14 Apr 2013

Emotions and the Pursuit of Happiness

Posted by jofr


The United States Declaration of Independence says that the pursuit of happiness is a basic, unalienable human right: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The pursuit of happiness is indeed something which we all strive to do. Driven by our emotions, we try to pursue what feels good, and try to avoid what feels bad. Animals are biological machines for the pursuit of pleasure and happiness. And these machines are controlled by an ancient control mechanism: emotions. They have evolved over hundreds of millions of years and enable to us to cope with all kinds of environments.

Emotions are an adaptation of animals to solve the problem of movment in fast changing, complex and challenging environments. They tell them what to do when. The main purpose of emotions is to guarantee the fulfillment of the primary directive of the genes: to eat, survive and reproduce, thereby levering the genes into the next generation. The number of different emotions can be staggering. But if we organize them along certain dimensions and distinguish different categories, the situation becomes a bit simpler.

Randolph Nesse proposes goal pursuit for this purpose [1]. If we view life as a sequence of episodes in which oragnisms attempt to reach goals and avoid threats, then according to Nesse, a simple model for goal pursuit goes like this: positive emotions are associated with opportunities, while negative ones are linked to threats. In this model basically everything boils down to pleasure (do it) and pain (don’t do it).

Before After
Opportunity Desire Pleasure
Fear Pain

A more detailed version of the table makes the following division of emotions [1,2]:

Situation Before During Obstacle After Success After Failure
Opportunity Desire,
Flow, Interest
Anger, Despair
Joy, Happiness
Threat Fear,
Relief Pain,

The interesting thing about this perspective is that negative emotions can be good for us and positive ones can be bad. In certain situations negative emotions can be useful, because they protect us and help us to avoid threats. Positive emotions can be bad if they are maladaptive, if we pursue the wrong opportunities because the emotions do not recognize the right thing [1,2].

The most complex goals arise in social situations and social relationships. Apparently these situations have been so ubiquitous that special emotions have evolved to deal with them. Nesse proposes the following categories for emotions that deal with situations which repeatedly arise in managing social relationships: “trust and friendship after repeated successful exchanges, suspicion and anger before and after the other defects, and anxiety and guilt before and after the self defects” [2]

Other cooperates Other defects
You cooperate Trust, Friendship, Love Before: suspicion
After: anger
You defect
Before: anxiety
After: guilt




[1] Natural selection and the elusiveness of happiness,
Randolph M Nesse,
Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2004 September 29; 359(1449): 1333–1347.

[2] Evolutionary Foundations for psychatric diagnosis,
Randolph M. Nesse and Eric D. Jackson,
chapter 6 in “Maladapting Minds: Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Evolutionary Theory”
Pieter R. Adriaens, Andreas De Block (Editors)
Oxford University Press, 2011

 (The picture of the United States Declaration of Independence is from Wikipedia)


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