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Lanchester on Happiness #2

This article is the second in a series of short pieces in which I consider various views of human nature and the human situation as summarized in John Lanchester’s interesting New Yorker magazine essay “Pursuing Happiness” (see also my intro article on his essay).

Lanchester begins with our early homo sapiens ancestors. Living under constant threat in a hard and hostile environment, these ancestors were exposed to evolutionary pressures selecting for an emphasis on possible negative outcomes rather than a sunny, optimistic disposition (which got people killed). So the conclusion Lanchester offers, based in part on the work of authors such as Jonathon Haidt, is that happiness doesn’t come easily to us, because we are descendants of the surviving worriers, and are genetically disposed to emphasize the negative. And we do this on a pre-conscious level, reacting before we’ve had any time to assess the apparent threat or to consider alternatives.

In fact, the evolutionarily-determined bias goes even further … Lanchester quotes an important point made by Haidt, that in evolutionary terms, “bad is stronger than good. … Responses to threats and unpleasantness are faster, stronger, and harder to inhibit than responses to opportunities and pleasures.” Lanchester adds that since our brains are wired to respond to sense data with fight-or-flight reactions before passing the data on to higher cortical centers, we’re reacting before we even consciously know what we’re reacting to. Piet and I will return to consider this point often in various WoK pieces.

I have great admiration for our early ancestors, making a life in the midst of many uncertainties and in the face of great difficulties. And I also admire science for providing us with knowledge about our pre-historic ancestry, a time we have no direct way of accessing. We may never exhaust the benefits this gift confers for self-understanding, medicine, etc. But claims based on this kind of indirect access have often been overstated, and it’s also important to use this and all gifts from science carefully, and in the context of other ways of knowing about ourselves … ways that are more direct.

First of all, let’s accept that evolution shaped us both physically and mentally, where this shaping includes a lot of neurologically “hard wired” reactions that by-pass our capacity for higher-level reflective thought. I’ll also accept the notion that a certain degree of wariness was an evolutionarily adaptive trait, although I doubt that it should be directly equated with an unhappy disposition (or that an inclination to contentment amounts to a dangerously reckless or happy-go-lucky one). Finally, it’s easy to imagine that Ig and Og were at the mercy of circumstances, dependent for survival on what happened in the world around them.

Granting most of what Lanchester suggests so far, I still doubt that the Ig’s and Og’s lacked crucial knowledge about how things tended to happen (they didn’t live in constant perplexity), or that they were exposed to constant and unpredictable threats to such a degree that happiness was precluded. In fact I suspect that they (even Lanchester’s circumspect caveman Og) found much in life to be satisfying. An evolutionary picture is actually consistent with that view, since Ig's and Og's evolved in their environment, they weren't just subjected to it! Ig and Og might even have been good at staying in the “flow” Lanchester touts late in his article.

Being wary (circumspect, cautious) was doubtless important in Og’s time, as it is now, but I think even more important was and is the capacity to be sensitively connected to things, to be a part of them in some way, and to respond appropriately, rather than just reacting. Without that capacity, I doubt that “a tendency to emphasize the negative” would, by itself, have sufficed as an adaptive trait. I think it might even have been maladaptive for our species (it might be enough for some types of simpler organisms, but then they would have been more restricted to particular environments than homo sapiens have been and are now, on various levels WoK will discuss).

I don’t know whether evolutionary psychologists have done any work on my latter claim yet, but I think in some form it will hold up. We’ll see … the reason I feel comfortable maintaining it, is that contemplative traditions have found that a capacity to be exquisitely connected to our defining contexts is much more available and fundamental to our nature than we usually believe nowadays. And even by evolutionary reasoning, if we can do it, so must our ancestors—Ig and Og.

No matter how carefully we apply evolutionary studies, and how refined our knowledge gleaned from such studies might be, it would be a mistake to take evolutionary psychology as the only way of exploring some of the basic issues Lanchester raises. We have other ways of knowing about ourselves, and they show a complementary picture (I would never expect it to stand in real conflict with science or evolution) that offers different insights regarding our human nature, cognitive limitations, the degree to which the latter are “fixed,” and the nature of happiness. This is all by way of broaching the question of what is true about us, and what is the reality that contextualizes, defines, satisfies and edifies us.

In my next article in this series, I’ll begin to introduce some of what's involved in such alternate—and more “direct” views of these issues.

Steven, 4/19/06.

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