Happiness as a Signal of Good Fit with Human Nature

Will raises an important point that requires some elaboration on my part.

What indicates a good fit with the nature of an organism? One sign is the continuation of the species. This may involve high birth rates — as Will notes — but not necessarily so. Another sign is physical thriving as apparent in rising longevity and increasing body size. In organisms with the ability to makes choices there is still another marker: how well they feel. Affect typically informs choosing organisms about whether they are in the right pond or not; they tend to feel good in habitats that fit their repertoire of adaptations and tend to feel bad in environments that do not. In higher animals, affective experience also hints at the appropriateness of some behaviors, such as mate selection. This affective orientation system exists in all mammals and serves to ensure the gratification of “needs” of which the organism is typically unaware. Like every system, it is not flawless.

In humans, evolution has added a cognitive module to this affective orientation system, but has not replaced affect with cognition. Our affective experience stills guides us to gratify our needs, and as a result we tend to feel poorly if we fail to meet them even if that fits our ideals. Affective experience also dominates our evaluations and, in particular, the evaluation of life as a whole, that is, happiness. As such, happiness also reflects need-gratification.

Will rightly observes that nature has no incentive to keep us happy. Yet nature has an incentive to guide us to the right ponds and to keep us fit. Nature seems to use happiness for that purpose. Negative affect pushes us away from unlivable environments and positive affects pulls us toward behavior that keeps our body and brain in good shape. In this sense, happiness is also indicative of human thriving.

Human nature evolved in the conditions of hunter-gatherer existence. Present day conditions are much different, but can nevertheless fit that human nature quite well. If we follow Maslow in his distinction between “deficiency needs” and “growth needs,” it is fairly obvious that present day Western society meets deficiency needs better than ever before. Less obvious, but still plausible, is idea that this kind of society also caters to human “growth needs” quite well. There is a lot of challenge and variety in our society, not only in market competition and in sports, but also in stimulating discussions such as this one.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, Darrin McMahon, Ben Weider Associate Professor of History at Florida State University and author of Happiness: A History, puts the contemporary obsession with happiness in historical and philosophical perspective. Tracing our current notion of happiness back to “a dramatic revolution in human expectations” in the seventeenth century, McMahon argues that we have come to see happiness as not only something that is possible in this life, but which ought to be the aim of life. Noting that the recent spate of worried meditations on happiness is a luxury of the already wealthy and secure, McMahon argues against the single-minded focus on happiness as both an individual and social goal. Casting a critical eye on the aspirations of the new “happiness research,” McMahon argues that there may be natural limits to happiness, agrees with John Stuart Mill that “The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life,” and asks us to heed Aldous Huxley’s warning of a society in which everyone is happy “and yet the world is a nightmare.”

Response Essays

  • Swarthmore College psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, argues that Darrin McMahon’s cautionary tale is based on the confusion of happiness with pleasure. For Schwartz happiness “rightly understood” is “authentic happiness” centered on the development of virtue and excellence. We should not be afraid to apply such a conception of happiness to policy, for “figuring out what does and does not bring happiness, or utility, might vastly improve the ability of national policies to increase welfare.” Schwartz suggests we will find that not only does happiness not rise in lockstep with wealth, but that happiness in fact begins to decrease at a certain level of affluence. Free-market capitalism, Schwartz argues, tends to turns us into “infantilized pleasure-seekers” not oriented toward authentic happiness. “No one is going to get rich in a society full of seekers of human excellence,” Schwartz says.

  • Ruut Veenhoven, editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies and director of the World Database of Happiness, argues that happiness levels are not stagnant, as McMahon maintained in his lead essay. Citing the most recent data, Veenhoven observes that levels of average happiness have increased over the past 30 years in the United States and the European Union, while the increase in the expected number of “Happy Life Years” is even more dramatic. “This increase in overall quality of life is unprecedented in human history,” Veenhoven writes. McMahon’s concerns about an overemphasis on happiness are misguided, Veenhoven argues. Far from making us complacent, happiness improves health, creativity, and citizenship. Though Denmark is the happiest country on record, Veenhoven notes that “this does not seem to have damaged the Danes.”

  • In his reply to McMahon, Cato Unbound managing editor Will Wilkinson lays out three “enormous problems” for the “quest for a scientific politics of happiness.” First, happiness is just one value among many. Second, no one knows for sure what happiness is. Third, Wilkinson sets up a dilemma. On the one hand, if a scientific politics of happiness is understood as the active management of social welfare by political elites, then it pseudoscience. On the other hand, if it is understood as a science of social coordination, then the specific aim of happiness becomes secondary to the requirements of effective coordination. This “institutionalist” conception of a scientific politics of happiness can overcome the problems of pluralism and definition, Wilkinson argues, but at the price of losing focus on the preeminent value of happiness.