The theories presented here are based mainly on the science of evolutionary psychology, and try to explain various things about the way humans are, by looking at the way they evolved. Some of the titles may seem a but frivolous, but all the essays have some serious argument to them. For those readers unfamiliar with evolutionary psychology, I have a page giving you a very brief explanation.

Why we can’t find lasting happiness

There is money to be made from happiness. People spend large amounts in the pursuit of it. Happiness, though, eludes us. It is so difficult to find happiness that anyone who has found it takes on an aura of greatness and wisdom. Gullible hoards flock to hear the words of a thousand gurus, each promising a way to happiness. These gurus, of course, claim to be happy. They would have to, for business reasons. They are not happy, but many of them are rich.

Anyone who tells you that they can get you lasting happiness, is selling something. Do not believe them, and do not part with any money. You will never find lasting happiness. The reason for this, is that you are biologically incapable of sustaining pleasure, and there is a good reason for this.

The nature of pleasure is misunderstood. People often believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. No it isn’t. Humans, and all other life forms, evolved to reproduce. Those creatures that reproduced successfully in the past are still here today, those that didn’t have died out. Were it an aid to reproduction to be miserable, we would all be miserable. Pleasure has a function, and adaptive purpose, and it serves an end. The end it serves is reproduction. We get pleasure from all the things that helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce.

Imagine three groups of hunter-gatherers. Through some bizarre circumstance, one group has mutated into one that finds no pleasure in anything, one has mutated into one which finds pleasure in everything, and one has evolved by careful selected increments, into one which feels pleasure in the way we do today.

The first group dies out. It does this, because it gets no guidance for how to behave. It tries hunting, but doesn’t like all that running about and throwing things. It finds some food, eats it, but doesn’t like the taste. It doesn’t try hunting or eating again. It never occurs to any of them to have a go at procreation, because that is a bizarre activity, and totally without pleasurable reward. They find no excitement in courtship, nor conversation, so they don’t chat, and never form friendships or become lovers. It is clear that this lot never stood a hope of becoming our ancestors.

The second group dies out. It does this, because it finds pleasure in everything, and so has no motivation to seek to do the right sensible things, but instead it simply seeks to do and experience as much as possible. All stimulI are great. They bang their heads against trees, and the feeling is ecstatic. They spend hours standing on one leg and shouting, and the euphoria they experience is greater than they can express. So great is their pleasure in all this, that they use up their short lives experimenting with such things as staring at the sky, laughing, and breaking things. They never get round to eating, sleeping, or trying to make little hunter-gatherers. One couple accidentally makes a little hunter-gatherer, but the parents love the sound of its crying so much, that it dies unfed.

The third group survives. It tries banging heads against trees, but finds that this hurts, and so it soon stops. It tries hunting, and finds this challenging and fun. It enjoys the taste of good cooked meat, but it hates the taste of rotting raw meat. The people dislike loneliness, and prefer company and chat. Driven by lusts, they have a go at making little hunter-gatherers, and they like this so much that they try again and again. They avoid cold damp places, and seek out warm dry places. They find all the things that are bad for them to be unpleasurable, and all the things that are good for them to be pleasurable. Guided by these instincts, they prosper.

However, their feelings of pleasure never last. Nature evolves a carrot and stick policy, and they keep getting shown the stick. When one feels thirsty, he drinks, and then he feels the pleasure of a thirst quenched. If he were to feel that pleasure for ever, he would never drink again, and would die of thirst. He must soon feel thirst again. After eating, he feels satisfied, but he must eat every day for life, and so he feels hunger again and again. Hunger is the stick which goads him towards a behaviour which is to the advantage of his survival and reproduction. Feeling satisfied is the carrot which rewards him for his good behaviour. If he were to have one child, and feel happy for ever, then he would not reproduce as much as a man who has ambitions to have many children. The most ambitious people often did better than the most easily satisfied. Today, when a person gets a lot of money, he becomes for a while happier, but soon his happiness levels out at what it was before, and he wants more money. Our genes are ambitious for us. They want us to marry the best mate, make the most money, and give rise to the best children, and give them all the advantages possible in life.

We are the descendants of people who were ambitious, and who got their pleasure from the things which helped them live in their world. Unfortunately for us, today, life involves all sorts of activities which are necessary, but give us no pleasure. We hate filling in forms. Our ancestors never had to fill in forms. If form-filling had for millions of years been an essential part of life, just as eating and drinking was, then the people who loved doing it would have done better than those who didn’t, and we today would jump at the chance to fill in a good form or two. People’s abilities match their likes very accurately. Boys are better at certain topics like physics, while girls are better at languages. It seems that the main reason for this, is that boys are interested in, and get pleasure from the study of objects and their workings, whereas girls are naturally more interested in, and get more pleasure from people and communication. In all the studies of happiness, the planet’s happiest people always turn out to be the people living in the way closest to that of wild ancestral humans - modern day hunter-gatherers, living contented lives on islands, fishing and lounging about. The most miserable people on Earth appear to be the Japanese, and it is surely no coincidence that their way of life is the furthest removed from nature.

One thing people get pleasure from is respect, and it is possible to get respect from the foolish by telling them that there is a path to happiness, and that you are a guide to this path (cheques payable to A. Guru), consequently, there are people who are led by their instincts to become sellers of the false notion that lasting happiness is possible. Shun these people.

By this stage in this essay, you may find yourself feeling disappointed. You may have read the title and thought to yourself, “Aha! At last a scientific fact-based essay which will allow me to find lasting happiness. I must read this!” You may have thought this, despite the wording of the title, which clearly implies that we cannot find lasting happiness. So great is your desire for happiness, that your hope may have warped the meaning of the title in your mind. You may by now be thinking that this essay is a tease, and that it offers none of the solutions to the problem of finding lasting happiness which it promised. It made no such promise. From the start, this essay has been saying that we are biologically incapable of sustaining pleasure, and so any search for lasting happiness will end in failure. I might add now that this is probably a good thing, because non-adaptive pleasure leads to all manner of problems, as experienced by drug addicts, whose lives fall apart when they get distracted by drug-induced pleasures.

So does this essay have anything useful to say? Well, I think it does. For one thing, we now know that gurus are a waste of time and money. We also know that no matter how happy we think we will be in the future when something good happens, that that pleasure will not last. We may feel now that we would be happy if only we could get some thing we lack - job, girlfriend, own home, more holiday, more pay, Scalextric set. If you accept what I have written above as true, then you will be able to plan your future happiness much better. You will not feel the disappointment when, after you get your Scalextric set, you find that life is not now perfect, and that you still feel that there is something missing. There will always be something missing. Know now that your pleasures will not last, and avoid that disappointment, and plan for a continuing series of pleasurable projects, rather than the one big final one.

Note that this essay was about happiness rather than contentment. Contentment is a state of long-term ability to cope with, put up with, be satisfied with, life. It is not nirvana, enlightenment, euphoria, or any such positive and lasting feeling of positive pleasure. Content people are not euphoric, they are simply not miserable. Contentment is, very broadly speaking, attainable. a content person still gets annoyed when he stubs his toe, and he still likes Casablanca, but overall his life is okay.

Back to top