evolutionary well-being

Well-being and our adapted minds

The first time I came across the idea of happiness from an evolutionary perspective was in 2002, in Bjørn Grinde’s Darwinian Happiness. A year later I read John Price and Anthony Stevens’s Evolutionary Psychiatry, where they proclaimed: “Mental health results from the fulfillment of archetypal goals.” I was glad to see evolutionary psychology pay homage to Jung. In many ways, Jung, like William James (and Schopenhauer!), is a grandfather of the field. But the essential message of that quote — “mental health results from the fulfillment of archetypal goals” — has far deeper roots than Jung.

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The philosopher Daniel M. Haybron writes:

“Among the extant approaches to well-being, the main contenders, arguably, are subjectivist accounts and eudaimonistic theories in the Aristotelian tradition. Eudaimonistic theories share a teleological structure, grounding well-being in ideals of nature-fulfillment: we flourish by fulfilling our natures. The claim is that certain goals are somehow implicit in, or indicated by, an individual’s constitution. Nature-fulfillment consists in the fulfillment of these goals. Aristotle provides the model for the best-known variety of eudaimonism about welfare, but it can be argued that almost all major ancient views of well-being, including Epicurean hedonism, were eudaimonistic in form.”

Below is a chart of adaptive goals I created in 2013 for my “Science of Happiness” course. I had everyone in the class develop their own theory of happiness/well-being — and so I shared mine. In preparing to share some of this for a class tomorrow, it occurred to me I might want to share here, too. But it is just one perspective — one I’m not convinced is quite right. It’s a work-in-progress, let’s say.

Why share here?

Sacred naturalism ‘shows up’ under the Transcendence domain, as you’ll see; but also, human well-being is important to sacred naturalists. In fact, we say:

“…many sacred naturalists share a desire to protect and nurture ecological wisdom, the rights of nature, a sustainable future, as well as human flourishing and well being.”


Evolutionary well-being 


Evolutionary well-being/Adaptive Goals, Andrews. (2013). (See Kenrick, D. T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S. L., & Schaller, M. (2010) for a similar but different Maslow-inspired pyramid of needs.)

Evolutionary well-being/Adaptive Goals, Andrews. (2013). (See Kenrick, D. T., Griskevicius, V., Neuberg, S. L., & Schaller, M. (2010) for a similar but different Maslow-inspired pyramid of needs.)


How the adaptive goals relate to well-being


When threats, obstacles, or opportunities to these ‘adaptive goals’ are felt/sensed, (especially primary adaptive goals such as survival, mating, alliances, and parenting) emotions help to regulate and direct action and behavior. A potential threat to the loss of anything that makes up these core goals will elicit an adaptive emotional response that helps to preserve what is needed. For example, a man is hitting on another man’s wife at a bar. If the husband has an attachment (love, sexual, territorial, symbolic, etc.), he will feel the emotion of jealousy. This emotion will likely cause him to mate-guard; that is, he will behave in various ways (physically, verbally) to attempt to intercept the potential interloper.

Low-mood and dysthymia are adaptive responses (among other things) to: loss or lack of agency and autonomy; impediments to adaptive goals and to the loss or unattainability of those objects that lead to fulfilling adaptive goals (for example, a job, a mate, esteem, etc.).

A sense of control, mastery, and agency regarding the adaptive goals and environments and situations related to adaptive goals is necessary.

At first glance, ‘esteem” appears to be its own goal or need (Maslow, Kenrick) but if it belongs anywhere on the chart, perhaps it is within Psychological Survival. Yet, I would argue, it tracks the adaptive domains and belongs outside it. For example, if one has many resources or is high in what evolutionary psychologists call ‘mate-value,’ one might well have high status/esteem. And having general self-esteem and feelings of self-worth can confer benefits in all the domains. A bad reputation or low status in any of the core adaptive goals can disrupt or impact the others, but not necessarily. For example, a bad reputation as a community member (Alliances) may impact one’s mating opportunities or job prospects (Mating and Survival). Or low esteem from low economic status may limit one’s mating opportunities and potential parenting.

Creativity and other traits
Certain traits and features within the various domains can increase or decrease one’s chances of attaining or fulfilling archetypal goals. For example, a man uses his creativity to design his home or to do a job that brings in money for survival. Or a woman, who is courting a man, uses her creativity to solve a problem that he finds very attractive and she wins a mating opportunity.  (I reversed the sexes in these examples. Originally I had a woman designing her home and a man courting a woman.)

Any of the adaptive goals (even Survival) can be imbued with a sense of meaning and purpose. While it seems to fit within the adaptive goal of Transcendence, I’m keeping it outside of the chart for now, as it applies to all of them.


Each of the five proposed Adaptive Goals often have needs that are shared between domains. For example, within the Mating domain, ‘needs’ within the Survival goal for ‘touch’ are met; as well as ‘needs’ within Alliance goals for ‘partnership’ and ‘support’; as well as Parenting (possibly); and Transcendence (for example, sexuality). The needs traverse the adaptive goals, but that doesn’t take away from their fundamental nature; Mating, as an adaptive goal, can’t be reduced.



For more on an evolutionary perspective on happiness, see: David Buss’s “The Evolution of Happiness” and  Glenn Geher & Nicole Wedberg’s in contract/forthcoming: Positive Evolutionary Psychology: Darwin’s Guide to Living a Richer Life.


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