The Real Reason Why Happiness Is Fleeting

Evolutionary psychology research explains why we aren't always happy.

Posted Jul 27, 2020

Flickr/rult57
Source: Flickr/rult57

Why aren’t we always happy?

When I was 17, I was in basic military training. I remember thinking, I’m going to be so happy when this is over, imagining the fulfillment from being a full-fledged member of the U.S. Air Force. 

When I was 24, I was applying to colleges. I didn’t think I’d get into any of them. I applied only for what I now know are called “reach” schools. I thought if I won that lottery, I’d be happy.

Most of us are familiar with this feeling: Thinking that once you reach the next milestone, then you will finally experience true happiness. It comes, you feel momentary bliss, and then it subsides.

In The Social Leap by William von Hippel, he explains the evolutionary function of happiness. He writes, “Why did evolution play this dirty trick on us, giving us dreams of achievements that will provide lifelong happiness but then failing to deliver the emotional goods when we achieve our goals?”

Consider two hypothetical ancestors living in a band with others. Together, both of them lead a hunting group and slay a mastodon. They return to their band with the meat and are showered with adoration and praise.

One of them remains permanently happy, while the other returns to his baseline after a week. The first guy feels content to relax and reimagine the feeling he got when he completed a successful hunt. The other guy experiences emptiness and an urge to recapture that feeling of happiness again.

The second guy will obtain more prestige, more friends, and more romantic partners. He will be treated better in his old age. The genes of this second guy were more likely to proliferate than the first guy.

The inability of our ancestors to achieve permanent happiness pushed them to strive. These strivers had more babies than the ones who did one cool thing and then relaxed.

Billionaire and CNN founder Ted Turner once said, “You’ll hardly ever find a super-achiever anywhere who isn’t motivated at least partially by a sense of insecurity.” A study led by Shigehiro Oishi at the University of Virginia found that people who were moderately satisfied with their lives earned more than people who scored low on life satisfaction. However, moderately satisfied people also earned more than people who scored the highest on satisfaction. One interpretation of this is that while too little happiness is bad for professional success, so is too much.

Achievements are akin to slipping into a warm bath. At first, the water feels hot. But after a while, you get used to it. Then it doesn’t really feel like anything at all.

The evolutionary psychologist Laith Al-Shawaf recently wrote an essay on proximate versus ultimate explanations for behavior. To slightly oversimplify, a proximate explanation is the immediate reason for some behavior. Why did someone apply for a new job? She thinks it will make her happier. The ultimate explanation is the evolutionary reason. Why would happiness evolve in the first place?

Happiness is a reward we get for doing something that, on average, increases Darwinian fitness. Obtaining more resources (money), increasing social status, improving our appearance or health, helping those we care about.

There are some nuances, though. For example, this study led by economist John F. Helliwell found that people who live in smaller towns are happier than people who live in larger cities. They found in happier communities, there were shorter commute times, less expensive housing, and a smaller share of foreign-born residents. People were more likely to attend church and report feeling a “sense of belonging” in their communities.

Big cities attract a certain kind of person—in some cases, educated and ambitious individuals. They are surrounded in these cities with other people just like them. Major cities attract the top 5 percent of global talent. And they all compete against one another, and experience intense status anxiety.

Research suggests that we have a “local ladder,” in which our happiness depends mostly on how we compare to our peer groups. A banker who makes six-figures is not comparing herself to the median American who makes $45K. She is comparing herself to her lawyer friend who just made partner.

Interestingly, Helliwell and his colleagues also found that even though people in larger cities tend to have higher incomes, more education, and are less likely to be unemployed, they are less happy than people in smaller towns.

I think status anxiety has a lot to do with this. In my recent conversation with Dr. Drew, he asked how I feel about my life. I grew up in foster homes, and later in a poor/working-class community. Day to day, I feel the same as anyone else. But when I consider my life overall, I probably feel better (maybe because of gratitude) relative to many of my college-educated peers.  

This might be explained by prospect theory, famously developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Put simply, one key aspect of prospect theory is that if an outcome meets or exceeds expectations, then people tend to be happy. But if an outcome falls short of expectations, people are unhappy.

For instance, if you expect $5 but receive $7, you will be pleased. If you expect $10 but receive $7, you will be upset. Now, even though in both cases you received the same amount of cash ($7), your subjective feelings in either case are very different.

My expectations for life were low. My outcomes exceeded my expectations. On the other hand, many of my college friends started out competing with a bunch of other talented kids. They have high expectations for how their lives will go, and are unsure if they will reach those lofty goals.

Still, I sometimes remind people that even if every foster kid graduates from college, that wouldn’t necessarily make them happier. A degree doesn’t magically heal the trauma they went through. Nor does education, on average, seem to have much effect on happiness.

A recent study on the relationship between education and subjective well-being revealed a surprising result. Researchers found that one reason people obtain more education because they believe they will have more leisure time than less educated people.

But people with more education actually have less leisure time. They work longer hours. This upends expectations and reduces their life satisfaction. The study concluded that education had no impact on well-being.

Relatedly, an overview of 23 studies found that at the individual level, IQ has no relationship with happiness. Knowing the IQ of two random Americans tells you nothing about whether one is happier than the other.

Another fascinating study examined what sorts of life events have short term versus long term effects on well-being. The authors found that getting a job promotion or being fired doesn’t have much impact on well-being beyond about three months. That is, on average, getting fired only hurts for about 3 months. And getting promoted only feels good for about 3 months.

What factors have a long-lasting impact on happiness? Detrimental factors include the death of a partner or child, separation or divorce, and major financial loss (e.g., bankruptcy).

Positive factors were getting married, having children, and a major financial gain (e.g., inheritance or lottery winnings). Considering that few of us are going to inherit money from a rich uncle or win the lotto, establishing relationships with people we love is our best shot at long-lasting happiness.