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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.

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