[This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed in September, 2023]
The Declaration of Independence declares “the pursuit of happiness” as one of the rights with which we have been endowed by our Creator.
That works whether we conceive of that Creator in biblical terms (“In the beginning…”), or we see ourselves as having been “created” by an evolutionary process that has governed the way life has developed on this planet.
Indeed, looking at the idea of the pursuit of happiness in an Evolutionary Perspective reveals a great deal of importance that needs to be integrated into the current worldview of those who understand things in purely secular terms.
A major current of that secular worldview understands “Reality” as confined to what is “objective,” what’s “out there.” Accordingly, that secular worldview gives short shift to the experiential realm, dismissing it as “merely subjective.”
But that Evolutionary Perspective shows that our inborn “experiential tendencies” are not “merely subjective.” We have been “endowed” with a nature that motivates us to do what helped our ancestors to survive. To motivate us in life-serving directions, we have been crafted to seek those experiences that make us happy.
In other words, evolution– by always choosing what can survive over what cannot – crafted us to experience positively what has enhanced our ancestors’ chances of survival.
That puts “the pursuit of happiness” into an important new light.
The pursuit of happiness is not only a right. It is a kind of assignment.
Our inborn nature – with its paths to “happiness” — provides us with a kind of road-map to our survival and to the perpetuation of our kind. We are both happier and more likely to survive (and pass our design into the future) when, for example
- our bodily needs are well-tended to (when we eat when we are hungry, provide for our comfort with good shelter, maintain our health, have satisfying sexual relationships).
- our social environment is operating in satisfying ways (when we humans, whose ancestors have relied on social life for survival since long before we were human, enjoy a harmonious social life filled with goodwill).
- we find meaningful ways of engagement with the world we live in (when we have purposeful and rewarding activities).
Nonetheless, we civilized human beings have put ourselves into a challenging position regarding this inborn roadmap.
The experiential tendencies with which we have been endowed by biological evolution were selected for their survival value in that niche in which we evolved. And our evolving into what we are took place during the eons before our species embarked on the path of civilization.
Difficulties can arise because the world of civilization differs in profound ways from the world inhabited by our pre-civilized ancestors.
The challenge is almost visible even in the definition I give to “Civilization”: those societies created by a creature that has extricated itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its way of life.
That means that we civilized people have unmoored ourselves from that order in which our inborn motivational structure – in the pursuit of happiness – was designed to work in.
An easily grasped – and rather benign — illustration can be found in the realm of food. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, getting something sweet was always a good thing: fruit—the only sweet thing around – is good for us. Likewise, with fats and salt: our ancestors didn’t need an off-switch because it was always good to seek them out. But in the world we live in now, the pursuit of happiness can lead us astray in a civilization where we can readily get too much of things of which our ancestors had to work to get enough.
But in most fundamental ways – like wanting a world at peace, filled with goodwill toward men – the human nature we developed to survive as primates and hunter-gathering families and bands still gives us good guidance. Almost everyone will say that peace is better than war, that love is better than hate, that justice among people is better than injustice – and what’s better is what brings us greater happiness.
Yes, it is true that our pursuit of happiness might make us obese because our challenges regarding what to eat are not the same as our ancestors. But it’s hard to see what fundamental things that were crucial to the survival of bands of apes, hominids, and finally human hunter-gatherers would not be crucial even in the circumstances of civilization.
Making the human world work is basically the same job as it was before we became civilized, just with new elaborations on old challenges. (Like how to manage human aggression, now when the human actors are antagonistic nuclear superpowers.)
The pursuit of happiness now includes the challenge – facing all of humankind together — of creating a more whole civilization — one that both provides for human fulfillment and that more fully realizes those basic values that serve to bring happiness.