There is an unhelpful misconception that, as humans, we are entitled to this thing we call happiness. More or less, there exists the idea that happiness is our “raison d’être,” the item we were put on this earth to diligently locate — and that, in its absence, we have drastically failed.
Excuse my French, but where the f*ck did this come from?
Sure, happiness is what may give our lives meaning; it’s what we sentimentalize and covet in order to colour our day-to-day with a certain degree of purposefulness, but make no mistake, it is not what we were made for.
Just like every individual cell of our body, our sole existence is based on the drive to reproduce (and obviously survive long enough to do so), being prompted by our chemistry to select a mate with particularly good genes while we’re at it.
Approximately 0% of our biological blueprint concerns itself with making sure we are happy.
Evolutionarily speaking, that would only seem like a great deal of wasted effort — effort that could otherwise be distributed elsewhere far more important such as eating, sleeping, or having sex.
It sounds funny, but it’s true. And once you learn to accept this fact of nature — ironically — the significantly easier happiness becomes to attain.
The Great Evolutionary Mismatch
“Evolutionary mismatch” is a term typically used to describe the incompatibilities of our current environmental and lifestyle factors, with the circumstances in which our genes and physiological traits first emerged (1).
Take, for example, the fact that the species we belong to, the Homo sapien, evolved over 200,000 years ago — yet the majority of the human genome today looks exactly the same as it did back then.
This would be fine, in theory, had our lives continued to resemble those of our ancient ancestors. In this case, the originally adaptive and helpful traits we gained via the process of natural selection all those years ago would currently still be operating in our favour.
Instead, we find ourselves — still nearly biologically identical to the earliest of Homo sapiens — yet faced with a plethora of modern technological developments in every corner and crevice of our day-to-day lives.
From the first moment we open our eyes in the morning, to the second we close them again at night, our every interaction with the external world is characterized by a serious evolutionary discrepancy. Almost every aspect of how we live today would be completely alien to our ancestors — from the foods we eat, to the ways we are most likely to die.
Biology doesn’t stand a chance in hell of keeping up. The process of evolution is several million times slower than the speed of a snail, and we humans are moving faster than ever.
This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself — it’s just a thing. What it does mean, however, is that the problems we currently face (as far as the pursuit of health and happiness go) are ones our biology has not necessarily equipped us to solve…
The Evolving Discussion Of Physical Health
Physical health seems like a good place to start any conversation about happiness, because, as you’ve probably heard by now: health is an extreme wealth.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to imagine that your idea of a happy and blissful life is probably one that includes a distinct lack of physical suffering and pain. If you think it’s hard to find happiness living in a healthy body, then living in an unhealthy one is really going to put a damper on your day.
Point blank — staying healthy is important, especially because our evolutionary biology has a strong tendency to try and trip us up…
You see, when our Late-Paleolithic era ancestors evolved, there were two prime aspects of their ancient-ass lives that have continued to shape our relationship with health, even today. These two aspects were: 1) an drastically inconsistent supply of food, and 2) constant fluctuating cycles of physical activity versus rest due to their dependence on a hunger-gatherers lifestyle.
Not only are these two lifestyle factors inextricably linked in the case of both feast or famine, but survival of the Homo sapiens would have depended on their ability to efficiently regulate the intake and storing of fuel; when certain genes were selected for via the process of natural selection — these would have been those genes (2).
And because our genes have barely shifted in over 200,000 years, it would be absurd to presume that anything has changed.
We are programmed biochemically to respond to cycles of food, no food, physical activity, and rest. So, what happens then when you pair that with our modern lifestyle of constant (processed, high calorie, high cholesterol) food and almost constant inactivity and rest?
Something along the lines of:
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Cardiovascular Disease
- Metabolic Disorders
These are our number 1, 2, and 3 top causes of death, and the list goes on. There is a severe evolutionary mismatch between the way our body thinks we live, and the way we actually do. Is it any wonder why happiness seems that little bit harder to physically attain?
The Evolving Discussion Of Mental Health
Just like physical health — but better— our mental health is one of those things we really need to prioritize in order to be happy. Funnily enough, evolution doesn’t really help us out there, either.
In fact, research suggests that nature’s failure to weed out disorders such as anxiety and depression may arise from the reality that nature doesn’t necessarily view them as a bad thing.
Indeed, despite the obvious obstacles that depressed Homo sapien individuals have to their rates of survival and reproduction, depression is viewed by natural selection as a useful adaption for preventing humans from staying in any risky or perceived hopeless situations (3,4).
Fascinatingly, an extensive research study of the Kaluli hunter-gatherer tribe in the highlands of New Guinea found that only one individual out of the thousands assessed even came close to meeting the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression (5). By comparison, depression is reported to affect over 18% of the US population per year — making that number closer to 400 for every 2000 Americans.
There’s no question whether or not depression is real, but there may be wealth of sociocultural factors in modern life (and not that of hunter-gatherer communities) that contribute to the experience of depression as a disorder, instead of a mere disposition (6).
“The most fundamental issue, and also the most contentious one, is whether disease and illness are normative concepts based on value judgments, or whether they are valuefree scientific terms; in other words, whether they are biomedical terms or sociopolitical ones (7).”
— R.E. Kendell
Here, evolutionary mismatch is to blame for our mental disturbances, just as much as is it for our physical ones.
Like I said before, we humans evolved to survive, not necessarily to be happy about it. And while I’m not necessarily sure what to do with this information exactly, I do feel that, at the very least, it helps to take away some of the pressure.
We’re not failing because we’re an unhappy species — it’s likely because we still exist as a species at all, that happiness can feel so goddamn elusive.
Alexandra Walker-Jones — May 2021
- Boyd Eaton, S. (2010). Complex Chronic Diseases in Evolutionary Perspective. In M. Muehlenbein (Ed.), Human Evolutionary Biology (pp. 491–501). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Chakravarthy MV, Booth FW. Eating, exercise, and “thrifty” genotypes: connecting the dots toward an evolutionary understanding of modern chronic diseases. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2004 Jan;96(1):3–10. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00757.2003. PMID: 14660491.
- Allen, N. B., & Badcock, P. B. (2006). Darwinian models of depression: A review of evolutionary accounts of mood and mood disorders. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 30(5), 815–826.
- Hidaka B. H. (2012). Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence. Journal of affective disorders, 140(3), 205–214.
- Schieffelin, E. L. (1985). The cultural analysis of depressive affect: An example from New Guinea. Culture and depression, 101–133.
- Wakefield, J. C. (2007). The concept of mental disorder: diagnostic implications of the harmful dysfunction analysis. World Psychiatry, 6(3), 149.
- Kendell, R. E. (1986). What are mental disorders? In A. M. Freedman, R. Brotman, I. Silverman, & D. Hutson (Eds.), Issues in psychiatric classification: Science, practice and social policy (p. 23 — 45). Human Sciences Press.