Has evolution wired you to pursue happiness? Some researchers think so.
The granddaddy of positive psychology Martin Seligman draws on evolutionary theory – or at least its bastard offspring, evolutionary psychology – to explain why we go to such lengths in search of happiness.
In his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman argues happiness and other positive emotions “have a grand purpose in evolution”:
They broaden our abiding intellectual, physical and social resources, building up reserves we can draw upon when a threat or opportunity presents itself.
Just as fear provokes a fight-or-flight response when we’re faced with danger, Seligman claims positive emotions alert us to win–win situations.
Similarly, in Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, Daniel Nettle argues happiness is indirectly linked to evolutionary survival. The promise of happiness, he reasons, is a mirage that motivates us to get out of bed in the morning to do chores we don’t like. It’s why we try to chat up potential mates who are clearly out of our league.
We are designed not for happiness or unhappiness … but to strive for the goals that evolution has built into us. Happiness is a handmaiden to evolution’s purposes here, functioning not so much as an actual reward but as an imaginary goal that gives us direction and purpose.
It all sounds rigorously scientific, but is it?