Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

New book suggest ways to understand behavior and boost happiness in light of human evolution

We humans evolved to be social crea­tures. By gain­ing the skills to coop­er­ate with oth­ers, we were able to stave off preda­tors, eat more con­sis­tent­ly, and care for each other’s young, allow­ing our genes to car­ry for­ward.

So, why do we still strug­gle at times to get along—even to the extent that we war on one anoth­er? And how can under­stand­ing our evo­lu­tion­ary her­itage help us have bet­ter rela­tion­ships and more hap­pi­ness today?

There are the kinds of ques­tions pon­dered in psy­chol­o­gist William Von Hippel’s book The Social Leap. Von Hip­pel explains that while evo­lu­tion has shaped us to work togeth­er coop­er­a­tive­ly to sur­vive, it has also made us sus­cep­ti­ble to the lure of com­pe­ti­tion and sta­tus in a way that can endan­ger our rela­tion­ships and well-being.

The book is part­ly a his­to­ry of how we came to be the com­plex social crea­tures we are today, start­ing all the way back in ear­ly human devel­op­ment. Researchers are able to find clues about ear­ly hominid social behav­ior in fos­sil records and DNA or oth­er markers—for exam­ple, exam­in­ing fos­sil teeth of human ances­tors in a par­tic­u­lar region to con­clude who migrat­ed there and who were locals.

Von Hip­pel draws on research from anthro­pol­o­gy, pale­on­tol­ogy, evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gy, and more to explain how dif­fer­ent devel­op­ments drove the human race for­ward. Walk­ing on two legs instead of four allowed ear­ly humans to pro­tect them­selves by throw­ing stones; sto­ry­telling pro­pelled shared learn­ing and an accu­mu­la­tion of knowl­edge; agri­cul­ture bred inequal­i­ty and fierce pro­tec­tion of resources; and cities pro­pelled peo­ple to devel­op spe­cial­ized skills and become bet­ter at read­ing oth­ers’ inten­tions. Our whole social order, includ­ing when we coop­er­ate, show con­cern, and choose mates, he writes, can be explained by evo­lu­tion­ary dri­ving forces—the need to sur­vive and repro­duce, so that our genes will be passed along.

How does evolution explain our behavior today?

Noth­ing is more impor­tant to us than our social con­nec­tions because noth­ing was more crit­i­cal for our ances­tors’ sur­vival and repro­duc­tion,” writes Von Hip­pel. That’s why we evolved to intu­it what oth­ers are think­ing, to be able to read social cues, and to affil­i­ate with groups of peo­ple who seem to accept and val­i­date our thoughts and feel­ings. It makes us feel safe and secure.

Good social skills are even tied to sur­vival on a neu­ro­log­i­cal lev­el. For exam­ple, when peo­ple have good impulse con­trol in social sit­u­a­tions, they take more time to think and act appro­pri­ate­ly when pro­voked. And, since the same parts of the brain respon­si­ble for social impulse con­trol are at work when we resist self-destruc­tive behaviors—like tak­ing a hit of cocaine or dri­ving too fast on the freeway—they do dou­ble duty.

In addi­tion, we are often a sur­pris­ing­ly coop­er­a­tive, gen­er­ous, and altru­is­tic species. “Gen­er­ous peo­ple are more pop­u­lar than stingy or cal­cu­lat­ing peo­ple all over the world,” he writes, adding that “even though gen­er­ous peo­ple do get exploit­ed [some­times], in the long run, they win far more than they lose.”

While we get along with oth­ers for our well-being and safe­ty, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing our­selves from those around us can be a boon to sur­vival in a dif­fer­ent way: by enhanc­ing our desir­abil­i­ty as a mate. The dri­ve for social sta­tus some­times makes us do things that seem irra­tional or even anti­so­cial, says Von Hip­pel. For exam­ple, we may act over­con­fi­dent, exag­ger­ate our fin­er qual­i­ties, and see our­selves as more attrac­tive than we are (and oth­ers as less than they are). Over­con­fi­dence also intim­i­dates those who might com­pete with you or hurt you—an advan­tage for behav­ior that might oth­er­wise appear, well, annoy­ing.

The need to be at the top of the social heap (at least in our own minds) may explain why we selec­tive­ly look at infor­ma­tion that inflates our ego and ignore the rest. And it helps explain why peo­ple some­times vote against their own interests—like when peo­ple mak­ing slight­ly more than min­i­mum wage protest min­i­mum wage increas­es. Pre­serv­ing one’s rel­a­tive social stand­ing feels more impor­tant than any absolute gain.

The sad truth is that the log­ic of sex­u­al selec­tion ensures that life remains a zero-sum game even when it doesn’t need to be,” writes Von Hip­pel.

At a group lev­el, our dri­ves to be anti­so­cial or “proso­cial” are affect­ed by the envi­ron­ment. Von Hip­pel sug­gests that whether a com­mu­ni­ty has more dic­ta­to­r­i­al or more egal­i­tar­i­an lead­ers depends, in part, on exter­nal fac­tors like the avail­abil­i­ty of resources and threats of vio­lence from outside—which can be trumped up fur­ther by self-serv­ing lead­ers.

In prin­ci­ple, coop­er­a­tion has the poten­tial to make us more peace­ful, but it turns out that our coop­er­a­tion is high­ly selec­tive; we evolved to coop­er­ate with our fel­low group mem­bers, but not with mem­bers of oth­er groups,” Von Hip­pel writes. So, while our abil­i­ty to coop­er­ate with each oth­er is what helped us thrive as a species, it also has its lim­i­ta­tions.

The evolution of happiness

One ques­tion Von Hip­pel explores at length is why peo­ple feel hap­pi­ness. Since evo­lu­tion doesn’t care if we’re hap­py or not, he says—it only cares that we pass along our genes—what does hap­pi­ness do for our sur­vival?

Appar­ent­ly, hap­pi­ness some­how com­mu­ni­cates our via­bil­i­ty as a mate of high social sta­tus, since peo­ple like to be around hap­py peo­ple and tend to think hap­py peo­ple are more com­pe­tent. That’s why we are often reluc­tant to share unhap­py feel­ings with oth­ers and why we may even deceive our­selves about how hap­py we are.

So, if being (or appear­ing) hap­py is good for us, why aren’t we happier—like, all of the time? Von Hip­pel argues that fleet­ing hap­pi­ness may be bet­ter than con­stant hap­pi­ness, because it serves our species’ need to keep stretch­ing our­selves, mak­ing dis­cov­er­ies, and striv­ing for better—which often involves dif­fi­cul­ty or uncertainty—rather than rest­ing on our (con­tent) lau­rels.

Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t work on our hap­pi­ness. After all, much well-being sci­ence is ori­ent­ed toward devel­op­ing not the fleet­ing emo­tions of hap­pi­ness and plea­sure but a more long-term sense of sat­is­fac­tion through mean­ing­ful rela­tion­ships and activ­i­ties.

To that end, Von Hip­pel sug­gests some tips for cul­ti­vat­ing hap­pi­ness in today’s world—namely, cul­ti­vat­ing mind­ful­ness, accu­mu­lat­ing expe­ri­ences rather than things, coop­er­at­ing and build­ing com­mu­ni­ty, learn­ing new things, using your strengths, savor­ing hap­py moments, and pri­or­i­tiz­ing your hap­pi­ness over the long term. Some of these involve coun­ter­ing our evo­lu­tion­ary urges, like the dri­ve to always plan for the future or the wan­der­lust that would have us leave our com­mu­ni­ties behind.

Indi­vid­ual paths to greater hap­pi­ness will vary, and being hap­py 24/7 is not pos­si­ble, says Von Hip­pel. “Nev­er­the­less, approach­ing hap­pi­ness from an evo­lu­tion­ary per­spec­tive can help us achieve it, at least some of the time.”

And per­haps that’s the most impor­tant take-home from his book: Pay­ing atten­tion to how ancient dri­ves affect us can help us under­stand our worst behav­ior and improve upon our best. After all, evo­lu­tion isn’t dead and in the past: We are still a work in progress.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s  book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

To Learn More:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning

Tags: , , , , , ,

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Search in our archives

Follow us and Engage via…

twitter_logo_header
RSS Feed

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)