Does It Matter If We Are Happy?

Dr. Sam Goldstein
Too many people measure how successful they are by how much money they make or the people that they associate with. In my opinion, true success should be measured by how happy you are. - Richard Branson

“I’m not happy.” How many times have you heard that from your children? Your spouse? Or thought so yourself? Why is happiness so important to us? And for that matter what exactly is happiness? Is it satisfaction? Contentment? Confidence? Success? Instinctual? American Indians are credited with the term “happy hunting grounds” as a place to travel in the afterlife with bountiful hunting thus insuring survival. If you believe Richard Branson (who by the way is a billionaire) successful people are happy, so he must be very happy.

A google search for the word happy yields an astounding thirteen plus billion results in under a second, while a similar search of the word sadness yields a paltry one hundred thirty million results in a half of a second. By this comparison we are obsessed with happiness. A similar search of the word happiness yielded over a billion results. And finally, a search of ways to be happy yields over two billion! An entire, multi-billion, dollar industry has sprung up around the idea of being happier than you are! In fact, according to the happiness gurus, you can never to be too happy or too rich!

Let’s make it simple and use the most common definition found in all dictionaries. Happy is feeling or showing pleasure or contentment. So why is happiness so important? Is there an evolutionary advantage to being in a state of happiness? Is happiness part of God’s ultimate plan for mankind? From an evolutionary perspective, human emotions evolved as they have because they generally work to confer benefits to us, helping to ultimately increase the likelihood of our survival. Just as anxiety likely evolved to sensitize us to risks in our environment to help motivate us to act, happiness has also evolved to help motivate adaptive behaviors. And just like anxiety, maybe too much happiness is not so good.

If you seek a religious reason for happiness consider that Jesus’ message to his disciples was clearly one of joy. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus commanded as part of his Gospel (ancient Greek for good news). If we are to believe his Gospel we must acknowledge that he also counseled charity, hope, and forgiveness, which correlate well, modern researchers report, with happiness, as does faith itself. The great 18th Century Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer taught that life and the world were God’s gifts, we should embrace them optimistically. There was no better way to do that, he urged, than by finding happiness.

Consider the things that make us happy. They generally reflect an outcome that would have led to an increased probability of survival for our ancestors. Food, shelter, procreation, task completion and social activities are but a few that come to mind. We can easily see how these kinds of outcomes not only have the capacity to lead to happiness, but that they also have clear benefits from an evolutionary perspective. Happiness, therefore, is an affective state that motivates us to engage in actions that are likely to lead to outcomes that would, on average, lead to increases in the likelihood of survival and/or reproduction. It is a means to an end. Our genes have but one universal goal, to move from an older body into a younger body. To accomplish this goal the older body has to survive long enough to procreate successfully. As such our genes could care less if we are happy or anxious, so long as these emotions increase our chances of survival. Sadness and depression likely work in the opposite direction, decreasing our chances of survival. For now, an evolutionary explanation of these emotions remains elusive.

In evolutionary jargon, happiness is a proximate outcome. It matters, and it is nice. But it is not always an ultimate evolutionary outcome. From an evolutionary perspective, ultimate outcomes pertain to those that increase the likelihood of survival and reproduction. Thus, we may take great joy dining at our favorite restaurant. But that momentary happiness is not an end goal in itself. We evolved to be happy when presented with desired foods because our ancestors, who were motivated to find sustenance, were more likely to eat and thus to survive and reproduce. It is not surprising that in our complex, consumer driven society the possession of material goods has become synonymous with happiness in the eyes of so many, including our children.

Happiness, then, like anxiety, is an affective state with the primary evolved function of motivating us to engage in behaviors that would have led to evolutionarily adaptive outcomes under ancestral conditions. Putting science aside for a moment, it should be evident to even the most cynical among us that a good dose of happiness is important in our daily lives. Though most studies are correlational (thus causality is not proven) happiness is associated with such outcomes as: better cardiac health, better ability to manage stress, reduced risk of stroke, a better immune system, better ability to manage pain, better productivity at work and longer life expectancy. These should not be surprising in light of the evolutionary role happiness has served in our species.

The take away message is that we must find diverse ways in our lives and the lives of our children to find happiness not only in the possession of material goods but also in ways from the simplest to the most complex acts. Yes, it matters if we are happy. Be grateful for what you have and for the people in your life from whom you gather strength and experience joy. Exercise, get enough sleep, manage your physical and mental health in preventive ways, spend time with family and friends and find a passion to pursue for the sheer sake of enjoyment. Happiness is instinctual and essential for each of us and our collective future. ◆