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Are We Evolved for Happiness?

Where positive psychology falls short.

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In a recent presentation on our campus, renowned psychiatrist Randolph Nesse told a simple anecdote that speaks volumes about the nature of happiness. The story was essentially this:

A while back, Nesse had a client who was a professor. This professor was, like so many of us, dealing with issues of anxiety. Nesse prescribed anti-anxiety medication. A few months later, Nesse asked the client how he was doing—and the professor said that he felt great for the first time in years. This said, he indicated that there was one problem: A huge stack of student papers had been sitting on his desk for weeks, but he had no motivation whatsoever to grade them.

In his landmark work on evolutionary medicine (Nesse & Williams, 1995), Nesse made the case that symptoms, be they physical or emotional, exist for good evolutionary reasons, and that any medical approaches that focus exclusively on ameliorating symptoms are naive, limited, and potentially problematic.

In the case of the anxious professor, it seems that the anxiety he was experiencing, while unpleasant, actually played a motivational factor in his life: It motivated him to do his job.

In fact, from an evolutionary perspective (Nesse & Ellsworth, 2009), this is pretty much the ultimate reason that anxiety exists: It plays a factor in motivating people to take actions that are ultimately adaptive. Under ancestral conditions, people likely became anxious under the following kinds of conditions:

  • They experienced snakes in the jungle.
  • They found themselves lost in the woods.
  • Others in their social circles shunned them.
  • Their social status was threatened.
  • They experienced breakups with intimate others.

Ancestors who showed no anxiety to these kinds of threats would not have taken appropriate steps to fix the problems. Someone who was not anxious at the thought of a poisonous snake attacking would be less likely to avoid these dangerous animals compared with anxious-prone others. Someone who felt no anxiety when his or her social status was publicly threatened would not be likely to take steps to restore his or her status within the group. And so on.

Anxiety is not pleasant, but it is a substantial feature of human psychology for a reason. And ameliorating anxiety fully, as demonstrated by Nesse’s anecdote, can actually be maladaptive and counterproductive.

Happiness Is Only a Proximate Goal

From an evolutionary perspective, human emotions evolved as they have because they generally work to confer evolutionary benefits to us, helping to ultimately increase the likelihood of survival and/or reproductive capacities. (See my brief textbook, Evolutionary Psychology 101). Just as anxiety evolved to help motivate adaptive behaviors, happiness has also evolved to help motivate adaptive behaviors.

If you look at the things that make people happy, you can quickly see that they generally map onto outcomes that would have led to increased probabilities of survival and/or reproduction for our ancestors. Here is a short list:

  • Food
  • Sex
  • Engaging in fun times with friends
  • Success in social contexts
  • Task completion

In broad strokes, we can easily see how these kinds of outcomes not only have the capacity to lead to happiness, but that they also have clear benefits from an evolutionary perspective. The evolutionary take on happiness, then, is essentially this: Happiness is an affective state that motivates us to engage in actions that are likely to lead to outcomes that would, on average, lead to increases in the likelihood of survival and/or reproduction. (See Guitar et al., in preparation).

In evolutionary parlance, we would say that happiness is a proximate outcome. It matters, and it is nice. But it is not an ultimate evolutionary outcome. From an evolutionary perspective, ultimate outcomes pertain to outcomes that bear on increases in the likelihood of survival and reproduction. Thus, we may be thrilled to have a piece of chocolate cake on the table in front of us at a birthday party. But that momentary happiness is not an end goal in itself. We evolved to be happy when presented with rich food offerings because our ancestors, who were motivated to find rich foods, were more likely to eat and thus to survive and reproduce.

Happiness, then, like anxiety, is an affective state with the primary evolved function of motivating us to engage in behaviors that would have led to evolutionarily adaptive outcomes under ancestral conditions. Happiness is not an end goal; it is a means to an end.

Naive Positive Psychology Versus Positive Evolutionary Psychology

In recent decades, there has been much growth in the area of positive psychology (Watkins, 2014). Positive psychology largely focuses on helping us better understand the positive aspects of the human experience. Without question, I support this broad mission of positive psychology and am appreciative of luminaries like Martin Seligman and Scott Barry Kaufman who are doing great work to help advance this area of inquiry.

This said, I think that positive psychologists need to be cautious about over-emphasizing factors that increase happiness. I have no problem with happiness—I strive for it myself at times. This said, work that focuses on increasing happiness without a well-grounded evolutionary perspective, to my mind, misses the boat. For a psychology of happiness to truly advance, as I see it, it must take evolutionary principles and research into account.* Positive psychology that focuses on increasing happiness without taking evolutionary context into account is simply naive and potentially misguided.

Bottom Line

A common take on the point of life suggests that life is about being happy. That take on life is wrong. Happiness, like any affective state, is a proximate goal that evolved primarily because it helped to motivate behaviors that, on average, led to outcomes associated with increases in survival and/or reproduction. Negative emotions, such as anxiety and depression, actually exist for a reason, and efforts to fully ameliorate negative emotions are evolutionarily misguided.

Increasing happiness is not a bad goal by any stretch of the imagination. But it is not the end goal—and it’s hardly the point of life. Want a broader understanding of what it means to be human? You'd better include an evolutionary perspective.

*A recent Facebook post by my all-star collaborator Scott Barry Kaufman makes this same point, and largely inspired this article.

If you are interested in the interface of evolutionary psychology and positive psychology, you’re in luck: My star alum, Nicole Wedberg, and I are currently writing a book entitled Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life.

LinkedIn Image Credit: Yanya/Shutterstock


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.

Guitar, A., Glass, D., Geher, G., & Saba, A. (in preparation). Situation-Specific Emotional States: Testing Nesse and Ellsworth’s (2009) Model of Emotions for Situations that Arise in Goal Pursuit Using Second Life.

Nesse,R.M., & Ellsworth, P.C. (2009). Evolution, emotions, and emotional disorders. American Psychologist, 64, 129–139.

Nesse RM, Williams GC: Why We Get Sick: The New Science of Darwinian Medicine, Times Books, New York, 1995.

Watkins, P. (2014), Positive Psychology 101. New York: Springer.