Survival of the happiest

Essay by Åsta Dale
Illustration by Helene Brox


A warm summer afternoon a couple of months ago, I walked past the new Coca Cola poster ad. It was not hard to notice that classic Coca Cola red, with the white logo and the silhouette of a bottle. It was not primarily the elegant design that caught my attention, but a hashtag of two words put together, also printed in white, “choose happiness”. Suddenly I found myself questioning this dictating message. Is happiness really something for us to choose?

Eating Doritos and playing PlayStation, yoga posing in the woods, vodka, a manifold of flower species, healthy tacos. The means by which people try to reach the end called happiness, is a mixed bag. This is the beauty of Instagram, it allows us to contemplate the diversity of humankind. Another advantage of this social medium is how it reveals that we are all the same. In this case it illustrates the common idea of happiness as something attainable, something to strive for. 

What if we have got this idea all topsy-turvy? Happiness makes us strive, yes indeed. But for what, really?

Humans are animals, and evolution did not make us an exception. It equipped us with a survival kit that we carry around with us all the time, whether we like it or not. In this kit we find our emotions. Take fear as an example. Fear motivates us to react when we encounter danger. We descend from the ones who experienced a rush of adrenaline when facing a hungry predator, or felt jitters standing at the edge of a cliff. The fearful ones mastered the art of survival better than their fearless conspecifics. They passed their ability to fear on to their children, who, in turn, became skilled survivors with fearful children of their own. Generations came and went, and we are left a bunch of sissies.

Humans have a funny relationship with fear. We might not enjoy the feeling itself, but we certainly like to provoke it. We like it so much that we truly make an effort to become terrified. It is not for nothing that Hollywood produces more than 50 horror movies every single year. It is as if we have an urge to be in touch with what is keeping us alive, like an inspection of the equipment.

Still, I can only find three pictures on Instagram with the hashtag #choosefear.

Our feelings affect the way we behave, for better or for worse. The composition of feelings we are set up with is the one that in our evolutionary history has made us adapt to our surroundings. Humans are extremely social, and we need our herd to survive. If Homo sapiens females were left to give birth to and raise their offspring on their own, the species would have faced a certain extinction. Our babies are among the most helpless babies in the animal kingdom, and more than two hands are required to ensure their survival. The cause of this infantile helplessness is the morbid growth of our over dimensioned heads. The babies have to get out before it is “too late”. The development of our big brains has also required a diet of big animals rich in fat and muscle, and it is not exactly a one man's job to hunt down and kill them. It’s a paradox that our brain has been our species’ salvation. It has enabled us to cooperate on fetching food and taking care of our cream puff offspring.

So, from a primal point of view, loneliness is synonymous with death. Thus, the flock is the environment in which our survival kit has developed. This is probably where the more complex emotions originate. Shame, pride, jealousy ... they all guide our behavior so we are accepted, maintain social status, procure and keep a good mate. Our complex feelings are there to make us, or at least make us look like, a well-functioning and useful part of the group.

Humans have a great range of emotions. It seems plausible that each emotion has or, at some point, has had, a function. Like I mentioned earlier, fear keeps us from harm and, in some cases, death. We can look at fear as an anti-death emotion, a negative feeling that discourages actions that may lead to harmful events. It is conceivable that some of our feelings belong to the pro-survival category, positive feelings encourage behavior that promote survival or reproductive success. Sexual attraction could be considered a pro-survival feeling. It is positive, right? And it inspires baby making. The love a mother feels for her children, the carriers of her genes, makes her want to take care of them.

Where does happiness fit in? Does it serve a function? 

I did some happiness research online, and found that certain activities can be associated with feeling happy. One thing that might lift our mood is reaching the state of flow. Flow is something you experience when you are completely engaged in a task or activity, and loose the sense of time and hunger, you give yourself and your worries a break. Flow activities could be playing an instrument you are good at, doing your favorite sport, or learning something new and exciting. When in flow, you create, accomplish or master something. It could be mistaken for productivity.

The happiest activities seem to be the ones you do with others, preferably good friends or family. Helping people who need it, and thus having a sense of belonging, is also reported to be intrinsically rewarding. In this case, happy feelings might serve as motivation for us to “stick with the herd”, which we so greatly depend on. Spending time with friends and family is a (primal) pro-survival activity.

There is good reason to speculate that what we call happiness might just be a tool in our survival kit.

Another interesting thing about activities that make us happy, is that they have in common the virtue of pulling us away from our egos. This is the paradox of choosing happiness. Because the moment you decide that you want to be happy, you turn your focus inwards, and thus you might be building an obstacle for your own happiness.