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What happiness makes us do

What is the psychological function of our emotions and moods?...

In the previous post, I suggested that, instead of asking what makes us happy, we should ask what happiness makes us do. What is the function of happiness? What do our emotions and moods motivate us to do? In this post, I will briefly sketch an answer, which I will expand upon in following posts.

In order to understand what happiness makes us do, we need to know its function. In order to do that, we need to know some fundamental things about the human condition – how our minds work and what it means to be human. Now, this is a big topic. There are a number of things that make us who we are: the use of language, culture, general-purpose learning, social and moral emotions, art and ritual, religion and spirituality, experimentation, planning, etc. All of these things are important. However, for the purpose of understanding the function of happiness and unhappiness, I think two broad features of the human condition matter most. We are a) social animals, and b) prediction machines.

We are clearly animals, no matter how much we try and forget this fact. We have biological needs for food, water, shelter, warmth, safety, and physical health. Without these things, we will eventually die, and suffer physiological and psychological distress in the short-term. However, in contrast to most (though definitely not all) animals, we predominantly meet these needs via others. We live hyper-social, cooperative lives. When was the last time you grew, foraged or hunted for your own food? Did you build the house you live in, or the bed you sleep on? We don’t need to do these things because we live highly interdependent lives of specialisation. I got my food from the shop, and wrote this blog post, instead. My needs are met, but only thanks to other people.

We are social animals from birth. Born with undeveloped brains, the first few years of our lives can be viewed, according to developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik, as a research and development phase, informed and guided by our caregivers. Through a highly complex dance of facial mimicry, physical touch and emotional contagion, we learn an array of social emotions through imitation. This couldn’t be done without having strong attachment bonds towards our primary caregivers. It is through these attachments that we see the world. Feelings of attachment motivate infants to attend to their caregivers, feel calm and confident in their presence, express themselves and meet their needs. These feelings are so strong they never go away. As we mature into adolescence and adulthood, we transfer our attachment bonds from dependent caregiving relationships to interdependent friendships and romantic relationships. It does not seem to be an exaggeration to say that the need for connection – on both a physical and psychological level – is at the centre of our adult lives.

So far so good – we are social animals, with biological and attachment needs. But this is only half the story. In order to meet these needs, we act. And in order to act in an efficient way, we make predictions.

If you’re reading this blog post, I suspect that many of your needs are being met. You’re probably in a warm setting, recently satiated, and not entirely isolated. And yet, I also suspect that you are not feeling on top of the moon. There may be a number of things on your mind. You might be procrastinating from something you should probably do instead. Perhaps there’s an underlying sense of anxiety that the day isn’t going as well as you’d hoped, or that you’re unprepared for what’s to come. You may not be stressed or unhappy, but, despite most of your needs being met, you are far from happy.

Why is that? The answer is complex, but, for now, it’s enough to say that we care about things beyond whether our needs are currently being met. In fact, more so than how well things are currently going, we care about how well things are likely to go in the future. We are prediction machines. What matters is whether our needs are being met now and in the foreseeable future. We are motivated to predictably meet our needs.

We do this via a complex hierarchy of beliefs and goals, which take the form of sophisticated (largely unconscious, bottom-up and top-down) predictions. Every action we take, emotion we feel, or situation we find ourselves in, we have already made a prediction about what that will be like. We pay attention only to the ways in which these predictions are wrong – whether things end up being better or worse than we expected – and then update our predictions accordingly. It is through this process that we learn in the most efficient way possible. Indeed, we are not alone in doing this either – the same mechanisms underlie the complex behaviours of other foraging animals. What humans do, with our capacities for imagination, planning and mental time travel, is make predictions much further into the future. The result is that, even if we manage to successfully meet our needs throughout our lives, given the opportunity, we will still be motivated to meet them in ever-more certain and secure ways.

In the next couple of posts, I will show how these two features of the human condition can help us understand happiness and its function. In the next post, I will argue that our emotions motivate us to meet our needs in short-term. This is the function of Surface Happiness. In the following post, I will argue that our moods motivate us to meet our needs in the foreseeable future. This is function of Underlying Happiness. Together, Surface Happiness and Underlying Happiness motivate us to predictably meet our needs – to meet our needs with ever-more certainty and security. This can be good for us, and others, but it can also be the opposite. Which is why we need to talk about it.

3 suggestions for further reading:

  • Lisa Feldman Barrett: How Emotions Are Made

  • Alison Gopnik: The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life

  • Matthew Lieberman: Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

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