Pleasure is one type of happiness. We can eat a chocolate and be happy for a few seconds, after winning a contest we can be happy for days, and newly-weds can be happy for months. Then we return to our normal day-to-day feeling of wellbeing, when nothing in particular is happening. That ‘normal’ state is what I call our core happiness. It’s our default happiness. It’s the happiness we were born with. It’s innate.
So, we have the temporary happiness we get from pleasure, and we have core happiness. It’s good to distinguish between the two so that we can ask ourselves the question the Dalai Lama asks himself when he has a decision to make: ‘Will it bring pleasure, or happiness?’
Both forms of happiness are important. Life would be drab and pointless without pleasure, and a strong core happiness is the lubricant of life.
In the same way we evolved our lungs and ankles, we evolved both forms of happiness – the temporary kind we get from pleasure, and the core kind.
A disclaimer about the way I talk about evolution.
I might write, ‘Evolution wanted us to cool ourselves in the heat, so we evolved sweat glands.’ No, evolution does not want us to do anything; it’s not a sentient being. It’s a process. And, we didn’t magically create sweat glands to keep us cool.
Very basically: all creatures are born with (mostly mild) random mutations, and occasionally a mutation benefits the creature enough to increase its chances of surviving long enough to mate and pass on its genes. If the creature does survive long enough to pass on its genes, that mutation might also get passed on, and the entire species might eventually have that mutation.
When I and other writers use misleading expressions like, ‘We evolved to . . .’ and ‘Evolution wants us . . .’ please be forgiving. We use those expressions because they are a convenient way to refer to the process of natural selection.
The evolution of pleasure: When we play we improve our skills, so that when we come to hunt or fight we have a better chance of succeeding. That means play is good for us, and pleasure is our evolutionary reward for engaging in that behaviour. We also evolved to find basking in the sun pleasurable, because it’s good for us. Its warmth reduces our need to consume calories and it is a good way to get Vitamin D. When we get too warm and our body needs to cool, we find pleasure in the shade. Again, that cool pleasure is our reward for adopting that sensible behaviour.
In a nutshell, we evolved pleasure and displeasure to guide us into behaving in ways that benefit us, and our species.
The evolution of core happiness: There are also long-term, ongoing behaviours which benefit our species. But evolution cannot reward long-term, ongoing behaviours with instantaneous pleasure; it can only reward them with long-term, ongoing pleasure: a relaxed, general feeling of wellbeing –core happiness. Core happiness is the incentive, and reward, for engaging in those ongoing behaviours.
What long-term, ongoing behaviours are we talking about?
Here is one: in pre-history, our pre hominid ancestors had to leave the safety of the tribe to hunt food and find resources. Dangers awaited them. If they felt too anxious to leave the tribe they would starve. If they felt too cocky they would take too many risks and find themselves dead. Our ancestors had to get the right balance – they had to put themselves into scary situations, yet feel able to handle them.
There were also fears in the tribe itself: of injury, of going hungry, of humiliation, of shame. A myriad of fears. There were so many fears that feeling able to handle those fears – feeling resilient – became a long-term, ongoing need. Satisfying that long-term, ongoing need was rewarded with core happiness.
When we don’t feel that we can handle what happens in life we feel anxious and unhappy. That’s evolution’s way of nudging us to change the situation.
There are many ways to satisfy that need for resilience, and it has its own book, ‘The Umpteen Keys to Resilience’. The book you are reading now is about satisfying another ongoing innate need: what some people call the deep need to belong.
Hominids born with an inclination to live in a tribe were more likely to be safe from predators, and less likely to starve. (Those who found food could share with those who didn’t.)
‘The best way to store food is in another man’s stomach.’
Having that inclination made them more likely to live long enough to pass on their genes, while those disinclined to live in tribes were more likely to starve or be eaten. So, over time, most hominids evolved the inclination to live in groups, or tribes.
Let’s go a little deeper. What specific needs would we evolve that would prompt us to live in a tribe?
1. The need to feel connected with the tribe.
2. The need to feel that we contribute to the tribe.
3. The need to feel valued by the tribe.
(If, for example, an early hominid felt inclined to contribute to the tribe in some way – by sharing food, sharing ideas, sharing warmth and support – they were more likely to stay in the tribe and live long enough to pass on their genes.)
All three propensities provide the ‘social glue’ for keeping us in a tribe. When we satisfy those needs we satisfy our ‘deep need to belong’, and we are rewarded with core happiness.
If we don’t feel connected with one another, if we don’t feel valued, if we don’t feel that in some way we contribute to the tribe, then we feel isolated and anxious. Again, that’s evolution’s way of nudging us to change the situation.
The question might then be asked: in this technological, urbanised western world in which everyone is connected, why are so many of us unhappy?
Let’s examine that.
1. The need to feel valued by the tribe.
In a tribal society it is easy to feel valued because the work done is necessary and visible. Plus, with so few people to compete with, good workers are recognised and appreciated. Further, tribal members work with friends and relatives, not for employers, so their contribution means more. It’s appreciated more.
In our Western world it is hard to feel valued when your employer is focused upon increasing productivity. Even our colleagues may not notice our contribution, or in these competitive times, not want it. And, how many parents truly feel valued by their children, who are distracted by a surfeit of gadgets?
2. The need to feel we contribute to the tribe.
In pre-history, everyone was required to ‘do their bit’, and that bit was important. But in our society we don’t come home bearing food, we come home with . . . nothing. Food is already in the fridge, power is at the flick of a switch, and water is on tap . . . A bill payer’s contribution might be significant, but it’s taken for granted.
And, many of us get to see on television people who contribute so much more. That might prompt us to view our own contribution as insignificant.
And, of course, some of us don’t get to contribute. Unemployment benefits nourish the body, not the soul.
3. The need to feel connected to the tribe.
In a tribal society there are few secrets. Members co-operate and share with one another. There are few, if any, class systems. The strong kinship systems and the community get-togethers allow each person to feel connected. The village really does raise the child.
In our society our world is full of secrets. We focus more on competition than on co-operation. We have class and caste systems that divide people. (To even call someone our own age ‘sir’ creates a disconnection.) We don’t have strong kinship systems; we barely know our neighbours. We are taught to live privately and to mind our own business.
It’s no wonder many of us don’t feel connected.
‘We need to belong. The more we feel connected and belonging to a group, the happier we are. Unfortunately, we’ve moved into a ‘nuclear family’ model of culture, in which we’re supposed to get all our needs met by two parents (no more, no less), limited extended family, and the forced situation of various institutions depending on our stage of life (preschool, school, college/university, work, retirement homes – the list goes on.) It’s a far cry from the tribal structure we can still see in some countries like Africa, where children are loved and raised by everyone.
’ Crystal Woods.
Q. ‘But Mark, current technology connects us to anyone we want, anywhere in the world!’ Our technological connections are frequent and extensive, but are they satisfying? Consider: our close relatives, chimpanzees and gorillas, groom each other by picking leaves and lice from each other’s fur. It’s a form of social bonding. Our tweets, texts, Facebook and phone calls are mere primitive technological equivalents. Girls used to brush each other’s hair; now they text. Which do you think would be the more soul enriching?
In short, we evolved innate propensities to prompt us to live in a tribe. In a tribe we can satisfy those needs, but it’s harder to do that in Western society. As a result, many of us feel unsettled and unhappy.
But we can still satisfy those needs and our ‘deep need to belong’, and be rewarded with core happiness.
The ‘deep need to belong’ is why many of us support sports teams and political parties; it’s why we join clubs; it’s why we feel energised when someone supports our view. It’s why some of us feel a bond with fellow yachties, or criminals, or ex-patriots. It’s why ‘blood is thicker than water’ and it’s why we draw family trees.
And, our deep need to belong is one reason why so many otherwise smart people believe there is merit in astrology. It’s easy to feel connected with the universe if you choose to believe that balls of hydrogen and helium (stars) light years away contribute towards your personality.
Our deep need to belong explains why so many people believe that everything happens for a reason. It allows believers to feel they are ‘a thread in the tapestry of Life’, a part of some vast plan. These people are comforted by the belief that life and suffering have purpose, and that who we are and what we do matters.
Holding absurd beliefs, or being a one-eyed supporter of a sports team, is not the best way to satisfy that deep need to belong. Even being a family member is not sufficient. To feel connected with the tribe we need to feel connected not just with friends and lovers, but with everyone we meet – we need to feel connected with humanity. We need to feel that we belong. We need to truly believe that we really are ‘in this same boat in a stormy sea’ and that we do owe each other a ‘terrible loyalty’.
I present to you the umpteen keys that can satisfy our deep need to belong.
Kathleen Puckett wrote in the magazine, ‘New Scientist’, 4th September, 2011: ‘. . . During my 23-year stint as an FBI special agent, my colleagues and I looked into what Kaczynski, McVeigh and Rudolph (three mass murderers) had in common. The results were startling. All three were highly intelligent and well educated, with no previous history of criminal violence. But they all shared a profound inability to forge meaningful relationships. . . . (They were) all repeatedly unable to connect socially to the groups whose ideology they shared.’
If those murderers were unable to forge meaningful relationships, there is a good chance they were also unable to connect well with anyone, and would have been unable to satisfy their ‘deep need to belong’. That wouldn’t necessarily make them murderers, but could there be a connection?
Q. ‘Not all primates evolved to live in tribes. Orangutans didn’t. They’re mainly solitary creatures.’
The jungles in Borneo and Sumatra are so thick with trees the orangutans can travel freely, and rarely need to go to ground. That means they are less susceptible to predators (like tigers) and therefore less needful of a colleague’s warning. Further, they are vegetarians, so they don’t have the advantage of sharing a carcass. In fact, it’s to their disadvantage to form groups because food is often scarce in a rainforest. Although they do get together when trees offer an abundance of fruit, that isn’t often, and they could not permanently be together without starving.