Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Evolutionary perspective of happiness

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Evolutionary perspective of happiness:
What does evolution tell us about why we are happy?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. People thrive to achieve happiness cross-culturally.

‘Why am I happy?’ is a question with an infinite amount of possible answers, as they can vary for each individual. However, when the question refers to evolutionary reason[grammar?], the answer can be applied to all.

The evolutionary perspective of happiness is far from a simple and well-rounded theory. It draws information from biology, psychological perspectives, and environmental and cultural factors, and applies them to the classic Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest (Kováč, 2012). These factors as well as a modern perspective of happiness are considered and elaborated on in this chapter.  

What is happiness?[edit | edit source]

Many disciplines have attempted to define happiness. Including, but not limited to, philosophers, religious figures, anthropologists, economists, and of course, psychologists[grammar?]. Though due to its ambiguity, psychologists generally prefer the term subjective wellbeing (SWB), which has been described as having a lasting satisfaction with one’s own life and a healthy balance between positive and negative affect (Diener, 1984)[grammar?]. Though quite simply put, happiness or SWB is perhaps the most significant emotion that people thrive to achieve cross-culturally. But why is this?[grammar?] The obvious answer would be: happiness makes you feel good and positive. However, when asking the question from an evolutionary perspective, the answer is a tad more complex.

Evolutionary perspective of happiness[edit | edit source]

The evolutionary perspective is the attempt to explain psychological phenomenon, such as cognitions and behaviours, in relation to natural selection. Charles Darwin argued that all functions of any organism serve a purpose in the survival and thriving of that species (Kováč, 2012). In the last 6 million years or so, humans have evolved to be the most intelligent and somewhat complicated animal that ever walked the Earth (Grinde, 2004). In those years, humans have developed a brain that allows for higher-order functioning such as complex social behaviours, introspection, conscious-thought, and emotion (Kalat, 2018; Lui, Hansen & Kriegstein, 2011). From an evolutionary perspective, these functions should serve the survival of the human race, however, the purpose of one of these phenomenon is rather unclear. Emotion has proven to be not only difficult to define, but also explain, in an evolutionary sense. However, research in biological, psychological, anthropological, and social science areas has helped to piece together a better understanding of why emotion, particularly happiness, has evolved to be one of the most important drivers in the human race.

Evolution of emotions[edit | edit source]

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The brain[edit | edit source]

During the Permian-Triassic periods, ancient stem reptiles formed what are now known as the brainstem and basal ganglia (Cory, 2000). According to MacLean’s triune brain theory (1990), this core structure of the human brain should be appointed the protoreptilian complex, as it formed almost the entirety of the brain of ancestral fishes, amphibians, and amniotes at the time. These structures are essential for the body’s vital functions such as heart rate, blood circulation, breathing, voluntary motor movements, reproduction, and defensive behaviours (Cory, 2000).

Continuing on this theory, mammals then developed what MacLean called the paleomammilian complex, or in other words, the limbic system, consisting of a group of structures that include the amygdala, the hippocampus, the hypothalamus, the thalamus, and the limbic cingulate cortex (Cory, 2000). These areas are involved in behavioural and motivational responses that are associated with feeding, reproduction and attachment behaviours, as well as eliciting reactions to the environment, such as fight or flight responses and reward processing (Cory, 2000; Kalat, 2018).  Because of this, the limbic system has commonly been referred to as the emotional part of the brain (Kalat, 2018). However, research is yet to designate particular emotions to certain brain areas, as scans using fMRI and PET techniques have found that activation from emotional stimuli tend to scatter over various areas (Kalat, 2018). The lack of physiological evidence of emotion has brought about some creative theories attempting to explain the phenomenon, one in particular stating that rather it being biologically hardwired, emotion is a spontaneous reaction that the brain constructs through interoception, emotional concepts (from one’s culture), and social reality (Barrett, 2012). Though an intriguing perspective, this approach requires much further research and empirical support.  

Finally, the neomammilian complex is the most recent and advanced structure of the mammalian brain and consists of the neocortex (Cory, 2000). The neocrotex[spelling?], which is the largest part of the cerebral cortex, is involved in higher-order brain functioning such as visual, auditory, and spatial information, working memory, language, conscious thought, and decision-making (Kalat, 2018; Lui, Hansen & Kriegstein, 2011). In humans, these complex functions evolved over millions of years where pro-social behaviours, such as sharing or trade, were essential for surviving in foraging societies (Cory, 2000). Nowadays, these functions are more or less for human survival but key features in personal and social behaviours that are vital for a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle.

Conditioning[edit | edit source]

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Mood modules[edit | edit source]

Mood modules are used as a framework to collectively represent the various neural networks that are involved in emotional behaviour (Grinde, 2012). The idea is not to be interpreted as anatomical evidence but as a way to simplify this relationship and relate it to evolutionary models. Mood modules activate positive and negative feelings in order to direct behaviour. In saying this, positive and negative feelings may act as rewards and punishers to external stimuli (Grinde, 2012). To elaborate on these functions, rewards are biologically defined as brain activities that prompt approach or consummatory behaviours (Grinde, 2012; Skinner, 1938), such as a dog that sits every time his owner commands him to because he knows he will get a treat. On the other hand, punishments elicit avoidance behaviours such as a child who will not longer eat tomatoes because of the one time it made them sick (Grinde, 2012; Skinner, 1938). These are simple and specific examples to explain how this system works. Ultimately, rewards and punishments are intended for learning, which are vital in the survival of the fittest. Attraction and aversion are another form of mood modules that elaborate on this idea.  

Attraction and aversion[edit | edit source]

Attraction and aversion are two of the most essential functions of the nervous system that guide most, if not all, living organisms in the direction of survival (Grinde, 2012). The original manipulation of these functions was through reflexes and instincts, which are still very much active in wild animals (Grinde, 2012; Kalat, 2018). However, although still biologically wired in humans, more sophisticated ways of living provoked a change in how attraction and aversion were operated (Grinde, 2012). Grinde (2012) argues that it would make sense for emotional enticement and mood to enforce these functions as a more flexible response to environmental challenges. Further, that positive and negative feelings act as rewards and punishers as a way to direct and reinforce behaviour, as previously mentioned (Grinde, 2001). In theory, this would teach an individual to base decisions on the expected hedonic value, in other words, what would make them happier. From an evolutionary perspective, this decision-making method would have to be in the best interest of the genes (Grinde, 2012).

Environmental factors[edit | edit source]

It is widely accepted that environmental factors play an enormous role in the physical, mental, and emotional conditions of human life. It is also well known that the human genes did not all evolve in the same environment or conditions (Grinde, 2002). Humans migrated across the Earth, which resulted in the many different cultures that currently exist, all holding unique norms and values (Grinde, 2005). These cultural differences are still evident today and happiness is no exception to them. Western societies tend to practice what is referred to as an individualist culture. In individualist cultures independence, personal identity and the rights and success of each person are highly valued (Joshanloo & Weijers, 2013). Therefore, it is not a great shock that Western cultures define happiness as a favourable internal state (Oishi et al., 2012) and prioritise it much more than Non-Western cultures (Joshanloo & Weijers, 2013). This infatuation with happiness became apparent in the 19th and 20th centuries, where urbanisation, consumer culture, and a “human-interest” trend in advertising reached new heights in the United States (Oishi, et al., 2012) and it was not long after where psychological research in subjective well being became of great interest (Joshanloo & Weijers, 2013). Though, whether this cultural shift was the main source of reason for Western Society’s desires and beliefs of happiness remains unclear. As there is reason to believe that socioecological factors such as climate and pathogen prevalence may have impacted an incentive towards either individualist or collectivist cultures (Oishi & Graham, 2010), collectivist cultures being those that greatly value the importance of the community and social harmony (Joshanloo & Weijers, 2013)[grammar?]. Collectivist cultures tend to define happiness as good luck and favourable external conditions, which may be the result of environmental factors such as harsher living conditions (Oishi et al., 2012). Countries that make up Collectivist cultures mostly consist of East Asian and South American countries, where natural disasters and extreme weather conditions are not uncommon. Many of these countries have also been prone to infectious diseases in the environment, a factor that has been linked to cultural influence such as individualism and collectivism (Oishi et al., 2012). These uncontrollable and sometimes unpredictable factors may explain why Collectivist cultures perceive happiness as luck-based or externally produced.  

Economic happiness[edit | edit source]

Modern theories of happiness often attempt to affiliate subjective well being with economic wealth. A majority of studies have found that in the long-term, increase in income does not significantly influence happiness in individuals (Bartolini & Sarracino, 2014). This pattern has also been seen over time across wealthy countries, and has been labelled as the “Easterlin Paradox” (Rayo & Becker, 2007). However, large cross-sectioned surveys have found that at a given moment in time, as apposed[spelling?] to over time, reported happiness can in fact correlate with current income (Rayo & Becker, 2007). This finding suggests that perhaps variables such as an improvement from one’s previous situation or a higher social ranking may then have an impact on happiness levels (Rayo & Becker, 2007; Boyce, Brown & Moore, 2009). Research in this area has found that a factor in the level of satisfaction one gains from income is peer comparison (Rayo & Becker, 2007). Indeed a common cause for concern in individuals is that they are not worse-off than others in a corresponding reference group, such as those with similar demographic features (Rayo & Becker, 2007). Supporting research has also found that upward comparisons are weighted much heavier than downward comparisons (Boyce, Brown & Moore, 2009). From an evolutionary perspective, it would make sense for social rank to be highly prioritised, as those in higher position may have been deemed as fitter or more attractive to reproduce with (Grinde, 2012), as well as live in desirable conditions that increase the chance of survival (Macchia, Plagnol & Powdthavee, 2019). Happiness as a result of this social advance should therefore try to direct future behaviour towards these advantageous living conditions. 

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Happiness is an abstract concept that is difficult to define and measure, as well as understand its reason for existence. The evolutionary perspective brings together many disciplines in order to gain a deeper understanding of that last point. Happiness is a unique human experience in the sense that people are self-aware of their levels of happiness, and for this reason often try to manipulate it or are driven by it. The key function of happiness from the evolutionary perspective is that it can be used as a way to guide and direct behaviour in order to make decisions that are beneficial to the genes (Grinde, 2012). The brain is the core structure that allows for any kind of behaviour to exist. Over time it has evolved so that humans have gained higher-order brain functioning such as self-awareness and emotion, which allow humans to respond accordingly to various external stimuli and live in complex social systems that are essential for survival (Cory 2000; Grinde, 2012). Learning to decision-make based on hedonic expectations is another vital element of happiness that has occurred through evolution (Grinde, 2002). External factors such as the environment, living conditions, cultural belonging, social shifts, and economic wealth all also have a great impact in the way happiness has evolved across cultures. Clearly, it is not one but many systems that have collectively shaped the way happiness operates, and in turn have been impacted by happiness themselves. Research in the area of the evolutionary perspective of happiness is extremely fascinating, yet has been neglected in the field of psychology, which leaves many gaps in the literature. This chapter aimed to educate people in what research has currently been explored in this field and hopefully stimulate an interest in the wonderfully unique perspectives it has to offer.  

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Boyce, C. J., Brown, G. D. A. & Moore, S. C. (2009). Money and happiness: rank of income, not income, affects life satisfaction. Psychological Science, 21(4), 471-475. DOI: 10.1177/0956797610362671

Bartolini, S. & Sarracino, F. (2014). Happy for how long? How social capital and economic growth relate to happiness over time. Ecological Economics, 242-256. Retrieved from:

Cory, G. A. (2000). From MacLean’s triune brain concept to the conflict systems neurobehavioral mode: the subjective basis of moral and spiritual consciousness. Zygon, 35(2). 385-414. Retrieved from

Diener, E. (1984). Subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 95, 542-575.

Grinde, B. (2002). Happiness in the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Journal of Happiness Studies, 3, 331-354.

Grinde, B. (2005). Darwinian happiness: can the evolutionary perspective on well-being help us improve society? The Journal of New Paradigm Research, 61, 317-329.

Grinde, B. (2012). An evolutionary perspective on happiness and mental health. The Journal of Mind and Behaviour, 31, 49-68.

Grinde, B. (2012). Quality of life in an evolutionary perspective. Journal of Alternative Medicine Research, 4, 259-268.

Joshanloo, M. & Weijers, D. (2013). Aversion to happiness across cultures: a review of where and why people are averse to happiness. Journal of happiness studies, 15(3), 717-735. Retrieved from

Kalat, B. W. (2018). Biological Psychology. (13e). North Carolina: Cengage Learning

Kováč, L. (2012). The biology of happiness: chasing pleasure and human destiny. EMBO Reports, 13(4). 297-302. doi:10.1038/embor.2012.26

Lui, J. H., Hansen, D. V. & Kriegstein, A. R. (2011). Development and evolution of the human neocortex. Cell. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2011.06.030

Macchia, L., Plagnol, A. C. & Powdthavee, N. (2019). Buying happiness in an unequal world: rank of income more strongly predicts well-being in more unequal countries. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1-12. Doi: 10.1177/0146167219877413

MacLean, P. D. 1990. The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions. New York: Plenum.

Oishi, S., & Graham, J. (2010). Social ecology: Lost and found in psychological science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5, 356-377.

Oishi, S., Graham, J., Kesebir, S. & Galinha, I. C. (2012). Concepts of happiness across time and cultures. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(5), 559-577. Doi: 10.1177/0146167213480042

Rayo, L. & Becker, G. S. (2007). Habits, peers, and happiness: an evolutionary perspective. AEA Papers and Proceedings, 487-491. Retrieved from

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

External links[edit | edit source]