5 Keys to Living a Richer Life

... Because our genes aren't the only things we pass on.

Posted Apr 10, 2016

You can’t take it with you.* So goes a saying that emphatically captures the idea that money buys you neither love nor happiness. If you look at behavioral science research, there’s something to it: Money and life satisfaction are rarely found to strongly relate to each other in the empirical research on this issue (see Boyce et al., 2010). So if you’re looking for the secret to life, here’s a hint: You won't find it at the Maserati dealership.

As a scholar in the evolutionary behavioral sciences—and as a person myself—I’m constantly thinking about these issues. What are the routes to a successful life? What is a successful life anyway? And how can the most powerful intellectual framework in the life sciences, Darwin’s concept of evolution, help us lead richer lives?

racorn/Shutterstock
Source: racorn/Shutterstock

Across my career, I have become increasingly interested in Darwin’s ideas on evolution and how these ideas apply to issues of everyday life (see Geher, 2014). I’m particularly interested in the positive aspects of life—“the good life,” as it were—and how a Darwinian approach to being human helps shed light on how to get there.

This topic, which we might call “Positive Evolutionary Psychology,” is the focus of an upcoming book with this title that my graduate student Nicole Wedberg and I are working on (in contract at Oxford University Press).

An Evolutionary Take on the Successful Life

From an evolutionary perspective, life is largely about outliving oneself. Organisms that have passed the test of natural selection are organisms whose ancestors were good at replicating. From a very narrow perspective, then, life is about replicating genes. But I have to say, this is actually a very, very narrow view of evolution. In fact, in humans, there are lots of ways to outlive oneself (See Kotre, 1996).

Gene replication, usually in the form of having offspring, is one way. But a wonderful thing about being human is that we have the capacity to pass on much more than just genes. As is true in several species, humans demonstrate “cultural transmission”—the passing on of ideas. When Darwin published his seminal works on evolution in the 19th century, for example, he created an extraordinary legacy that went well beyond his particular genetic lineage. Newton, Curie, and Shakespeare did the same.

Positive evolutionary psychology seeks largely to get beyond a narrow focus on gene replication, using evolution-based science to shed light on all aspects of the human experience, with a focus on conditions that lead people to simply flourish. Following are 5 tips for living a richer life that derive from an evolutionarily informed perspective on being human:

5. Surround yourself with nature.

Humans don’t do well when imprisoned in basements without daylight for extended periods of time. Our ancestors were constantly surrounded by features of the natural environment—water, vegetation, animal life, etc. And we are, importantly, the products of these ancestral environments—which partly accounts for why humans across the globe show some level of “biophilia” (see Wilson, 1984).

4. Get a dog or a cat. Or a few.

Humans have had symbiotic relationships with dogs and cats for eons (see Skoglund et al., 2015). Dogs provided our ancestors with outstanding protection and vigilance, and cats helped keep human environments free of vermin. There is a reason that we think puppies and kittens are so darned cute: We’ve co-evolved with them.

3. Cultivate the next generation of leaders.

You don’t have to be a parent to help shape future generations. In my job as a professor, my primary job is to help educate and inspire hundreds of bright young minds each year. We are talking about the leaders of the future—the teachers, government officials, artists, and thinkers of the next generation. But you don’t have to be a teacher to make contributions on this front. If you’re in a field outside teaching, look into taking on interns from a local college. Volunteer for a Big Brothers/Big Sisters kind of organization. Coach a youth sports team. Few things in life are as rewarding as seeing the positive effects of your work on future leaders.

2. Cultivate community.

Humans are a communal ape. We join forces with others beyond kin lines (see Bingham & Souza, 2009). Working together, humans create symphonies, build rocket ships, and create things like New York City. The creation of non-kin-based psychological communities (see Wilson, 2007) sits at the core of what it means to be human. Anyone who has ever volunteered for some organization has had an opportunity to help cultivate community in an important way. Why should you volunteer for the PTA? The answer partly resides in the fact that humans evolved to work together to build communities working toward common goals.

1. Forgive, thank, and (when even slightly warranted) apologize.

Living in large groups that include many non-kin, human communities are kind of unique. And our evolved psychology clearly maps onto these kinds of social conditions. Human moral emotions (see Trivers, 1985) largely serve the function of keeping individuals connected to one another for long-term social relationships. Forgiving others for transgressions, demonstrating gratitude that acknowledges the effort and time of others, and apologizing for transgressions you may be responsible for are all part of our evolved psychology—shaped to ultimately keep us connected to others within broader human communities.

Photo by Glenn Geher; of Shawangunk Ridge
Source: Photo by Glenn Geher; of Shawangunk Ridge

Bottom Line

From an evolutionary perspective, living a rich life is not about money. Human happiness and success may be better understood in terms of (a) one’s connections with ancestral ecological conditions as well as (b) the degree of positive influence that one has on one's broader communities.

You may not be able to “take it with you”—but if you lead a life that focuses on building the next generation of leaders and cultivating communities at multiple levels, your mark will be left on the world for centuries to come. What could be richer than that?

References

  • Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.
  • Boyce, C.J., Brown, G.D.A., Moore, S. Money and happiness: rank of income, not income, affects life satisfaction. Psychological Science. 2010;21:471–475.
  • Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.
  • Geher, G., & Wedberg, N. A. (in contract). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • *Hart, M., & Kaufman, G. S. (1936). You can’t take it with you. Screenplay / Broadway Show.  
  • Kotre, J. (1996). Outliving the self. New York: Norton.
  • Skoglund, P.; Ersmark, E.; Palkopoulou, E.; Dalén, L. (2015). "Ancient Wolf Genome Reveals an Early Divergence of Domestic Dog Ancestors and Admixture into High-Latitude Breeds". Current Biology
  • Trivers, R. (1985). Social evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.
  • Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for everyone: How Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives. New York, NY: Delacorte Press.
  • Wilson, Edward O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.