Arnold Kling  

Happiness and Evolution

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I would like to join the chorus of praise for Will Wilkinson's new blog on happiness and public policy. For example, this post:


Nesse goes on to point out that a few (of the far too few) longitudinal studies have shown that more positive affect is generally associated with other positive changes for individuals. But this poses a puzzle:

"If positive affect is strongly heritable [as it appears to be] and improves function [as the longitudinal studies seem to indicate], and presumably reproduction, then why did natural selection not long ago shape a higher average level of positive affect? More directly, why are there so many very successful people with many friends and resources who remain in states of chronically low mood?"

I think the answer is likely to be that what Nesse has in mind as "improved function" isn't actually improved biologically proper function, but is rather improved function relative to an internal human normative standard, and so doesn't reliably cash out in terms of inclusive fitness.


Reuven Brenner would argue that a certain type of unhappiness leads to success. Somebody feels slighted in some way, says "I'll show 'em," and strives hard at a new business.

At some point, I think that somebody has to raise the issue of treating happiness as a one-dimensional variable. Are we talking about a mood, a cognitive assessment of the quality of one's life, an outlook on the world...or some imprecise combination?


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Randy writes:

Happiness and public policy? How about this? - we have the right to "pursue" happiness. Happiness is subjective after all, and the idea of tying it to objective criteria sounds very Brave New World to me.

Nick R writes:

Various forms of unhappiness may be quite compatible with evolutionary fitness in the sense of reproductive sucess. For example, I remember reading that anxiety tends to be associated with more frequent sex (sorry I don't recall the source). Whether true or not, it's a plausible example of why unhappiness of one form or another could lead to greater reproductive success.

Barkley Rosser writes:

While it is suggested that certain forms of unhappiness may lead to economic success, there is substantially stronger evidence of exactly the opposite, happier people tend to do better economically than unhappy people, which is a confounding endogeneity problem in many of the studies that show the strong cross-sectional relation between income and happiness in most societies. Happier people are more likely to get hired and are easier to work with, and so forth. A recent paper by Graham et al in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization from last fall makes this argument based on a panel study in Russia in the late 90s with two data points. It was able to separate out the effects and see that indeed, holding other things constant, it appears that the happier people in the first period did better economically in the second period.

Paul N writes:

From an evolutionary biology point of view (which I believe is the correct starting point for understanding human behavior), chronic happiness would be an extremely undesirable trait. E.g., "I'm starving, but I don't care, I'm happy!" or "Tribe B is attacking my village and murdering my children, no big deal."

You could also see why being chronically depressed wouldn't be very useful. The optimal strategy may be hard to deduce from thought experiments alone, but my feeling is that like other physical and personality traits, human psychological well-being and response to various stimuli has evolved to be close to optimal for reproduction. Put another way, your ego wants to you be happy, but your genes want you to reproduce (and you can guess which wins).

So to me the idea that humans somehow strive to maximize happiness has always seemed bizarre.

Robert writes:

Let's say that happy people are more likely to be reproductive optimists, having many offspring in the belief that tomorrow will take care of itself; while unhappy people are more likely to be reproductive pessimists, having no more offspring than they are certain they can care for.

When tomorrow does take care of itself, and economic opportunities are continually expanding, the happy people do better, because their more numerous offspring find and fill these new niches. But when things turn sour, the unhappy people have held more in reserve, and are better able to wait out the bad times.

(If you run a population dynamics simulation, where two populations obeying the logistic model compete for the same carrying capacity, but one responds faster than the other to over- or under-population, and the carrying capacity fluctuates around some constant value, then eventually the slowly-responding population (here, the unhappy people) will outcompete the faster-responding population every time: the faster population's initial success in filling empty niches is steady eroded by each overpopulation episode.)

Steve Sailer writes:

As economist Edward M. Miller has pointed out, the economic rationale behind portfolio diversification makes a lot of sense from a Darwinian perspective: if one of your sons has the personality of Genghis Khan, he just might grow up to have 800,000 more direct male line descendents today than does the average man of his time, as good old Genghis does. On the other hand, he might get himself killed awfully fast. So, having another son with a natural follower personality could be an optimal strategy, in that it makes "gambler's ruin" (having all your descendents die out) less likely.

A caveat to this is that while genetic logic can be similar to economic logic, it has its own particular rules and it might turn out that portfolio diversity doesn't work with DNA.

jaimito writes:

Anxiety and panic diseases cause more (and better) sex. Prozac and similar compounds improve the mood but cause lack of interest in sex, a sexless paradise.

Pessimists judge reality much more correctly than optimists, remember things more as they were, and make more money in the market.

Chris Bolts writes:

[quote]From an evolutionary biology point of view (which I believe is the correct starting point for understanding human behavior), chronic happiness would be an extremely undesirable trait. E.g., "I'm starving, but I don't care, I'm happy!" or "Tribe B is attacking my village and murdering my children, no big deal."[/quote]

But perhaps the happy person is such a popular person he does not have to go scrummaging for food and he has relatively few enemies? This is not to say that it happens all the time, but it happens enough that ensures the survival of happy individuals.

And just an aside, studies have shown that people who are happy most of the time tend to live longer than people who are sad or mad most of the time.

Roger M writes:

One prominent psychologist has written that happiness is a choice people make, not something that happens to them. Others say happiness depends upon expectations. If you have low expectations, you'll be happier; unrealistically high expectations make you miserable.

Sociologists have argued that revolutions take place in countries where things are good and getting better, not where they are bad and getting worse. The reason for the revolution is that expectations race ahead and become unrealistic, leading to severe unhappiness.

It seems to me that until we understand happiness better, we should leave it alone.

Barkley Rosser writes:

All this talk about how great pessimism is and similar things needs to keep in mind a simple stylized fact of the happiness studies. Most people are at least somewhat happy most of the time. This looks to be evolutionarily optimal. However, few are maximally happy, and of course some are depressed.

Those mostly somewhat happy people are prepared to be unhappy if external circumstances make them so and thus impel them to act to alter their circumstances, if they can, to return themselves to a condition of more or less normal happiness. Those who really are depressed, as opposed to merely pessimistic or crankily whiney, in fact tend to be very non-functional. Maybe prozac makes them not have sex, but they are likely not to be having sex anyway.

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