An interesting finding when I've researched the core of happiness, is the disparity between what most people strive for in life, and what we should strive for if our goal would be to become happy. Why do most people, especially men, have some kind of innate striving towards accomplishment, status, power and money? Why do people not stop when they have enough money to support themselves and their family for the rest of their lives? Why do people pursue status and money even if it makes them unhappy?
I am currently reading the Moral Animal. It goes through a lot of aspects of human psychology, and shows how many of our behaviours can be explained quite neatly in light of evolution. If you are interested in human evolution and how it has shaped the human psyche, this book is a nice followup to the Selfish Gene, which I think is the best starting point for anyone to learn about evolution.
Take any behavior seen in all humans, ie. not something that is due to local culture, and place that behaviour in the kind of tribal group that we lived in during most of evolution. Then ask the question "what would be the consequence of this behaviour?" As it turns out, you will find that most behaviours will help the human propagate his genes. Which is what we would expect. This is very interesting of course, as it gives us a model which explains most of human shenanigans in elegant ways. That's what I find so exciting about books like these. Of course, few of the models can be proven with absolute certainty, but some of them fit so neatly with our behaviours that they are pretty darn irresistible to believe in.
Status-seeking behaviour, as I was alluding in my earlier post about the need to feel loved, seems to be one such behaviour with a quite straight-forward explanation. This is something I've been pondering my whole life, and finally it seems like things are starting to clear up for me. Why do people, especially men, sacrifice so much to acquire power and status?
Researchers have examined the correlation between a high social rank and domination in a group, and reproductive success, in 50 different species (both mammals and non-mammals). In 80% of these species, a high rank in the society is correlated with reproductive success. In humans, it has been hard to establish such a correlation. Powerful people do not have more children than people at the bottom of the societal hierarchy. It turns out the reason for this are two factors that are pretty unique to modern society: contraception and monogamous life-long marriage.
The contraception one is pretty obvious; condoms and birth control pills did not exist when we evolved these behaviours. Modern monogamous marriage stops the "natural" dynamic by tying every male to a maximum of one female. Monogamy in humans is tied to plow agriculture, something we haven't been doing that long from an evolutionary perspective. In earlier societies where marriage did not exist or was polygamous, the most dominant males had children with many women, and the males at the bottom of the hierarchy did not get to procreate at all. For the females it's a different story, in general they have always gotten to procreate, since eggs and womb-time are the scarce resources and sperm the abundant one. This also explains why the status-seeking and aggressiveness is so strong in males but not in females. Take a look at this list of the most "successful" males in history when it comes to fathering children. The top ones have fathered hundreds of children. Most of them are kings or cult leaders, but in recent times we find that sperm donators have been quite successful. If evolution is a thing, and is allowed to do its magic for a few thousands more generations, we can assume that an innate drive to donate sperm might become a common trait among males...
This study looked at research being done on 33 nonindustrial populations and found that no matter what kind of society it was or how they measured status (all societies seem to measure status in some way, however subtle to the outside viewer), status leads to more children.
Status hierarchies have changed dramatically throughout human history, yet we find that the association between status and reproductive success does not depend on subsistence category (foraging, horticulture, pastoralism, agriculture) or how status is measured. These findings suggest no significant increase in selection on status-enhancing traits with the domestication of plants and animals.
In our own current society we have money as part of what signifies status. This study confirms that men with more money, all other things being equal, have more children than men with less money. For women on the other hand, they have just as many children if they are rich as if they are poor relative to other women in the same society.
And, as I mentioned in the beginning of this text, in our modern industrialized society, status does not seem to correlate with reproductive success. But this study found the interesting result that the foremost factor deciding how often a male has sex, is social status. And if we place that male in the tribe on the savannah in Africa, during the years where most of human evolution took place, that male with a strong will to achieve status in society would have had more sex, and hence more children. The males with a weak or nonexistent drive to achieve status, would presumably not achieve it, and would not have as much sex, thus not propagating their genes to our current society... ...in which many males seem crazy about pursuing status.
So studies like the ones mentioned above seem to indicate that there is a quite logical explanation for why so many of us chase status, accomplishments and money, and even prioritize that chase above happiness and contentment. Happy, after all, is not something we are designed to be. Not all the time at least. Happiness and unhappiness are merely tools that our genes use to steer us to propagate them to later generations.