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We are social animals

Updated: Jun 21, 2018

What is our social nature? And what does it have to do with happiness?...

Charles Darwin?

In the previous post, I briefly outlined an account what happiness is for. I claimed the function of our emotions and moods is to help us predictably meet our needs for survival and connection. This account is based on empirical research from a wide range of academic disciplines, from evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience to experimental psychology and cultural anthropology. From this research, I believe two features of the human condition stand out: namely that we are a) social animals, and b) prediction machines. I will consider both of these features, and how they relate to happiness, in the next two posts, starting with the first one: our social nature.

What does it mean to say we are social animals? We clearly form strong bonds with loved ones – family, romantic partners, friends – but how do we feel about strangers or distant others? We clearly cooperate with others, and care about our status and reputation, but what about feeling compassion or concern for those whom we are unlikely to benefit from? We like being part of groups and communities, but how important is group membership in comparison to having intimate relationships or a love of humanity as a whole? Indeed, to what extent is our social nature exclusively directed towards other humans, rather than non-human animals or other potential subjects (plants, places, the planet)?

As a framework for answering these kinds of questions, we can think about our social nature as a strategy for survival, both in our evolutionary past and our cultural present. As mentioned in the previous post, we are animals with biological needs: for air, food, water, shelter, warmth, safety, and physical health. To a certain extent, we have the tools and abilities to meet these needs alone. But, I’d be surprised if anyone reading this post has ever tried to do so. (Ray Mears, are you out there?!) It is far more effective to cooperate with, or rely on, others.

This is how we are born. One of the things that distinguish humans from other animals is the size of our brains in infancy. Babies have huge brains in comparison to the infants of other mammals – as big as possible without causing too many problems during childbirth. Yet, by the time we are born, our brains are still largely undeveloped. For the first few years of life, we are entirely dependent on our primary caregivers. In response to our distress calls, they feed us, clean us, and keep us warm and safe. They also pay us a significant amount of attention, both vocally and face-to-face. Infants are attuned to seeing faces from birth – not just the faces of their primary caregivers, but anything that could potentially be one. Within minutes of being born, a baby’s attention is captivated by anything as face-like as three dots of an upside down triangle (symbolizing a person’s two eyes and mouth). This ability to find facial patterns all around us is reflected in our tendency to see faces in cloud formations, mountains, and burnt toast.

Human infants are also highly sensitive to the physical proximity and touch of caregivers. A well-known and tragic study of child mortality rates in orphanages showed that, without touch, babies could die as a result of their body’s growth and immune system shutting down. Indeed, in adults, having intimate relationships and being socially integrated are the two largest predictors of longevity – more so than clean air, diet, exercise, and smoking and drinking.

A number of physiological mechanisms may lie behind this link between health and our social lives. Others have the ability to regulate our nervous systems, making our heart rate speed up or slow down just by their appearance or choice of words. When we are around others who we are “like us” we often feel safe, more likely to draw upon our parasympathetic nervous system – our “rest-and-digest” response. Conversely, when we are around people who are “different to us”, we often feel unsafe, more likely to draw up our sympathetic nervous system – our “flight-or-flight” response. And rightly so: as much as we rely on others to survive, other human beings can also be the most dangerous thing around, either as a result of contagious diseases or aggressive behaviour. The infamous “cuddle hormone” – oxytocin – does not just make us more sociable and caring towards those we care about, but also increases our hostility towards those who are different and are potentially a threat.

As we mature from infants to children to adults, we gradually transform our dependent relationships with our caregivers into interdependent relationships with our romantic partners, family members, friends and social groups. The study of attachment styles has shown that the kinds of relationships we formed with our caregivers as infants has a large impact on the kinds of intimate relationships we form later on in life. This makes sense: we need to learn very early on from our primary caregivers how much we can rely upon and trust others – are dependent relationships secure or insecure, and in what ways? If we are unfortunate to learn that others cannot be trusted, this is not a lesson we are likely to give up lightly – there is simply too much at stake. This is not to say our attachment style cannot change as a result of having ongoing, trusting relationships in our adult lives – they can and they do. But not without difficulty.

We continue to be dependent on others throughout our lives. Another feature that distinguishes humans from other animals is social learning. According to the experimental psychologist Celia Heyes, instead of being born with mental skills and abilities, we acquire them from others, much like we acquire artefacts. With adequate training, our potential to learn new skills is vast, including traits that were previously thought to be highly genetically determined, such as intelligence (though I’ll leave a more detailed discussion of that for another post: in the meantime, check out the “Flynn effect”). Lastly, the support we receive from others is one of the strongest predictors of resilience – learning how to recover from illness, addiction, trauma, heartbreak, and other significant life setbacks.

One way of bringing all these findings together is to think of connection as being on a par with food – we need regular doses of it to survive. If our sources of connection are in doubt, or under threat, then the world suddenly becomes a very serious and scary place. We can, in modern societies, largely forget about the day-to-day business of meeting our biological needs, for food, drink, shelter etc. But we have done so by replacing them with our attachments to others. We now navigate the world via our relationships.

Which brings us back to happiness. Our positive and negative emotions have been designed to inform us how well we are doing at meeting our needs for connection and survival. They then guide us towards meeting our needs better. For example: when we eat lunch, we feel pleasure, and may be motivated towards eating the same again for lunch tomorrow; when we achieve a difficult goal, we feel satisfaction, and may aim at an even more ambitious goal; when we spend too much time by ourselves, we feel lonely, and may be motivated to go out more; and so on. These emotional responses to the world are constant, and continuously make us feel good or bad.

Over any given period of time, the positive and negative emotions we experience make up what I call Surface Happiness. Surface Happiness is determined by how much progress we are making towards meeting our needs for connection and survival. Its function is to help us continue making such progress.

In most of our thinking about happiness, we don’t tend to go beyond Surface Happiness. We think about how certain things make us feel good (junk food, enjoyable activities, having sex) and other things make us feel bad (physical pain, rejection, being out of control). What more is there to say? Well, a lot. And that will be the subject of the next post.

3 suggestions for further reading:

  • John Cacioppo: Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection

  • Barbara Fredrickson: Love 2.0

  • Celia Heyes: Cognitive Gadgets

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