 1990 in both choice and SWB questions. Although our respondents overwhelmingly favor being born in 1990 in both questions, more choose 1990 despite believing that they would be happier in 1950 than the reverse. …

To reconcile the intuition that expanding political and economic freedoms for women have made women better off with the finding that average SWB among women has declined in the U.S. since the 1970s, both absolutely and relative to men, we ask respondents to rank living in a world with or without these expanded freedoms for women. Again, significantly more respondents choose a world with these expanded freedoms for women in spite of believing that a world without them would make them happier than the reverse. (more)

These all seem to me reasonably consistent with our thinking we’ll be happier doing what others approve, and what connects us to them. Our visible happiness functions in part to convince our associates that that we care about their approval and contact. This fits with smiles, taken as an indicator of happiness, also being seen as signs of submissiveness – athletes and runway models rarely smile in photos. (More on smiles)

This seems similar to a plausible theory of pain, that pain is in part a call for help from associates:

Certain types of [human] pain are not associated with any physiological damage, and studies that show the presence of others can affect reported sensations of pain. Labour pain is another good example. Across all human cultures, there are nearly always helpers, from relatives to medical professionals, who attend births. … By contrast, among our primate relatives, solitary birth is the norm. Human childbirth appears to be uniquely painful among members of the animal kingdom. … I suggest that protracted labour pains make us show distress and recruit help from others well in advance of the birth – a strategy that offers a survival advantage. (more)

Added 6:30p: Calls for people to be happy, and to teach them what leads to happiness, can be seen as calls from associates to attach yourself more strongly to them and conform more strongly to their norms and pressures.

Added 12May: Bryan Caplan correctly points out that in the last two cases above, of being born earlier and women’s rights, it is choices that are in the direction of doing what others approve and connecting to them. Happiness goes against those things there. Bryan also suggests that we tend to choose money and status over happiness because of social pressure to work hard and succeed. In this view athletes and runway models don’t smile as a signal of having sacrificed happiness for status. This all makes sense; it seems I was just confused.

But Bryan’s account raises the question of why happiness doesn’t encode our value for status and social approval, as it encodes so many other values. Bryan suggests that this is because “foragers tend to act on impulses that farmers strive to suppress.” Somehow the transition to farming changed the values we use to chose actions in a way that wasn’t reflected in the processes by which our minds compute happiness. But surely foragers had to deal with social pressures and status; those issues arose long before farmers. So there seems to be more to this story that we don’t yet understand.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as: ,
Trackback URL:
  • Hilbert Spartacus

    No doubt pain and pleasure can be social, but I doubt that their primary evolutionary cause is social. Lots of it is simple, near-term feedback: Empty your bladder, get your hand out of the fire, stay in the warm water longer, eat more of that fruit. There is some feedback learning to this, and in social creatures like us it extends to social feedback: Approach the girl who smiles at you, stop annoying the big fellow who scoles at you.

    About the last paragraph: Aren’t human baby heads simply bigger than other animal baby heads (relative to body size)?

    • Yes of course the main function of happiness isn’t social. I said “in part”. On birth pain, the article says other animals with similar head issues have much less pain.

      • IMASBA

        I’m pretty sure there are no other animals with “similar head issues”. Humans really do have the most traumatic births and a very high maternal death rate, it’s not “between our ears”. It’s one of many areas in which humans are particularly vulnerable and which could only evolve because our ancestors have used tools and technologies such as fire for a very long time.

      • You can even be bothered to follow the link to see what is claimed there?

      • UWIR


        1. There is some simple, legal way of accessing the article without spending money that I am not aware.

        2. You do not respect IPR, and expect your readers to feel similarly.

        3. You are simply oblivious to the fact that the article is behind a pay wall.

        4. You think that it is completely legitimate to disparage those who are not willing to spend money just so that they can make an “educated” rebuttal of your argument.

      • This popular article claims otherwise: “Is Giving Birth Easier for Other Animals?” – ( http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/explainer/2012/09/animals_giving_birth_dolphins_bear_newborns_easily_but_hyenas_risk_death_.html )

        “When it comes to the relative size of newborn craniums, humans are not unrivaled. While most apes have ample pelvises for bearing their offspring, many other primates are not so lucky. Squirrel monkey infants have such large heads compared to the size of their mothers’ pelvises that they face a very high rate of birth complications.”

      • IMASBA

        examples.s for the link. 18% maternal mortality rate for first time mother hyenas makes them comparable to humans in that regard, I did not know about them. Although humans still have longer pregnancies and births so the whole experience is still very traumatizing even when everything goes well, hyenas do not experience that (they don’t need to be nursed by the pack before and after giving birth). And, to get back to Robin’s subject, hyenas are social animals and rely on members of the pack to protect females giving birth, just like humans.

        I wish I could get past the paywall and see which animals supposedly have traumatic births and go through them alone. I could then also read why they think humans are the only social species that has learned to use pain as a signal (and without creating boy-who-cried-wolf issues).

      • IMASBA

        At the beginning of this post I was thanking Stephen for the link, but something went wrong.


    “One standard story, and in fact the only story I’ve found so far in a quick search, is that happiness is just our mind’s way of telling us what we want.”

    The way I see it happiness is an ancient, primitive reward function (it also indicates satisfaction: if you’re happy after one plate of dinner you’ll stop eating and won’t eat yourself to death). Wanting is a function of more recent parts of the brain. Wanting enables long term planning, even when that conflicts with short term happiness. In a way there’s a near/far mode duality here.

    Happiness is not intrinsically a social phenomenon, it’s simply that most basic reward function that every creature or machine needs to “get out of bed”. Wanting is a higher form of this reward function for smarter creatures and machines who need to plan ahead.

    • I, too, think it’s near-far – but the reverse.

      • charlie

        Yes, he oddly has the definitions of “wants” and “happiness” exactly backwards.

      • IMASBA

        I wasn’t implying an order when I said near/far (near/far is what Robin calls the clt duality, not far/near), just that the difference between happiness and wanting was similar to the near/far difference (nobody says far/near). I’d say wanting has far-ish characteristics and happiness has more near-ish characteristics.

  • Philon

    So happiness is important because it leads to *expressions of happiness*, which are valuable just to the extent that they communicate submissiveness to the group? And pain is important because it leads to *expressions of pain*, which are valuable just to the extent that they communicate requests for help? Both these theses seem unduly social: my happiness and my pain are important to me also for non-social reasons.

    • They are credible signals to your group that you actually care about pleasing the group. If they didn’t matter to you that wouldn’t work.

      • Philon

        It seems to me that I would want to *be* happy even if I were somehow prevented from *expressing happiness (in a way that would be noticed by others)*. A social/evolutionary explanation of the *origin* of happiness may be correct, but that will not fully explain the *present importance* of happiness.

      • If being and expressing happiness naturally went together in the past, then evolution would select for them together as a unit. What’s left to explain?

      • that will not fully explain the *present importance* of happiness.

        The costliness of happiness as a signal depends on our seeking it even when others aren’t present.

        True, we don’t seek happiness mainly to ingratiate others with others. (At least I don’t think so.) But if ingratiation is the evolutionary function of happiness, this will tend to leave an imprint on the mechanisms by which it is realized, although it may not be possible in advance to say how. (Birth pain, smiling, etc.)

        [I’m not a utilitarian, but the distinction between want-satisfaction and happiness has implications for that doctrine. Bentham’s famous formula is stated in terms of happiness. The version of utilitarianism Robin favors frames it in terms of want satisfaction. The appeal of both the satisfaction and happiness versions (given that they are quite different) is a clue that neither is adequate, much like the contradiction between averaging and summing versions of utilitarianism argues against either. (Ethics is an effort to align near mode and far mode, and where a doctrine produces sharp contradictions on near and far construal, it demonstrates its inadequacy.) See “Utilitarianism Twice Fails” – http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2013/02/1411-utilitarianism-twice-fails.html ]

  • Foo McBarson

    “Human childbirth appears to be uniquely painful among members of the animal kingdom.”

    Probably because of our large heads (which also cause us to be born prematurely relative to other species).

    • No, other animals have similar head issues.

  • Joseph Gnehm

    It seems like people’s happiness (or something like it) adapts about 30-50% back to a fixed point after big changes. Rayo and Becker (2007) argued that happiness just tracks recent big changes in status to make us want to keep getting more status and keep us from getting satisfied.

    “An organism’s happiness function, which measures the biological desirability of alternative decisions, can deliver a more precise measurement when it is based on relative, not absolute, stimulus levels. Frederick and Loewenstein (1999) present the following analogy using the human eye. In order to enhance visual perception, our eye adjusts to changes in the general luminosity of our surroundings. Once this adjustment takes place, all objects around us appear darker or brighter than before and, thanks to this change, we can better discriminate one object from another. In this way, the eye gives priority to identifying differences in luminosity across objects rather than identifying their absolute levels.”

    This doesn’t seem like how people actually make decisions, but it does seem like people get large temporary boosts in happiness from things that they give up leisure time for (like getting a raise).

    • The whole point of the post is that this can’t be all there is to happiness.

  • Why do we abhor being around depressed people? Because we take their depressed state as disapproval of us.

  • Chris Schade

    Hi everybody – I stumpled over this post. I am a Happiness Enthusiast. Years ago I felt miserable, but today I am a happy guy.

    The first question was:

    Why did evolution makes us (sometimes) happy? Why did evolution makes us (sometimes) happy?

    Researchers in the field of Positive Psychology say that we are simply born more worried than happy. 10.000 years ago the worried members of the tribe survived because a worried person made sure he/she had shelter and gathered food, while an optimist who was not cautious did not survive tigers or other hostile tribes.

    But 10.000 years ago we also needed friends and bonding and love and sex. We got that when we felt safe. When we were secure we opened our self to new ideas and to positive emotions.

    We are sometimes happy, because we feel sometimes secure.

    Now most of us have shelter and enough food, but the brains default setting is still sat on being Worried…

    However, the good news is: You can learn to be happy. Since Worriying/Caution/Fear is so dominant, you need 3 positive emotions/thougths/experiences to win over 1 negative feeling.

    In essens: If you make conscious decisions that will make you happier, you will be happier – and you will over time beat the cautious brain. If you start doing more of what makes you smile and feel good, you will be happier. It does not have to be big changes. It can be small daily changes. I know it works. I have done it (-:

    • “Calls for people to be happy, and to teach them what leads to happiness, can be seen as calls from associates to attach yourself more strongly to them and conform more strongly to their norms and pressures.”

      Can we test Robin’s conclusion on this comment?

      If you make conscious decisions that will make you happier, you will be happier – and you will over time beat the cautious brain. If you start doing more of what makes you smile and feel good, you will be happier. It does not have to be big changes. It can be small daily changes. I know it works. I have done it

  • Trimegistus

    Sounds like just an exercise in ideological conformity. If you’ve grown up (as most of us have) bombarded with the mantra “feminism GOOD, sixties GOOD, patriarchy BAD, fifties BAD” then naturally you won’t tell a researcher you would like to live in the “bad” time.

  • One standard story, and in fact the only story I’ve found so far in a quick search, is that happiness is just our mind’s way of telling us what we want.

    This seems to be the standard story for economists but not for psychologists. The leading work (which I haven’t read) is Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness.” The idea (I’ve gathered) is that following our wants doesn’t bring happiness. Happiness doesn’t come naturally.

    As I construe your addendum, Gilbert “calls for people to be happy and to teach them what leads to happiness.” Is Gilbert manipulating folks into a congenial pattern of attachment and conformity?

    From the standpoint of wants or preferences (read revealed utility), happiness (subjective well-being) is only one of various equally valid human wants. From the standpoint of happiness, satisfaction of wants is rational only insofar (to the limited extent that) their satisfaction engenders happiness.

    To understand the interests behind standpoints that either emphasize or downplay subjective well-being, it might be useful to focus on where they importantly come apart. It seems that the strongest human wants whose satisfaction doesn’t reliably produce happiness is the drive for status.

    Question: Who wants people not to concern themselves with status?

    Answer: People whose own status is experienced as low (beneath their real worth).

    Folks who try to tell us how to be happy are telling us to attach less value to status.

  • Pingback: The Opposite of What Robin Says, Bryan Caplan | EconLog | Library of Economics and Liberty()

  • Lord

    Happiness is for survival as much as wants. Without happiness, often suicide would be an attractive option. There is little more life draining than constant pain or boredom. Happiness shouldn’t confuse short term gratification with long term progress. We are happiest when anticipating and eventually accomplishing. It also shouldn’t confuse state with action. We were poorer in the 50s but were making more progress. We are richer now but making less. Memory will make the distant past more attractive than living through it, and knowledge of what will happen will make the future less, but loss of what we have would make the past less, while prospect of what we could have will make the future more. Happiness is best considered a journey than destination.

  • Not only are we well aware of wanting as a different feeling from happiness

    It isn’t the phenomenology of wanting that’s relevant; rather, that of want satisfaction.

    Is that different from happiness? I think not. Every satisfaction of a want is accompanied by feelings of happiness (it seems to me). But the amount of happiness isn’t generally proportionate to the strength of the want.

  • marshall bolton

    I think you are all confused! This is an area that confuses, thus we are all confused, but Robin was less confused at the start and then Bryan confused him again. i am trying to hold fast with the original flash of light I got from Robins momentary clear-sightedness…. Something along the lines of: We feel things in order to appease the other. We think things as determined by the other. There is nobody at home – only the other. So we do other things and not our own thing. Bryan bashed Robin on the head to remind him to stop thinking own thoughts, by telling him that we think own thoughts. The Social Brain is necessarily confused and confusing – and Scott Adams got it right.

    • We feel things in order to appease the other.

      There’s an ambiguity in “in order to.” I don’t think Robin is prepared to commit himself on its precise application, which is why you sense confusion.

      What you paint is the most extreme interpretation: our actual motivations are (whether consciously or subconsciously) motives to engage in signaling.

      The less radical interpretation is that that they are historically derived from signaling and bear the earmarks of their origin but aren’t necessarily motives to signal. For example, even at an unconscious level, we may be trying to avoid guilt rather than social disapproval. But the evolutionary function of guiltiness could still lie in signaling contrition (or whatever).

      • marshall bolton

        I’m just saying that maybe the locus of agency isn’t the individual. Whereafter you can put it anywhere… Such as on the signal. The signal must be obeyed. Those who obey are the happy ones. The unhappy ones are those who try to staunch their obedience.

      • IMASBA

        Groups of people may feel happier when they reach a consensus but that still means that individuals enjoy the feeling of consensus itself. There has to be someone at home, how else would the individuals of the group know the group is happier?

      • marshall bolton

        My point is: There is no-one at home – even though the lights are on. It is just a reversal in perspective – but I think it is a useful one.

  • why happiness doesn’t encode our value for status and social approval, as it encodes so many other values

    First about the cases of being born earlier and women’s rights. This was a bad example because the explicit answer to the question is largely determined by the social desirability of the opinion rather than by the respondent’s real proclivities. If folks answered the question honestly, they would choose what made them happiest. It is only when you are asked to make specific choices not couched in the language of happiness that the bias for wants usually shows up.

    But you’ve already (implicitly) answered the question about why happiness doesn’t encode our value of status (and of “social approval” in the sense of status-seeking as opposed to affiliation seeking). It was adaptive for humans to signal their satisfaction with the group, so the group can be confident of their loyalty. It would not typically be adaptive to signal your self-satisfaction regarding your status/power. This state is often best kept to oneself.

    [See also my comment to Caplan’s post.]

  • You can’t be happier than the person you’re with. I’ve tried. It doesn’t go over well. – Scott Adams

    This I don’t get. I think the first sentence is true (hyperbolically). But it isn’t because being happy doesn’t go over well. This would actually contradict your insight; but reality tells us that unhappy folks like to be around those who “cheer them up” (which fits). (There are exceptions: it isn’t polite to be happy over another’s misfortunes or to show no empathy. Thus it is sometimes said that “misery loves company,” but that’s when schadenfreude allows a sense of enhanced status.)

  • I use Robin’s insight into happiness as an affiliation signal in ”

    Consciousness, communication, and the pursuit of happiness” ( http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/2015/06/260-consciousness-communication-and.html )

  • Response to Bryan Caplan’s argument that happiness from “following one’s dreams” is counterposed to affiliative gratifications from family and community:

    Following one’s dreams = Forging new associations that are more congenial and in which one enjoys higher status.

    [The schoolboy’s fantasy of following one’s dreams is becoming a professional athlete. But always team sports!

    [The primal human archetype of “following” might derive from our nomadic heritage. You follow your band–or (perhaps) you and some others split.]

    Robin is very good on association. Being and extravert (where most social theorists are introverts) he has a comparative advantage in understanding association.