As humans evolve it is not clear that our lives are actually becoming happier. We have more stuff, better technology, and more comfortable lives, but that hasn’t always translated into happiness at the individual level. One reason why we may not be finding more happiness as our societies and technological capabilities continue to evolve may be due to evolution itself.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “according to the selfish gene theory, natural selection makes people, like other organisms, choose what is good for the reproduction of their genes, even if it is bad for them as individuals.”
Humans desire status almost to the exclusion of everything else. Higher status means a greater opportunity to find a partner and to pass your genes along. It means you have more allies to assist you, ensure your offspring receive assistance, and gives your offspring an advantage as they try to find a partner to pass their genes along. It gives you access to more resources to ensure your survival and that of your offspring, making it more likely your genes will be passed on. Status is almost everything for humans in the evolutionary game of reproducing genes. But constantly fighting for more status flat out sucks.
At an individual level, the fight for status means working long hours in jobs you may not like so that you can get a promotion, get a fancy title, and become impressive in your career. You are likely to win more allies, attract more romantic partners, and have more financial resources at your disposal if you work hard to rise up the social ladder and become a CEO. Your status will be high, but your actual life may be miserable. You will constantly be stressed over your company. You won’t have set hours and designated time-off to simply enjoy your hard earned financial resources. And if you are like most Americans, you will buy the biggest house possible, the fanciest car possible, and have the most stuff possible to demonstrate your success and status, which means you will have more things to worry about losing if it goes wrong.
You could alternatively move to a tropical island, wash dishes for a living, and spend most of your time on a beach. You may not have much status, but if you are ok with living quite modestly, you might find a relaxing and enjoyable day to day life. You won’t have the big fancy house and your job might still suck, but you won’t be living with the constant stress of losing everything and managing a business. Instead, you will get to clock off, leave your troubles behind you, and enjoy the sunset on a warm beach.
Our drive for status, thanks to our evolutionary drive to pass on our genes, makes us more likely to push to be the CEO, to strive for the American Dream, and to desire lots of things to demonstrate our status rather than live on the beach. Individually, evolution has pushed us toward lives that are rather miserable. It helps ensure we, and everyone else, pass our genes along by working hard and having families, but we might individually all be more happy living as beach bums in Southern California. Evolution cares about passing our genes along successfully, it doesn’t care about our happiness in the process.