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The Science of Happiness

An evolutionary account of finding meaning.

Key points

  • Happiness is best understood through an interdisciplinary perspective combining psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and the arts.
  • A mismatch between our modern and ancestral environments contributes to the epidemic of unhappiness.
  • Antifragility and delayed gratification are essential for finding happiness and meaning.

I recently had the meaningful experience of speaking with Tal Ben-Shahar on the Nature & Nurture Podcast. He is a psychologist, co-founder of the Happiness Studies Academy, and author of numerous books including Happier and Being Happy.

Ben-Shahar has helped redefine the study of happiness—not just as an area of research within psychology but also as a new interdisciplinary science incorporating neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and the humanities.

Happiness vs. Antifragility

What do we mean by happiness? On the podcast, we discuss how happiness is more than mere pleasure, as the term is commonly used. Happiness, in Ben-Shahar’s eyes, is something more akin to meaning.

To live a good life is not to feel good all of the time: Misfortunes and tragedies befall us, and to remain happy (in the “pleasure” sense) during these times would literally be mania.

A better solution is to become antifragile. To become antifragile is to become resilient to life’s hardships. Yet, becoming antifragile is not the key to happiness, either. Happiness is not equivalent to not being unhappy. If you are not unhappy, you are just “fine.” True antifragility—true happiness—comes from those who become antifragile, not despite tragedy, but in spite of it.

The people most satisfied with their lives—a better measure of happiness, in my view—are not those who escape hardship. Rather, it is those who are capable of overcoming hardship to pursue something meaningful.

Finding Meaning

Having a meaningful goal—something to make your life worth living—is the most important aspect of living a good life. Without this, even if you become antifragile, you are not happy. You are just “fine.”

Strangely, though we get to choose to pursue what feels most meaningful, what causes that feeling is often beyond our control. How personality shapes our interests is the subject of another article (or textbook), but everyone has their own unique calling.

This isn't naive optimism—the reason we have evolved variable personalities is because there are countless ecological niches for which unique combinations of traits are most optimally suited. Even depressive temperaments have been hypothesized to be an adaptive evolutionary strategy for avoiding disease, despite their clear handicap.

An Evolutionary Mismatch

Just as evolution has granted us a variety of strategies for pursuing something meaningful, it has given us a standard checklist for happiness. This is both a blessing and a curse.

For most of human history, we were hunter-gatherers. We lived in close-knit, familial tribes. We spent all of our time outdoors. We exercised daily not for fun or to stay fit, but out of necessity. Our diets (when there was enough food—which was by no means a guarantee) would put modern natural paleo-diets to shame.

Tal and I discuss how most of this is no longer true, and how it is contributing to our epidemic of unhappiness.

We spend most of our time indoors. Our social communication is often lacking face-to-face connection. Finding time to exercise and eat healthily is seen as a luxury or a difficult chore. All of this was true even before the pandemic, which only further exacerbated these problems.

The solutions to our global mental health problem are so obvious that they almost seem like cliches. Exercise more, eat healthy foods, spend more time with friends and family, spend time in nature, pursue a meaningful career. We know all of this already—why is it so difficult to implement?

Delayed Gratification

Evolution did not grant us these optimal solutions as our only motivations. We have a constant internal battle between approach and avoidance motivations, between immediate and delayed gratification. Moreover, our faculties for reason and delayed gratification evolved only much more recently—compared to our ancient limbic system, which governs ancient motivational processes such as hunger, our neocortex is weak.

Imagine you are at a party, and there is a slice of cake calling out to you. You have healthier food waiting at home, but you are hungry now, and this high-sugar, high-fat food is exactly what our taste buds evolved to love most—high energy content.

If you eat the cake, is that a success or failure of evolution? Objectively, in this context, you’ve decreased your fitness. Yet, for more than 99 percent of human history, going after the calorically dense, immediate food choice would have been the most optimal strategy.

Delayed gratification can only be practiced in the most stable of environments, and even then it is exceedingly difficult to fight against our more primal drives for immediacy.

This same conflict governs all of our decision-making—including the highest-level goal of pursuing meaning.

No matter the meaningful goal identified, there is a necessary component of delayed gratification. Have you ever accomplished something that was both meaningful and expedient? Often, the loftier the goal, the greater experience of meaning derived.

Most people pursue an education, for example, not because it is fun, but because of the prospect of future security. Most people study not because it is the most fun thing to do, but because it is the most meaningful thing to do.

The Science of Happiness

Treating happiness as an interdisciplinary science does not only offer the benefits of understanding happiness through the lens of neuropsychology and evolutionary biology. It is a cross-cultural, historical science that can learn from what the humanities have to offer, as well.

Philosophers and poets have been attempting to articulate what it means to live a good life long before there were psychologists. Anthropologists have documented cross-cultural norms and differences for expressing emotions and socially bonding. Artists and musicians of every generation look for new ways to inspire people, and scientists and engineers constantly seek to find new discoveries or inventions that will make our lives better.

We need all of these perspectives to have a true science of happiness, and we need to become masters of antifragility, delayed gratification, and the changes posed by our modern environment to master happiness ourselves.

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