Can Animals Be Too Happy or Have Too Much Fun?

The field of "diagonal psychology" offers insights into these questions

Posted Mar 16, 2014

Last month I was asked to write an essay for a forthcoming issue of the journal Current Biology that will be concerned with the biology of fun. I was surprised that a professional journal would concern itself with this topic but equally pleased so I decided to write on play behavior because when animals -- human and nonhuman -- play it's clear they are happy and having fun. 

Last month I also had the pleasure of meeting Dr. June Gruber, now at Yale University but who soon will be my colleague at the University of Colorado. She is interested in the negative consequences of being "too happy" and we've had great discussions about the evolution of nonhuman animal (animal) and human animal emotions. June also introduced me to a paper by Arizona State University's Randolph Nesse called "Natural selection and the elusiveness of happiness" in which Dr. Nesse writes about the field called "diagonal psychology" that "considers the dangers of unwarranted positive states and the benefits of negative emotions in certain situations". I was thrilled to learn about Dr. Nesse's essay and to see that he is continuing to take an evolutionary approach to the study of human emotions (for more on this topic please see and). 

Can animals be too happy or have too much fun on the run?

Both the invitation to write about play and the biology of fun and discussions with Dr. Gruber made me think more about whether or not animals can be too happy or have too much fun to their detriment. For example, can a dog running here and there with reckless abandon injure herself? Can a happy wolf enjoying "fits of happiness" overstep bounds of play and put himself at risk by violating the rules of the game, say, by biting too hard, with an individual who can harm him? Can a marmot or a mouse who is playing fail to detect the presence of a predator? Can a chimpanzee too full of himself put himself at risk by ignoring social cues from others who are not as taken with him? Can a young animal spend too much energy playing rather than putting energy into growth and maintenance? It also may be that in addition to the intensity of the unbounded exuberance, there is a risk associated with the context of the excessive positive feelings, in that they express themselves in the wrong time or in the wrong place. Dr. Gruber also pointed me in the direction of the research she has done with Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, on discrete positive emotions, asking if certain kinds of happy feelings are more dangerous for certain species (for example, too much pride vs. joy).

There are very few detailed and comparative data (field or otherwise) that are directly related to these questions. Based on a field study of Golden Marmots in Pakistan's Khunjerab National Park, UCLA biologist Daniel Blumstein suggested that play might expose individuals to predation. In his book Play, Playfulness, Creativity and Innovation, Cambridge University's Patrick Bateson (page 35) mentions Macquarie University's Rob Harcourt's data showing that Southern fur seals are more likely to be killed by Southern sea lions when playing in the sea than at other times perhaps because they are more conspicuous and less vigilant. Eighty-five percent of the sea lions observed to be killed were killed while playing in shallow water. University of Idaho biologist John Byers reports on a few field studies that show that play can be risky including observations of young lambs falling to their death while playing. Joel Berger, who teaches at the University of Montana, observed young bighorn sheep running into cacti and when I was with Joel at his field site outside of Palm Desert, California, I saw a young sheep run shoulder-first into a cactus and scream unrelentingly. Of course, loud vocalizations could attract predators. Tim Caro, at the University of California, Davis, noted that when young cheetahs play it reduces the hunting success of mothers. Despite these observations, the comparative database is very scant.  For more on possible risks and costs to play see Robert Fagen's Animal Play BehaviorAnimal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative, and Ecological Perspectives edited by John Byers and myself (the above data come from Byers's chapter in this book, page 210), Gordon Burghardt's The Genesis of Animal Play, and Sergio and Vivien Pellis's The Playful Brain.

Clearly, there could well be physical and social consequences of being too happy or having too much fun. Usually, activities such as self-handicapping and role-reversing work to keep play in check and restrain individuals from violating rules of the game. Play signals such as the "bow" are also used to initiate social play and to punctuate and carefully negotiate ongoing and often frantic, vigorous, and highly contagious play interactions. Indeed, play rarely escalates into full-blown aggression or harm because individuals play too hard with one another. Animals work hard to maintain fair play and fair play may be related to individual reproductive fitness (see also). Nonetheless, young animals in particular engage in vigorous social and locomotor self-play during which losing oneself in the activity can be detrimental. 

Stabilizing selection and the evolution of happiness and fun

These questions lead to the general questions, "Does natural selection actually work to curtail limits of happiness and fun? Are there costs to being too happy or having too much fun?" Of course, part of growing up and becoming a card-carrying member of one's species involves taking risks, but can being too happy or having too much fun actually incur significant and long-lasting costs? We really don't know.

Much more research is needed to determine if animals can be too happy or have too much fun that is costly to them. While I've been pondering these questions literally everyday since meeting Dr. Gruber, it came to me that an answer might lie by invoking what is called "stabilizing selection", "a type of natural selection in which genetic diversity decreases and the population mean stabilizes on a particular trait value" (for more on stabilizing selection please see). 

A graphical view of stabilizing selection

I hope the work of Drs. Gruber, Nesse, and this brief essay motivates people to delve into these questions more deeply. Dr. Gruber and I plan to work on these questions both theoretically and empirically. I can well imagine that animals can indeed be too happy or have too much fun or be too full of themselves just like humans can. But, we really don't know how often this occurs or how detrimental it is.

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also)and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014.  

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