Happiness and Evolution (Part 2)

What does evolutionary social psychology have to do with happiness?

Do you remember in part 1 about certain brain processes occurring automatically to save on energy?

Well, from our Spiderman-like ability to detect snakes to our overwhelming ability to get bored with new purchases, these evolutionary advantages happen ‘nonconsciously.’

This means that your brain can control your everyday emotions, actions, and decisions in a big way without you ever being aware of it. 

What does this have to do with happiness?

Well, the hard part about sustainable happiness is “Emotional Evanescence.”

For a while, researchers never knew why or how but they observed over and over something phenomenal...

That humans were extremely resilient and able bounce back quickly from adversity.

As a sad example, if you were to become paralyzed in an automobile accident, studies show that you would be impacted greatly by it, but not half as long as you would intuitively imagine.

You simply wouldn’t anticipate the extent to which you can transform events psychologically, and you would return to your emotional baseline quickly.

Conversely, if you were to win the lottery tomorrow, “Emotional Evanescence” would be a part of the equation and you’d find yourself, mere months afterwards, not nearly as elated as you would have guessed you’d be.

Our unbelievable ability to return to baseline, whether it be in the wake of devastating circumstances or following amazing news, is what causes “impact bias” to be among the most frequently discussed of all our cognitive biases.

Impact bias is the belief that an event (present or pending) will affect you more intensely and longer than it actually will.

Evolutionary social psychology helps us understand “Emotional Evanescence.”

You have, built within the ancient part of your brain, a "Psychological Immune System."

It helps you rapidly move on from given events...

Because by dwelling less on emotionally impactful events, our ancestors were able to save mental energy for tasks relevant to survival.

This was important because extreme positive or negative emotional states are proven to impede attention and cognitive processing.

So, through evolution, those that could process and move on from events were able survive and pass on their genes at a higher rate.

Takeaways and Reflections:

1) We’re hardwired to process and move on from both good and bad events rather quickly.

Are you able to recall times in your life when you thought an event “would be the end of the world” or “would just make everything perfect”?

Do you even think back on those times much at all anymore, or have they more or less faded as life went on?

2) Purchases almost never make us as content for as long as we think they will, even big ones like cars, boats, or houses.

Can you think of a specific purchase you once made thinking it’d bring more happiness into your life? What was it?

In the next part of this series, we'll talk about the hedonic treadmill and its effects on happiness.

Is Your Happiness Controlled By Evolutionary Social Psychology (ESP)?

The Evolution of Happiness

Learn the affect evolution has on your happiness in 6 tiny lessons...

We’ll cover a lot of evolutionary social psychology to dig up the underlying processes that hold humans back from finding sustainable happiness.

So, for our first mini-lesson: what is evolutionary social psychology (ESP)? 

ESP is a set of scientifically accepted assumptions that use the theory of evolution as a base.

ESP posits that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors have been shaped over many years of biological selection.

[This simply means that, even today, we carry with us certain natural tendencies because they were once useful to survival over this long period of time.]

ESP helps explain:
1) why we hold stereotypes,
2) why we get in autopilot mode on the way to work, and even
3) why we’re not still pumped up about our newest phone or gadget like the day we got it.

We make sense of things in our environment and move on from them rapidly.

This is because we only have a limited amount of fuel for things like paying attention and assessing our surroundings.

Our ancestors wouldn’t have lived long if they carefully evaluated their environment every day.

But being able to automatically detect threats, food, and mating opportunities gave them the ultimate “survival of the fittest” edge.

And we still have it.

For instance, if you’ve ever flinched because you thought a branch was a snake, you can thank your ancestors for that specific threat awareness.

Your automatic, non-conscious movement away from that stick was hardwired into you.

How else would you explain why the fear of snakes is so widespread?

Takeaways and Reflections:

1)  Most humans have certain aversions (like a hypervigilance toward and fear of snakes) that we’ve evolved for.

Do you have any of these statistically irrational fears (thinking about getting bitten by a deadly spider, but not thinking twice about texting and driving)?

2) We’ve been hardwired to adapt to things in our environment quickly to avoid over-analysis.

Can you think of any way that rapid adaptation has made you complacent with some of the things you now own that you once wanted so badly?

In the next article, we'll answer the question: What does evolutionary social psychology have to do with happiness?

Should I Put My Foot Down? People Pleasing 101

People ask me all the time what the secret to happiness is. “If you had to pick just one thing,” they wonder, “what would be the most important thing for leading a happy life?” Ten years ago, I would have told you a regular gratitude practice was the most important thing, and while that is still my favorite instant happiness booster, my answer has changed. I believe the most important thing for happiness is living truthfully. Here’s the specific advice I recently gave my kids:

Live with total integrity. Be transparent, honest, and authentic. Do not ever waiver from this; white lies and false smiles quickly snowball into a life lived out of alignment. It is better to be yourself and risk having people not like you than to suffer the stress and tension that comes from pretending to be someone you’re not, or professing to like something that you don’t. I promise you: Pretending will rob you of joy.

I’ve spent the better part of my life as a people-pleaser, trying to meet other people’s expectations, trying to keep everyone happy and liking me. But when we are trying to please others, we are usually out of sync with our own wants and needs. It’s not that it’s bad to be thinking of others — that’s a key to happiness, too — it’s that pleasing others is not the same as helping others.

People pleasing, in my extensive personal experience, is a process of guessing what other people want, or what will make them think favorably of us, and then acting accordingly. It’s an often subtle and usually unconscious attempt at manipulating other people’s perceptions of us. Anytime we pretend to be or feel something that we aren’t, we’re out of integrity with ourselves.

And anytime we’re doing something that is more about influencing what others think of us than it is about authentically expressing ourselves — even something as simple as a Facebook post that makes it seem like we are having a better day than we actually are — we end up out of integrity with ourselves.

Being out of integrity has pretty serious consequences for our happiness, and for our relationships. Here’s what happens when we aren’t being authentic:

#1: We don’t actually fool anyone.

Say you are at work, and you’re doing your best to put on a happy face even though your home life is feeling shaky. You may not want to reveal to your work friends that you and your significant other had a major fight over the weekend, but if you pretend that you are okay — and you’re not — you’ll probably make the people around you feel worse, too. Why?

We humans aren’t actually very good at hiding how we are feeling. We exhibit microexpressions that the people we are with unconsciously register. Our microexpresssions trigger mirror neurons in the brains of people around us — so a little part of their brain thinks that they are feeling our negative feelings. So trying to suppress negative emotions when we are talking with someone — like when we don’t want to trouble someone else with our own distress — actually increases  both our own stress levels and those of the people we are with — more than if we had shared our distress in the first place. (It also reduces rapport and inhibits the connection between two people.)

#2: We find it harder to focus.

Pretending takes a huge conscious effort — it’s an act of self-control that drains your brain of its power to focus and do deep work. That’s because performing or pretending to be or feel something you’re not requires tremendous willpower.

Tons of research suggests that our ability to repeatedly exert our self-control is actually quite limited. Like a muscle that tires and can no longer perform at its peak strength after a workout, our self-control is diminished by previous efforts at control, even if those efforts take place in a totally different realm.

So that little fib at the water cooler you told in order to make yourself seem happier than you actually are is going to make it hard for you to focus later in the afternoon. A performance or any attempt to hide who you really are or pretend to be something you aren’t is going to make it harder later to control your attention, your thoughts, and to regulate your emotions. It’ll increase the odds that you react more aggressively to a provocation, eat more tempting snacks, engage in riskier behaviors, and — this one is pretty compelling to me — you’ll perform more poorly on tasks that require executive function, like managing your time, planning, or organizing.

#3: You’ll become more stressed and anxious.

Let’s just call it like it is: Pretending to be or feel something that you don’t — even if it is a small thing, and even if it is relatively meaningless, and even if it is meant to protect someone else–is a lie.

And lying, even if we do it a lot, or are good at it, is very stressful to our brains and our body. The polygraph test depends on this: “Lie Detectors” don’t actually detect lies, but rather they detect the subconscious stress and fear that lying causes. These tests sense changes in our skin electricity, pulse rate, and breathing. They also detect when someone’s vocal pitch has changed in a nearly imperceptible way, a consequence of tension in the body that tightens vocal chords.

The physiological changes that lie detectors sense are caused by glucocorticoids, hormones that are released during a stress response. And as you well know, stress hormones are bad news for your health and happiness over the long run.

Research shows that people who are given instructions for how to lie less in their day-to-day lives are actually able to lie less, and when they do, their physical health improves. For example, they report less trouble sleeping, less tension, fewer headaches, and fewer sore throats. These improvements in health are likely caused by the relative absence of a stress response.

And that’s not all: When the people in the above study lied less, they also reported improvements in their relationships and less anxiety.

We don’t lie or pretend or perform all the time, of course. But when we do, it’s important to see the consequences: increased stress, decreased willpower, impaired relationships. Although we might actually be trying to feel better by putting on a happy face for others, pretending always backfires in the end. Living inauthentically makes life hard, eliminating any possibility that we will find our flow, or that we will be able to operate from our sweet spot, that place where we have both ease and power.