Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Human Adaptation and Happiness

Posted 18 May 2009 / 0

I just finished reading a fascinating article in The Atlantic entitled “What Makes Us Happy?”. Although I am not all that well-read or at all trained in human behavioral science, I am increasingly interested by it, and this article by Joshua Wolf Shenk does an amazing job covering a lot of ground. In the past I have assigned an article from Scientific American called “Why It’s So Hard Being Happy” to my Human Evolution students, which as you might guess covers some of the same themes.

“What Makes Us Happy?” describes a landmark survey of physical and mental health called the Grant Study. This study, initiated in 1937, follows the lives of a relatively small group of men. Based out of Harvard and based on men who were sophomores at Harvard in 1937, the study is far from representative of the general population. What makes this study exceptional is its breadth and depth: it has followed its subjects with little interruption from their early twenties through old age and death, and it has amassed huge amounts of data on the physical and mental health of its participants. While it is easy to criticize this study as a “project of the elite”, much of what it found probably applies more broadly (at least to men) than one might think. Far from being a series of fairy tale lives, the Harvard men of the Grant study display a diversity of developments and outcomes that sound very similar to those of the general population.

One of the fascinating implications of this study has to do with the problem of data limitation. Not only is this study ripe for criticism because it follows such a non-representative subset of the overall population, but it also involves a very small population. While data can be generated for such a small study, it pales in comparison to large, double-blind studies following thousands of people. As a result, much of the data emerging from this study has been depicted narratively, using a method more akin to analyses of history than scientific data. But while the size of this study presents serious problems in terms of data limitation, its duration accomplishes what no other study of human behaviors has. It’s the least data limited study if duration matters, and it’s comparably data limited if sample size matters.

Which kind of data limitation is more problematic depends on what you are looking to learn. In terms of its ability to look at response to acute conditions, the Grant Study is less informative than modern clinical trials. But the very strength of these trials is also their weakness: because they are so thorough in their sampling, most psychological studies cover a very short period of time. As a result, any phenomenon that emerges over long periods of time will not be understood.

In ecology, we have the same issue: some of our studies are brief but intense, but rarely are long-term studies of appropriate depth conducted. At times this has led to confusion and misunderstanding, as short-term manipulative studies that created a short “pulse” in a system yielded different results than that same manipulation “pressed” consistently over a long period of time. So why don’t we do both, studying large sample sizes over long periods of time? Not surprisingly the answer is money. It is expensive to do short-term exhaustive studies, but at least these give the impression of “high bang for your buck” because they produce results within a reasonable time. Albeit, these results may not be all that valid, and the concept of “reasonable time” comes from funding agencies rather than scientists. What makes the Grant Study simultaneously inspiring and deflating is the fact that it alone could sustain its effort for a meaningful time period (one human generation): inspiring because they managed to do it, deflating because even a Harvard-based study of powerful men including John F. Kennedy and several other prominent politicians and businessmen struggled to maintain the funding necessary to sustain its mission. In the field of ecology, many have recognized the importance of following systems over long periods of time, resulting in a series of Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) stations. Like the Grant Study, these LTER sites won’t yield their most important insights for the first or even second generation of scientists who tend to them; long-term studies are an exercise in trans-generational optimism and enthusiasm.

One of the things you worry about any time you are following the progress of a group of people is the “documentary effect”. When you watch a film that chronicles the life of particular people (for an excellent example of this kind of filmmaking, check out Trouble the Water), you always have to ask the question “are these the behaviors I would have observed in these individuals if they did not know their lives were being followed?”. The documentary effect has the potential to distort the result of long-term psychological studies, and one wonders what effect this had on the Grant Study. One advantage of following elite Harvard men is that they already were enjoying the benefits of high expectation; it is possible that the additional knowledge that they were being studied might not have had a significant influence on their behaviors or decisions. And when you are being studied for your whole life, it is hard to constantly “meet expectations” even if they are perceived to be present.

One of the most fascinating findings of the Grant Study pertains to the nature of “psychological adaptations”. Psychologists don’t call these “psychological adaptations” (they just call them adaptations), but as a proper evolutionist I want to distinguish between the two. When psychologists talk about adaptations, they mean changes in the way that the brain perceives reality or mediates behavior, usually in response to traumatic experiences. These “adaptations” take place during one person’s lifetime, and as such are not actually adaptations but a form of phenotypic plasticity. Phenotypic plasticity — in this case the ability to modify one’s behavior in response to changes in the environment — is itself an adaptation, produced by natural selection acting on different “plastic strategies”. Obviously the ability to psychologically adapt would increase fitness, but not all means of responding to the environment produce the same results, leading to differences in fitness associated with different plastic responses or different thresholds for behavioral change.

What’s fascinating is the typology that emerges from the Grant Study analysis of psychological adaptations. Four distinct adaptive strategies are identified: psychotic, immature, neurotic, and mature. If you want a more detailed description of these I encourage you to read the article, but what’s interesting about them is that they represent a potential developmental pathway. While the responses that are filed under “psychotic” are very unhealthy in adults, some of these pretty well describe the world of a small toddler. Anyone who has dealt with children (or adults who never got further along psychologically) will recognize the “immature” responses. Most interesting are the remaining responses, “neurotic” and “mature”. The words bias us to assume that “mature” responses are the only normal ones, but it turns out that most adults employ a fair number of “neurotic” responses. It turns out you can be pretty functional and pretty neurotic, which explains a lot. And the list of responses that are labeled “mature” include a collection that I find interesting as a person who studies cooperation: altruism, humor, anticipation, suppression, sublimation. The happiest people in the survey seemed to display these kinds of responses to hardship, which in my eyes tells us a lot about how humans have evolved psychologically.

The story that runs through all four of these types of defense mechanism is that there is a value to psychological distortion. One might think that the brain was designed to retain information, and that failing to accurately perceive or remember information gained by the senses would be a failing. Well, it turns out that all four of the response types rely on some form of distortion. “Psychotic” responses such as megalomania and hallucination are pretty clearly distorted. Fantasy is one of the “immature” responses. But perhaps what makes these two responses less advanced is not the fact that they involve some rearranging of reality, but that their rearrangement of reality is far less subtle and powerful than more advanced forms. Take for instance repression, a defense against trauma found in the “neurotic” collection of psychological adaptations. Repressing an incident or part of an incident with pinpoint accuracy is a whole lot more valuable than completely detaching from reality. And, in fact, it turns out that repression is also in many situations more healthy than remembering everything: distortion has a value.

Most fascinating are the very subtle distortions of the “mature” set of psychological responses. Altruism, on the face of it, is delusional. To think that you can do something nice for other people and somehow cosmically and magically that good deed will come back to you seems on the face of it to be highly delusional. And it is a delusion, but it is a good delusion if you find yourself in a community of similarly deluded individuals: that’s how cooperation emerges, and the power to cooperate is distinctively human. So too with humor, the ability to derive pleasure from uncomfortable or tragic circumstances. It’s a delusion, but a very subtle one that serves as a potent adaptation for a species cursed with consciousness. If you look at the list of so-called “mature” responses they all involved a distortion of reality; this distortion just happens to be a very valuable distortion and hence we call it an adaptation. We ought to let go of the idea that facts alone are valuable; some facts are best left unexplored, or better yet, creatively modified. Perhaps the truth will not always set you free.

I imagine that there’s a trace of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” in these four stages of adaptive psychological response. It isn’t that the “psychotic” responses are totally useless. In some situations, it may be valuable to create the kind of extreme detachment from reality that goes along with becoming psychotic. It’s just that the “immature” responses may produce the same benefits without so many potential costs. I imagine that if we were able to put some of our ancestors on the therapist’s chair, the earliest of our relatives would display only “psychotic” responses, with each successive generation creeping closer to possessing all four. Does this mean that Homo australopithecus was only capable of “psychotic” and “immature” responses, while Homo neanderthalensis was able to be “neurotic” as well? Who knows, although I suspect that some of these responses may extend deeper into our lineage than our most recent common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos, while others probably have emerged very recently. What a great avenue for inquiry into evolutionary psychology!

A Major Post, Adaptation, Altruism, Data Limitation, Ecology, Evolutionary Psychology, Happiness, Human Evolution, Long Term Ecological Research, Psychological Adaptation

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