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2/23/06


Home_____Happiness & Evolution

Psychologist at University of Pennsylvania, Martin Seligman noted the bias in his field toward mental illness. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the basic psychiatric reference work of the psychiatric, catalogues mental disorders from psychosis to schizoaffective disorder. He found no comparable manual for minds that worked well. He set out to correct this view in, among other books, Authentic Happiness and has a web site, complete with surveys, explaining his approach.

Maybe, though, the notion that shit happens is rooted in our natures. Maybe we are more inclined to worry and anxiety because of their survival value. Think about the word happy. It derives from the same root as our modern happens. In Middle English, happ applied to chance, fortune, accident. We have the application in the modern word happenstance. Given the Middle English root, if you are happy you are lucky. If shit does not happen to you, then you are happy. Happiness, then, carries a tragic view of life. Things occur that are out of your control. You may be happy today and struck down by a car tomorrow.

So what about the survival value of worry and anxiety?

"It is the year 100,000 B.C., and two hunter-gatherers are out hunter-gathering. Let’s call them Ig and Og. Ig comes across a new kind of bush, with bright-red berries. He is hungry, as most hunter-gatherers are most of the time, and the berries look pretty, so he pops a handful in his mouth. Og merely puts some berries in his goatskin bag. A little later, they come to a cave. It looks spooky and Og doesn’t want to go in, but Ig pushes on ahead and has a look around. There’s nothing there except a few bones. On the way home, an unfamiliar rustling in the undergrowth puts Og in a panic, and he freezes, but Ig figures that whatever is rustling probably isn’t any bigger and uglier than he is, so he blunders on, and whatever was doing the rustling scuttles off into the undergrowth. The next morning, Og finally tries the berries, and they do indeed taste O.K. He decides to go back and collect some more.

Now, Ig is clearly a lot more fun than Og. But Og is much more likely to pass on his genes to the next generation of hunter-gatherers. The downside to Ig’s fearlessness is the risk of sudden death. One day, the berries will be poisonous, the bear that lives in the cave will be at home, and the rustling will be a snake or a tiger or some other vertebrate whose bite can turn septic." More.

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