My Second Step to Happiness: When I Decided to Be Nicer
In my previous article, twelve-year-old me discovered that comfort and convenience were the reasons for life. “Hey, I’m gonna die anyway so I might as well make the most of it” was the dominant mindset. My next step towards happiness was realizing that humans can’t do everything themselves and need the support of others.
In high school, I didn’t have many friends so I was acutely interested in reciprocation and why people did nice things. I used to look at people through an expected utility formula, and I think my parents played a part in that. They just couldn’t stand dependants. If someone ever did them a favour, like treat them to dinner, they would immediately schedule another outing to repay the debt. This was eventually how I began to see the world; if a person has nothing to offer you, they can be overlooked.
So I wondered why there were so many types of people on the moral spectrum. There were people who engaged only in prosocial behaviour, such as Mother Theresa, and there were people who seemingly engaged only in selfish behaviour, such as Pope John XII. Which personality holds the advantage? Who can acquire more resources and how do their levels of happiness differ?
While studying biology, I found Darwin’s theory of natural selection to be a strong tool in my exploration. It suggests that most of an organism’s traits have been trimmed over time by evolutionary pressures to shape a species. For example, a population of black and white moths live in a black forest. Birds will come eat the white moths, leaving only the black moths to procreate. The result is an eventual population of uniformly black moths.
I then applied this to humans and supposed that prosocial people are the black moths of our species. Back in the stone age, there were a ton of feral animals and limited food. Living in groups increased food production, protection from predators, and access to sexual partners. If a human lived alone, he or she risked starving, being eaten, or just not being able to mate.
So if a person ever exhibited vulgar behaviour, such as stealing the food of others, his peers would deem him more harmful than helpful and ostracize him. Over time, those who were offensive were pushed out of the tribes and left to fend for themselves, while those who were socially acceptable stayed to pass on their cooperative traits.
I think morality was the cognitive result of this mindset. Morality’s a higher level mechanism we have, and it gives us a feeling of accomplishment when we do “good” and guilt when we do “bad”. Humanists see morality as the distinction between right and wrong, or good and evil. For me, it’s the ability to distinguish between actions that curry favour from others or piss them off so they don’t associate with you.
Having considered all this, I concluded the general trend of evolution was for more prosociality. As people worked together to get things done, without taking away the rights of others, civilization would be more successful and peers would thrive together. So where did these selfish villains come from? I believe that as the earth gets more and more populated, there will be deviations. And because there are so many more groups now than there were in the Stone Age, modern humans can take on a selfish personality, absorb the resources of one group and jump on to the next like a parasite. This person would need to be charismatic, hold on to a facade of normalcy, and strike at the right times without feeling remorse.
I think currently, in our densely overpopulated world, both tactics work. Finding a group of strong supporters who are willing to reciprocate will get you places. It’s consistent, unconditional love. Using people as tools to further your goals can also work. Knowing exactly who to suck up to at work, keeping yourself away from people who need your help, and stepping on people’s backs to get that extra leverage may even be more efficient than prosociality. But it’s very, very lonely. I think people who are self-centered and assess objects, people, and relationships based on value, instead of character, are also very willing to throw away those same things once used. And value is constantly fluctuating but character is consistent. If you walk away from something as soon you deem it to be useless, you may end up with nothing at all.