I’m standing at the edge of a prehistoric forest clad in a Flintstone-style bearskin, minding my own business, when I see a mastodon approaching me. This one looks like he’s in a bad mood, and starts to charge. I pick up some stones and start pelting him, but that just makes him madder. As he runs at me faster, I have two thoughts: this is the end, and gee I really hope this is a dream. At that moment, ten copies of myself rise out of the ground, and the full soccer squad of us pelt the mastodon with major-league pitcher accuracy. The mastodon has a change of heart, turns tail and goes back into the forest. All eleven of me emit war-whoops of victory.
This particular hypervivid dream was inspired by a book of remarkable explanatory power I read called The Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy (ebook, print and audiobook) by Prof William von Hippel of Queensland University. The book solved some puzzles I had in my head about human behavior and society. In particular, the last few chapters crystallized a lot of my own thoughts about happiness.
One of the reasons that happiness seems to elude so many people is that our brains are not designed for happiness. They are designed for survival. Happiness is just a neat little byproduct of the survival program that only now in modern times have the leisure to pay attention to.
Happiness arises because of a clever ruse of the brain: it attaches pleasurable feelings to any activity that enhances our survival and reproduction. Eating food? Feels good! Sex? Amazing! Hanging out with friends? More please!
Prof von Hippel’s big thesis is that we humans succeeded so spectacularly compared to our ape forebears because we descended from our tree dwellings to become more social and cooperative (hence the book’s title). One scrawny human against a saber-toothed cat doesn’t stand a chance. But a whole group of rock-throwing, spear-hurling humans will repel a big cat or bring a mastodon to heel.
So at a very deep level, evolution has also programmed our brain to make us feel good when we do prosocial things. Because whenever humans strengthened their bonds, they enhanced their survival.
This is where the 5 Happiness Action Principles (HAPs) come from: they are all survival-enhancing activities that make us feel good when we engage in them. They are also the kind of activities that help us build and grow — our talents, our friendships, our communities.
The first Happiness Action Principle is Learning. Three hundred thousand years ago on the savanna, when you learned how to build a fire or weapon, your ability to survive went up. We still have those same savanna brains, so even though learning Photoshop or baking sourdough may not be as useful to us in the wild, we’re still going to feel good when we do it.
I also want to make a distinction between pleasure and happiness here. Researchers have a bunch of terms around this, e.g. synchronic vs diachronic happiness, but the distinction I’d like to make is between short-term happiness, which is more like pleasure, and long-term happiness, which is more like joy.
For example, you’re going to feel pretty good while eating a piece of chocolate, and for some minutes afterwards. But you’re not going to look back on that experience two years from now, feel this flush of pleasant emotion and say, Woooow, that was amazing wasn’t it. It’s good mostly while it lasts, and that’s that.
Contrast this to the pleasure of learning a new language, or Photoshop, or scuba diving. Not only is the experience of learning intrinsically pleasurable, but for the rest of your life you can use that skill and derive pleasure from it. From accomplishing the feat, you can also experience an emotion researchers call authentic pride, which also feels good.
So learning gets you a triple dose of happy: while you’re doing it, while you’re using the new knowledge, and every time you give yourself a pat on the back for doing the work and feel pride.
We’re all born creators, and creating stuff that wasn’t there before — think tools, buildings, babies — is the prime evolutionary drive. So it’s no surprise that evolution made sure that creating feels damn good. Like learning, you get the bonus of enjoying both the process of creating as well as its fruits.
As soon as words like “creating” and “creativity” come up, some people panic and say, “Well, I’m no Leonardo da Vinci. I’m just not a very creative person.” Well, the good news is that everybody is creative all the time. You just can’t help it. That sentence you just spoke on the phone? You created that spontaneously out of sheer nothing. And chances are that it has never been uttered before — an original! Frame it and put it on the wall.
That may be one of the blocks to people’s creative instinct, especially if they happen to have a perfectionist streak (yours truly = guilty!). To derive the benefits of creativity, you don’t have to write The Great American novel. You don’t have to paint like Rembrandt or compose like Beethoven. All you have to do is doodle on a sketchpad, noodle on a keyboard, write in your journal. It’s all art, so Make More Art Now. Worry about publishing later.
The beauty of establishing a creativity habit is that when you keep at it, eventually you will create stuff worth publishing. The number one determinant of whether you create work of value is how much stuff you put out. Prolific is better than perfect.
So pick up your calendar right now and set aside one or two one-hour slots this week to just create. It could be an outing with your camera, a session drawing charcoals, a stab at a poem, an article for your blog, 3D printing something, cooking a new dish. Let the perfectionism go — you’re already a masterpiece. And if you make this creating thing a habit, greatness will come of it.
The third Happiness Action Principle is sharing. Cooperation got Homo sapiens to be the dominant species of the planet, and sharing was a big part of it. Whenever our hunter-gatherer forbears had a big kill, they shared the mastodon meat with the rest of the tribe. In the absence of extra-wide SubZero refrigerators, excess meat would spoil anyway, so it only made sense to share. And the mutuality assured that in lean times, others would share with us. Sharing helped us survive, so sharing still feels good.
So if sharing is such a natural part of our genetic makeup, why do I have to write a whole article to encourage you to do it? I mean, you don’t need articles about the virtues of breathing and pooping, right? Well, it’s probably because about 10,000 years ago, humans switched from hunter-gatherer mode to agrarian mode. With that came the notion of food surplus and private property, and sharing became less fashionable. My farm! My grain! My oxen! Keep your grubby hands off my stuff, please.
Scholars such as Edward O. Wilson and Jared Diamond have called the agrarian revolution the greatest disaster to befall the human race. Egalitarian, healthy, leisurely hunter-gatherer societies gave way to an alternative that wasn’t exactly an improvement. Average heights fell, tooth decay went up, women got subjugated, infectious disease proliferated, and war rampaged. As a species, we’ve never recovered.
Private property is ingrained as a feature of modern society, and now you can store your mastodon meat indefinitely in your SubZero, so the incentive to share is down. That’s why it’s particularly important now to seek out and design sharing opportunities into your life. That’s why it’s called Happiness Engineering — you’ve got to design these features into your life that no longer come so naturally.
Sharing your money, properties and toys is nice, but it may be even more fulfilling to share of your time and talent. The more social, the better. People tend to appreciate and remember experiences better than things anyway.
What are some ways you can bring more sharing into your life? Some ideas:
- Share a homemade meal.
- Write someone a poem or letter of appreciation
- Send friends a funny joke or video
- Make a playlist of your favorite pop songs or classical pieces
- Make a list of favorite books and send it to your friends
- Start a blog or podcast to share your ideas
The key is to start small, start simple, and put it on the calendar to make sure you jumpstart the sharing habit.
The better tribe members are connected to one another with bonds of friendship and trust, the more likely they are to cooperate. The more tribe members cooperate, the better they all do. As some wise man said, “People succeed in groups.” Therefore evolution made sure that connection feels really good — probably more than anything else.
This is also why being disconnected from others feels so horrible, because in our savanna days, expulsion from the tribe was tantamount to a death sentence. In ancient times, exile was considered a punishment worse than death. And in modern days, solitary confinement is the ultimate penalty.
Strangely, modern man has inflicted a lot of voluntary solitary confinement upon himself. In affluent Western society, we seem to value privacy and personal space over connection. In his masterful and prescient book Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr Vivek Murthy, 19th Surgeon General of the United States, notes how we were already in the midst of a loneliness pandemic even before coronavirus struck.
Being lonely doesn’t just feel bad; it’s actually bad for your health. Dr Murthy cites studies by Prof Julianne Holt-Lunstad showing that the impact of lacking social connection on reducing life span is equal to the risk of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day — more than the risk associated with obesity, excess alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise.
We build real connection through deliberate effort. Prof Jeffrey Hall has found it takes 80-100 hours to turn an acquaintance into a real friend, and more than 200 hours to become a close friend (part of someone’s “sympathy group”, to put it technically). Even the least intimate type of friendship, “casual” friendship, only forms after forty to sixty hours spent together.
Straight out of Dr Murthy’s book, here are some strategies “to help us not only to weather this crisis but also to heal our social world far into the future:
1) Spend time each day with those you love. This is not limited to the people in your immediate household. Reach out also to the other members of your lifeline via phone or, better yet, videoconference, so you can hear their voices and see their faces. Devote at least fifteen minutes each day to connecting with those you care most about.
2) Focus on each other. Try to eliminate distractions when interacting with others. Forget about multitasking and give the other person the gift of your full attention, making eye contact, if possible, and genuinely listening.
3) Embrace solitude. The first step toward building stronger connections with others is to build a stronger connection with oneself. Solitude helps us do that by allowing us to check in with our own feelings and thoughts, to explore our creativity, to connect with nature. Meditation, prayer, art, music, and time spent outdoors can all be sources of solitary comfort and joy.”
Tribes whose members supported one another in trying times such as illness, famine or war fared better, having more offspring survive to future generations. So evolution has designed us such that supporting one another feels good.
How can we support one another? Here are some ways:
1) Give a helping hand. As Dr Vivek Murthy says in Together: “Help and be helped. Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life. Giving and receiving, both, strengthen our social bonds—checking on a neighbor, seeking advice, even just offering a smile to a stranger six feet away, all can make us stronger.”
2) Check up on friends and cheer them up. One of the fastest, most effective ways to cheer yourself up is to cheer up someone else.
3) Teach. The flip side of learning is teaching, and it feels just as good, if not even better. If you have a skill to teach (and we all do), volunteer to do so. Give an online seminar. Make an instructional video. Read to kids.
4) Mentor someone. This is a longer-term commitment to a younger person’s growth, and its rewards are commensurately greater.
5) Listen. Therapists are basically people paid thousands of dollars to pretend they’re our friends (while not talking to our other friends) and listen to us without judgment. Well, as a friend, you don’t have to pretend! You can already do that for your friends for free!
You don’t have to solve anyone’s problems. You just have to listen attentively, occasionally saying something like “I really hear you” or “That sounds challenging.” Your friend experiences relief, you’ll feel useful, and your bond will strengthen.
Learn, create, share, connect, support: nature has hardwired us to feel good when we engage in these activities. As a bonus, they don’t just feel good right now; they also form the foundation of our long-term happiness.
I sincerely hope that you have the opportunity to incorporate some of the principles from this article into your daily activities so you can develop new mental and physical happiness habits. You even have some suggestions to get you started, and some great books to get you going. To start the sharing process, you can send this article to friends who would benefit from it.
I also understand that creating lasting change can be challenging. So when you feel called to make these changes stick, putting your life on a permanently higher trajectory of joy and generativity, here are two ideas:
• I invite you to apply to the first Happiness Engineering class, starting soon. This is where we support one another as a cohort for 3 months to tune up our lives in five areas so we can better fulfill our purpose in life of fully giving our gift to the world.
• If you would prefer to consult with me one-on-one, write to me at drali at happinessengineering.com.
Happiness comes to those who take action, and there is no time time better than right now to do just that. Go forth and generate some greatness!