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5 Rules for Navigating Life's Challenges

These rules were inspired by Darwin's guidance to living a richer life.

Key points

  • A Darwinian approach to psychology draws on powerful and far-reaching ideas in the life sciences that address issues of the human experience.
  • Happiness and success go beyond money or material things. Relationships steeped in loyalty, trust, and love are critical to living the good life.
  • Thinking about the human social experience from an evolutionary perspective allows one to practice substantial and genuine connections.
True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock
Source: True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock

In any given week, you might run into a broad array of everyday hassles, such as finding that the transmission in your car is spent, realizing that you blanked on an important meeting at work, having your cat run away overnight, or maybe forgetting to pay your mortgage on time.

Further, as you get older, you tend to see more and more major-league problems like losing a family member, irreconcilable relationship problems, major medical issues, or losing a job.

Life is hard, and we all know it.

A recent trend in the behavioral sciences has been applying Darwinian ideas. These most powerful and far-reaching ideas exist in the life sciences to address issues of the human experience. Nicole Wedberg and I call this movement Positive Evolutionary Psychology. We have written extensively about how this basic approach to the behavioral sciences can help us live more prosperous lives.

Below are five life rules rooted in positive evolutionary psychology that can help us best navigate life's difficulties.

1. Cultivate a reputation as being other-oriented.

While many factors feed into one's reputation in any given social context, from an evolutionary perspective, a core way to think about one's general reputation is straightforward: People vary in how selfish versus other-oriented they are (Geher et al., 2019). In the broader human experience, people evolved to live with the same individuals in small groups over extended periods. Under such conditions, we evolved to become adept at figuring out whom we can generally rely on and of whom we should be wary. Developing a reputation as being genuinely other-oriented, in this context, can pay all kinds of social dividends.

Help a neighbor with a project, offer help to a friend in need, spread compassion to your family members, and you'll find that such acts will ultimately have benefits for your community and, ultimately, for yourself as well.

2. When appropriate, be thankful, apologetic, and gracious.

Humans evolved with reciprocal altruism as a core feature of our social experience. We help others who have helped us in the past. And we often expect some level of support in the future from those we've chosen to help (Trivers, 1985).

We evolved a broad suite of social-emotional states and actions that help us stay connected with others whom we may need in the future. Expressing authentic thankfulness for others' selfless acts makes others feel appreciated. Apologizing genuinely when you've transgressed helps make people realize that any selfish actions on your part may be transient and not core features of yourself. And being gracious in a variety of ways, showing others that their worlds and feelings matter to you can go a long way toward making your feelings matter to them.

3. Admit and learn from mistakes.

Last I checked, we all make mistakes. Trust me; I can probably count a solid dozen mistakes that I make daily. The human learning system evolved to help us learn from mistakes (Keller & Nesse, 2006). Further, admitting one's failures and errors shows a particular genuineness that we find admirable and attractive in others in our world. On the flip side, there are few things as off-putting as seeing someone make a glaring error that has adverse effects for everyone and that person refusing to take ownership. Mistakes will happen. Admit them. Learn from them. And move on.

4. Listen to your elders.

My kids are amazing: At 20 and 17 years of age, they know everything! Similarly, when I was in my late teen years, I had it all figured out. Or so I thought.

In cultures across the globe, elders often have special status. And their advice and guidance are frequently given special attention. The math as to why that is the case is not complex.

With age comes life experience. Older people are more likely to have dealt with relationships, parenting, work, friendships, and more. While it seems tempting to dismiss the guidance or advice from elders, doing so often comes at a cost—experience matters. And our evolved social psychology takes this fact into account.

5. Maintain constant substantial connections to others.

Connections to others matter a boatload in the human experience. Parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, co-workers, neighbors are examples of substantial connections. In research on the evolutionary psychology of estrangements, our research team (Geher et al., 2019) found that the more estrangements one had in life, the worse that person's social and emotional functioning was. And this outcome was found across a broad set of variables (e.g., emotional stability, social support, security in attachment with others, and more).

Humans evolved as a profoundly social species. Relationships steeped in loyalty, trust, and love go a long way in helping people cultivate the good life. Ensuring significant, genuine, deep, and dependable relationships is critical for living the good life

The Bottom Line

Let's face it: If you're old enough to read this, you know that life is hard. As we navigate our life course, we are all looking for satisfaction and happiness. Some try to find joy in money and material things. Sure, it'd be nice to drive a Tesla and go on a ten-day vacation in the Swiss Alps. But when it comes to true happiness, it's not about money. Humans are products of Darwinian forces that have sculpted our species over thousands and thousands of generations. We evolved to live in small-scale societies and form meaningful, genuine, deep bonds with others.

Want to live the rich life? Think about the human social experience from an evolutionary perspective. Develop a reputation as being other-oriented, treat people with kindness and grace, and make sure that you always have at least some substantial and genuine connections with significant others in your world. Following the guidance spelled out here will go a long way in helping you live the good life. And the best part? No Tesla needed.

LinkedIn image: Erickson Stock/Shutterstock. Facebook image: True Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock


Geher, G. & Wedberg, N. (2020). Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life. New York: Oxford University Press.

Geher, G., Di Santo, J., & Planke, J. (2019). Social reputation. In T. Shackelford (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Science. New York: Springer.

Geher, G., Rolon, V., Holler, R., Baroni, A., Gleason, M., Nitza, E., Sullivan, G., Thomson, G., & Di Santo, J. M. (2019). You’re dead to me! The evolutionary psychology of social estrangements and social transgressions. Current Psychology. doi: 10.1007/s12144-019-00381-z

Keller, M. C., & Nesse, R. M. (2006). The evolutionary significance of depressive symptoms: Different life events lead to different depressive symptom patterns. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 316-330.

Trivers, R. (1985). Social evolution. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.

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