The Samovar

November 8, 2008, 5:04 am
Filed under: Philosophy | Tags: ,

I just had a thought about happiness which is a bit of a mindfuck.

If you think about the evolutionary function of happiness, the obvious thing to think is that evolution selects a meaning for happiness so that if we attempt to maximise it that will maximise reproductive fitness. (This formulation could well be wrong.) Now presumably if we were quite happy most of the time, we wouldn’t put much effort in to things and so we wouldn’t be very fit. On the other hand someone who was pretty unhappy would put lots of effort in and so would be very fit. Therefore evolution will tend to select unhappy people (but presumably not totally depressed people, there has to be a possibility of happiness for it to work). Now that’s already a mindfuck because it means that the driving force behind our existence wants us to be unhappy. Shit.

But you might think, maybe that’s not so bad. Evolution will have chosen some things that make us happy that in the environment in which we evolved were fairly rare, and maybe with better technology etc. we can get more of those things and that would make us happy. In other words, perhaps a happy world is possible. Yeah, well, maybe (although the evidence rather suggests that more wealth and technology makes us less happy). But there’s another nasty possibility which is that we habituate to our current level of happiness. Just as you cease to hear a noise when it’s played constantly or smell an odour that is present constantly, and only detect it when it goes away or gets louder or stronger, maybe you cease to feel happy about the things that make you happy when they’re always there. In other words, you’ll always be tending towards unhappiness and only feel happy briefly in moments of change when things improve. Double shit.

So is it true? And if so, what the fuck do we do about it? I mean, what do you do differently if you know that happiness can only ever be a short lived thing and not something permanent? I can think of a few ideas but I’d be interested to hear what others think.



Just a small thought, but I would say that however happiness developed within us, it probably did so when we were hunter gatherers doing whatever hunter gatherers do. We now live in a society where thing have changed dramatically, with the happiness formulation within us playing a losing game of catch-up. Happiness in essence is therefore an artifact.

This can be seen as good: it means that we can manipulate this formulation so that we maximise our happiness. Alternatively, you could envisage a world where happiness (or unhappiness) was manipulated in a direction contrary to our best interests. A subject for a different day, I guess.

Comment by Colm

Lol, blogging at 5am is clearly the best time to do it. Clearly, happiness is encapsulated by the photo directly below this blog entry.

Comment by Alastair

Colm, that’s the view taken by David Buss in his (somewhat) famous paper on the evolution of happiness. But it doesn’t take into account the possibility of habituation – if we are always adjusting to our current level of happiness then there’s nothing we can do to stay happy, we can only ever be temporarily so. Well, this habituation might not happen, but it would be good to know one way or the other so we can adjust our expectations accordingly.

Alastair, yeah but now that I’ve realised that the other branch of Pierre Hermé is only 10 minutes away there’s a danger of habituating to macaron happiness…

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

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