happiness as a behavioral strategy

Posted in Uncategorized by sarkology on July 10, 2012

It is commonly understood that happiness is something you feel when you get what you want, broadly construed – you could want world peace, or inner peace, it does not matter for what follows. This feeling is generally pleasant. Hence most of us are laboring under the mistaken conception that happiness is something we pursue. Here I will argue that happiness is not like that at all. It is not something we pursue but something we perform. This will go a long way towards explaining the various confusions and ambivalences we harbor about and toward happiness.

not behaviorism

First off, proposing this idea elsewhere, I have been accused of behaviorism. I wish to clear my name. This is not a behaviorist claim. I’m not saying that happiness is neither an emotion nor a feeling, that it is all just behavior. Happiness as an emotion is real enough. Rather, the claim concerns the function of this emotion – that it lies more in the behavior induced by the emotion than in the incentives provided by it being pleasurable.

not fatalism

Also, this is not to say that we could not more effectively pursue happiness than we already do. The theory is like all psychological theories. It describes the typical behavior of humans under typical conditions. Since humans are computationally universal, their potential is in fact ultimate. Barring the standard traps of akrasia and failure of rationality you really can achieve anything physically possible.

an emotion, like any other

A desire is a special emotion which serves to impel you to pursue whatever it is that is desired. A non-desire emotion on the other hand, serves to modify your behavior or cognition to appropriately respond to certain situations. Happiness is an emotion which is not a desire. So why should it be pursued, as opposed to modifying one’s behavior in a fashion appropriate to the situation which induced the emotion?

Consider the emotions: anger, annoyance, arousal, curiosity, disgust, distrust, excitement, fear, gratitude, hatred, jealousy, pity, worry, etc. Although we have strong preferences for some of them and would prefer not to feel any of the others, we do not go out of our ways to pursue these emotions. Gratitude is a positive emotion, fear a negative emotion, but we do not go out of our way to pursue gratitude, nor do we run away from fear per se. It might seem like we are avoiding fear itself, but fear is actually a response to a threatening situation. The thought of the threat leads to fear, and subsequently to the desire to avoid the threat. The fear is part of the behavioral strategy of threat avoidance, and is not itself something avoided for its own sake. It’s very much like how gratitude is a response to receiving something you should be thankful for. Though in that case it is much clearer that nobody in their right mind would pursue gratitude per se!

This is the sense in which the theory says that happiness is a performance. It is a behavioral strategy appropriate to some situations but not to others. Hence some situations suitably provoke happiness and others do not.

performance according to what criteria?

you don’t know what you got until you lose (or gain) it

But what is happiness a response to? Here our introspection misleads us because we tend to only notice happiness when it changes in degree. Except for when we win the lottery, or when we become paraplegic, we do not really notice our baseline happiness. But this does not mean you are not actually happier at sometimes and less so at others. The noticing of happiness is something quite distinct from happiness itself. Even though with some conscious reflection it is certainly possible for you to get an accurate picture of your current level of happiness .

Hence it’s better to think of happiness as a general behavioral strategy, even though it is in fact a conditional response to particular circumstances. It is only because the circumstances to which happiness is a proper response tend to be very stable, that we choose to call it a general behavioral strategy. But when such circumstances do change, your level of happiness responds appropriately.

concise statement of the theory

Happiness is a behavioral strategy appropriate to  your social status within particular social contexts.

Humans are relatively egalitarian compared to our primate relatives, and so there is little overt domination. But this does not mean that some folks are not more popular than others, or that we let anybody get away with any behavior no matter their popularity. At a party, you will notice that the more popular folks tend to be more assertive and lively, and the less popular folks will be more polite and restrained. What happens when an unpopular person acts popular?

on confidence

To someone who is not confident, you might suggest they just try to be more confident. If only they were more confident, you would then like them more right? No, because ultimately, you hold all the cards. You reserve final judgement as to whether they will come off as merely confident or just plain arrogant. On what basis do you make such judgements?

Now most people would find it hard to act more confident than they usually do, and for good reason. As with deception: the best way to deceive is to self-deceive; so it is with avoiding the charge of arrogance: you restrain your very own ability to act more confident than you perceive you can get away with. So that when you do act confident it is all the more authentic. Think of bungee jumping: the conscious override of your fear of heights is not a straightforward affair, you cannot just tell yourself: of course you won’t fall, silly. It just doesn’t work. And this is just for one action: flinging yourself off an edge! Faking confidence on the other hand involves many many more steps and potential missteps, and is something far, far more difficult. But suppose you were a narcissist and you simply do possess this ability to fake confidence. You would then be able to get away with it for awhile. But narcissism is a marginal short-term strategy. They eventually do get caught and gossip will spread about their true reputation. So for those in the know, they would just come off as fake, not confident.

Hence we judge someone as confident or arrogant according as to whether their behavior is commensurate with our perception of their social status.

We did not evolve to prefer in others confidence per se. We prefer confident people only because confidence is a reliable proxy for status.

So the confidence-faking unpopular person would not get away with it, they would only come off as arrogant, overly self-assured, obnoxiously assertive, as someone who didn’t know their place. They would be better off just sticking to a corner of the room. That way they would not jeopardize what little social standing they already have within that social context – the people at the party and the people they share gossip with, the social sphere they define.

As for a popular person, if they lacked confidence, they would simply not be taking advantage of the social benefits the social context is willing to grant them.

Hence for maximum social returns, one’s social behavior within a social context is best conditioned on one’s own social status.

Suppose you have been informed that you have been promoted at work. You hear of this good news just before you got on a transatlantic flight with no internet. You are ecstatic. You feel an urge to tell your friends. But that’s impossible seeing as you are on a transatlantic flight. You tell the person next to you. This staves off the fading away of your happiness for awhile. But soon, without anyone to share your joy with, even the smile fades from your face. You get bored. You fall asleep. Upon arrival though, back at your apartment you throw a party. Your happiness lasts well into the night, bolstered by the presence of your friends.

But suppose you did not get promoted and that neither were you expecting to. You are just hanging out on a typical night at the pub with your friends. You would not be as happy as you would be if it was a celebration of your promotion. So we see that both the presence of the promotion and that of your friends are essential for your happiness to be sustained. Or rather, for the increase in your happiness to be sustained (recall the warning that we tend to notice only changes in our happiness).

Within your group of friends you might be more or less popular. The promotion gave your popularity within that social context a temporary boost. The boost will be temporary because employ a vast number of signals to judge one’s status. If you don’t keep up, they won’t believe you. It’s like how you need to constantly signal your love for your lover. You cannot just make one big show of love and be done with it.

Your greater happiness at the celebration of the promotion was there because it is an emotion leading to social behavior on your part which was optimal for the situation. You got promoted, and you are going to take social advantage of it (not necessarily at all in an exploitative way). So you become more assertive than usual, you take more social-risks, you place yourself at the center of attention more frequently, etc. Because these are things you can get away with only during such windfalls as job promotions.

But I stress again that happiness is something persistent. It is not something which is only present when you land a windfall or when you are befallen a tragedy. It is an emotion you feel whenever you are in a social context. I only used the example of a job promotion because it reveals the underlying persistent function of happiness even in the absence of any changes in one’s social status.

what it explains

why are we so bad at the pursuit of our own happiness?

Well, since happiness is not a desire which impels you toward anything, but rather an emotion which regulates your behavior conditional on your social status, why in the world should you be effective at pursuing happiness?

You have many desires and these lead you to do the various things you end up doing, and granted with some of these things their accomplishment does in fact lead to your happiness. But the desires you had for them were more than enough to get you to there. Happiness plays no further motivational role.

But do we in fact want as much happiness as we think we do? Let’s make a comparison with play. We all like to play. But fortunately, unlike with happiness we do realize that play is not the be all end all of life. We have responsibilities and commitments, and to fritter our time away on frivolous play to the neglect of other important things in life would be a mistake. We all realize that we do not want to be like Peter Pan.

This is not the case for happiness though. Apparently, many of us have somehow gotten it into our heads that happiness is the most important thing in life. But fortunately, even as we explicitly accord happiness such high esteem, implicitly we seem to understand that happiness is just not that important.

For couples this is brought into sharp relief in the decision whether or not to have children. Having children does seem to diminish happiness, apparently in the form of the the time and effort one must put into raising them. I say apparently, because according to our theory of happiness, the arduousness of the task of raising children shouldn’t diminish happiness. But couples are probably right anyway that having children decreases happiness. This is because for example in the case of the father he would be redirecting effort from bolstering his status towards child care. This leads to a decrease in happiness because he would not be as socially outgoing and assertive. In spite of this, many couples decide to have children anyway. This is because at some level, they realize that there is more to life than happiness. They also want to do something they would be proud of, for example, raising a child.

I suspect this widespread acknowledgement that happiness is the be all end all is confined to this time and place, this particular era and culture of the weird, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic people. More collectivist cultures for instance, place the harmonious functioning of the community above the interests of the individual.

So even as we talk as if we value happiness, and we might even believe it ourselves, we walk as if we care about other things as well. In actuality, guided by our desires (of which happiness is not an example) we pursue a more balanced set of goals than the explicit folk theories we hold of ourselves would mistakenly prescribe.

happiness is only real when shared?

Alexander Supertramp’s final lesson was that “happiness is real only when shared“. This seems to conform to our everyday experience. The happiest part of our day is when we are socializing. But then why also did Sartre say “hell is other people“?

The performance theory certainly requires that people be present for happiness to also be present. Savoring a job promotion is best done in the presence of friends. Even not savoring a job promotion is best done in the presence in friend. Simply because happiness is the behavioral strategy pursued to maximize one’s social returns given one’s social status. There are no social returns to be had on a transatlantic flight. But although people are necessary for happiness, they are definitely not sufficient. Our unpopular person in the example given previously might best avoid the party altogether.

giving is better than receiving?

Better than hanging out with your friends is being generous to them. As you might guess by now, this is simply from generosity conferring status upon the benefactor. There is a strong social norm going far back to our ancestors in the Pleistoscene exhorting band members to share their stuff, especially meat. Dividing the meat equally was mandatory, but extracurricular generosity was held in high esteem as well. For example, band members more readily help those who have fallen on hard times who have been especially generous in the past. Generous folks thus get to behave in a higher status fashion than folks who are less generous, and that behavior is mediated by generous folks experiencing greater happiness, which serves to up-regulate their statusful behavior in light of their greater esteem within the social context.

wealth does not lead to happiness as much as we think

We should certainly expect wealth to increase our happiness simply because it increases our social status. But why does it not do this more effectively?

What happens when you climb the social ladder? You certainly rise in social status. You are held in greater esteem among your friends. But social mobility involves, well, social mobility. The people you interact with will change. You might move to a new neighborhood. Your job might take you to a different city. Or even just to the more upscale part of a city. You get invited to more glamorous parties. Even as your old friends might be incredibly impressed at your new station in life your new friends might not. After all, the local social context they have always experienced has always been that of the rich and famous. So they judge people by comparison to others within that very parochial social sphere. You might be a big shot among your old friends, but your new friends are less impressed. Your new social context as you locally perceive it is perhaps not so different compared to your old one. You might perhaps come across as especially impressive at gatherings of your relatives, or among your high school friends at your high school reunion. But in your day-to-day life you might not get to behave much differently from how you did before.

The theory thus explains that what limited increase in happiness there is conferred by wealth has come from a greater prevalence of social contexts within which you can and do behave in a high status fashion, along with its concomitant emotion of happiness.


Most music seems to be about love. If music is a form of expression then that gives some indication of the central importance love plays in our lives. In fact our regard for love is so favorable that it often eclipses our regard for happiness itself! Still, many people would also say that love makes them happy, and that it’s the reason why they want love.

Love does make us happy. A lot of what constitutes gossip is about who is going out with who. “Relationship status” is one of the most important pieces of information about ourselves, whether when meeting new people or on Facebook. In fact, we value the fact that we are in a relationship over and above the other perks in the relationship itself. A couple who has broken up might choose to keep up the impression that they are still together, just to eke whatever status benefits that confers upon themselves their “relationship status” can still provide. And although a single person might pine for love, they are to a significant extent also pining for “in a relationship”, for what it allows them to get away with in terms of high status behavior.

In Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar, a story is related that Julius Caesar divorced his wife (Pompeia) because of rumors of opprobrious behavior. At trial, Caesar said he knew nothing about his wife’s rumored adultery, but asserted that he divorced her because his wife “ought not even be under suspicion” (The Life of Caesar, 9-10). In a sense, what Caesar was asserting was that he would not allow his wife’s suspected behaviors to sully his status, reputation, and prestige. At the time, Caesar was a powerful and ambitious political player (Pontifex Maximus), and he did not want his career thwarted by rumors of his mate’s turpitudinous behavior.


Your mate is very important signal of your status. After all, status is what we look for in a mate (beauty leads to status in females). Hence if someone who has high status is also your mate, then others might infer that you must be high status yourself. This is because their high status puts them in great demand, and since they also desire high status in the opposite sex, they would choose mates whose status is as high as their own status can afford. A high status mate then allows you to behave in a high status fashion in those social contexts which ratify your relationship status (for example, not in your workplace or at an academic conference). The emotion which up-regulates this high status behavior is happiness. Love does make us happy – provided our lovers’ status is not much lower than our own.

not sex

In addition to love we also want a lot of sex. But does sex make us happy? No. Sex is not a group activity (not typically anyway), and it is the relationship (if there is one) which confers on a person high status, not the sex. So it should not make us happy. Smiling is a pretty reliable signal of happiness, but we don’t smile when we orgasm.

This illustrates a general feature of things which do not lead to happiness. They can certainly be something you strongly desire. But your desires are more than enough to motivate you to pursue those things. Happiness plays part in it. Those cases where getting what you want does lead to happiness, are cases where getting what you want increases your status, and thus your ability to act in a high status fashion in social contexts which ratify those increases in status.

do not be too ambitious?

An oft given advice is for one to not aim too high lest one fails to achieve what one sets out to achieve. Higher income aspirations leads one to be less satisfied in life. The linked-to paper explains it as hedonic adaptation. The performance theory provides a different explanation. Higher income aspirations is a symptom of one’s perceived social standing averaged (suitably weighted according to prevalence among one’s social interactions) across the social contexts in which one participates. Someone who is generally low status would have higher income aspirations because that is how they think they can improve their situation. Someone who is high status has no need for further aspirations. Someone who is generally low status is also someone who is less happy.

doing what you love

Why is it often said that happiness comes from doing what you love? Well, what sort of person doesn’t do what they love? Why  someone whose autonomy is not secured of course, which is also someone who has low status. So being able to do what you love is associated with happiness. But doing what you love does not cause happiness. Rather, being high status leads to greater autonomy and also greater happiness.

the curious coincidence of talent and interest

Why does someone’s talents so often coincide with their interests? The mechanism is simple. In your wild and reckless youth you tried out all sorts of activities and endeavors, of which those you realized you were good at you thought nobody in their right mind would not be obsessed about; those which you weren’t so great at you summarily dismissed as boring. So here you are your greatest strengths also your greatest passion. Which makes doing what you love even more important than would be indicated by considerations of autonomy alone. Doing what you love means doing what you are good at. Doing what you are good at is great source of personal esteem. Which of course leads to high status behavior and also attendant happiness.

the psychological literature


The heritability of happiness is estimated to be around .4 to .7. The performance theory of happiness suggests that this is simply because social status itself is heritable. For the contribution to social status from wealth, intelligence is a big factor, and intelligence is highly heritable. But as we have discussed, wealth is not that important for happiness. More important is your popularity and esteem among peers.

What determines this popularity? A large contribution is from one’s genetic fitness, i.e. the “quality” of one’s genes, the extent to which it is free from deleterious alleles. Many species have evolved fitness indicators to signal their genetic quality, especially to potential mates. The peacock’s tail is a famous example. Only a peacock whose metabolic machinery was working in a superb condition can afford such an extravagant tail. Fitness indicators have large mutational target size. This means that the genes which affect their expression are numerous and distributed widely throughout the animal’s genetic code. It is this feature which allows fitness indicators to be evidence for an animal’s genetic quality. The genetic structure of a peacock then is such that deleterious alleles in most portions of its genome would compromise the quality of its tail, which makes the peacock tail a good indicator of the peacock’s genetic fitness. It has been hypothesized that humor, intelligence, beauty, physical fitness, charm, etc. are all fitness indicators. All these traits are also what makes a person popular. So this is how I suspect social status can be highly heritable: it is something which depends on genetic variation on a large number of loci in the human genome.

sociometric status

There is a study which bears more directly on the theory of happiness expounded here.  The study defines sociometric status as “the respect and admiration one has in face-to-face groups”. This is in contrast to socioeconomic status, which refers to one’s status within society as determined by one’s income, social class, occupation, and education. The study finds that “longitudinally, as sociometric status rose or fell, SWB (subjective well-being) rose or fell accordingly. Furthermore, these effects were driven by feelings of power and social acceptance. Overall, individuals’ sociometric status matters more to their SWB than does their socioeconomic status”. This I think is pretty direct evidence in favor of the performance theory of happiness.

sociometer theory

A related theory in psychology is sociometer theory, which explains self-esteem as serving to provide feedback to a person about the esteem in which their peers hold them. If a person does something socially unacceptable, they would sense disapproval among their peers, and their sociometer will cause them to feel low self-esteem. They would then seek to address the issue because “people are highly motivated to protect their self-esteem”. What this theory does not take into account though is the relative social status of a person to the extent it is not exclusively determined by socially acceptable or unacceptable actions. Doing something socially unacceptable may make you unpopular but being ugly, being stupid, being a bad hunter, also does. And even if all your actions were socially acceptable, that would not make you as popular as those who are good-looking, funny, intelligent, a good hunter.

play – a natural history of happiness

What about the ebullience of animal play among mammalian young? Is that happiness? Possibly some sort of proto-happiness? Here I wish to suggest a plausible natural history hypothesis where the emotion regulating mammalian play came to be exapted to the purpose of regulating human social behavior.

The purpose of animal play seems to be for the animal to learn about its own capabilities and also the behavior of its environment. Too little play and the animal does not learn as much and its fitness will suffer once it becomes an adult. Too much play and the animal would get into danger and hurt itself and possibly not even surviving into adulthood. Hence different environments call for different behavioral strategies concerning play. Perhaps at first an innate propensity for playfulness was coded in their genes. Then perhaps evolution later came to encode some of the regularities of the environment into their genes and gave the animals a conditional attitude, wherein the degree of playfulness is conditioned on the perceived hostility of the environment. Or perhaps also conditioned on one’s perceived fitness – a weak, sickly young animal might not be so eager for play compared to its strong and vigorous sibling.

So we see that the function of playfulness was to regulate play behavior according to the perceived danger in the environment. It is likely that in humans, this emotion came to be exapted to regulate social behavior according to one’s perceived social status. A high status primate might be well served by being socially dominant. A low status primate might be better served by being depressed and non-confrontational. Perhaps at this stage of its evolution the emotion, being as it is adapted to the context of a social hierarchy, should not be considered “happiness”. But surely by the time our ancestors became decidedly egalitarian, the emotion is as we know it today – happiness.


Happiness is not something which you desire and hence pursue. It is an emotion which serves to regulate your social behavior conditional on your social status within a particular social context. Among other things, the most important fact this theory explains is why we are so bad at pursuing happiness.

This post does not by any long shot contain everything I have to say from the perspective of the theory. As you might have noticed, there I have offered no prescriptions for how one should go about increasing one’s own happiness. Among other things, I will be writing more on that in the future. But here is a post simply introducing the theory along with some arguments for its strengths. Hopefully convincing you that it is a good explanation of the functional role that happiness plays in human beings.

It does seem to be (from the limited experience I have had of explaining it to others) a very counterintuitive theory. But I believe that ultimately it just makes much more sense, and will eventually come to feel obvious, especially if you employ it in your own thinking on happiness and related phenomena.


5 Responses

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  1. Sister Y said, on July 10, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    1) What does your model have to say about introversion/extroversion? ‘Cause this sounds like an extrovert’s experience of the world.

    2) – smiles associated with lower prestige and lower dominance. Harmonizable?

    • sarkology said, on July 10, 2012 at 7:52 pm

      1) My guess is that introversion/extraversion is the innate part of the behavioral strategy. Like how some animals just seem to be more playful than others independent of environmental hostility. I’m not sure if the studies on introversion/extraversion have controlled for sociometric status. I have read that it’s a stable personality trait, but then again social status is something which is itself pretty stable. This is something I plan to read up more on.

      2) Yeah, that’s the part of the theory I have worked out the least, the precise details of the behaviors which happiness regulates. But it seems clear that it doesn’t always have to be domination. Placing yourself in the center of attention does not require that you take someone off the center of attention, for example. Also, that study seems not to be ecologically valid. We don’t smile all the time. Smiling in some contexts lowers your status (e.g. fashion, as explored in that study, has an elitist social norm of aloofness). But in general, I think smiling is associated with greater happiness, especially when you are having fun and when there is no overly overt domination.

      Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Sister Y said, on July 14, 2012 at 12:57 am

    In your model, is pair bonding part of the set of happiness behaviors? Pair bond sex, eye gazing, etc.? I’m confused by the place of pair relationships here, and the place of sex. Agree sex per se probably not happiness-inducing, but I am thinking you don’t mean to exclude sex and other forms of expressing a romantic pair bond, the presence of which correlates highly with happiness, health, etc.

    Writing this, I’m realizing the relationship between presence of a pair bond and fitness indicators is likely positive but complicated – much like happiness and income, the higher-fitness one observes oneself to be, the higher one’s expectations in a partner to form a satisfying pair bond with.

    • sarkology said, on July 14, 2012 at 2:16 pm

      The immediate emotions attending pair bonding I think are not quite happiness itself. They are ecstasy, arousal, etc.

      By correlation do you mean with the immediate presence of pair bonding? If not, then status can easily take care of that.

      Oh yes certainly, but it’s not about expectation. It’s about how your partner will reflect on you. Having a partner much lower status than yourself will drag your own status down, and hence your happiness within social contexts which ratify your relationship. People are only happier as a result of a relationship when their partner increases others’ estimates of their social status.

  3. sarkology said, on October 17, 2012 at 2:01 pm


    People define themselves in terms of their relationship partners and they incorporate their partners into their self-concepts. Consequently, partner enhancement—viewing one’s partner in excessively positive terms—might constitute an indirect form of self-enhancement when feelings of self-worth are threatened. To test this hypothesis, the authors gave participants evaluative feedback (e.g., success and failure) and then asked them to appraise themselves, their current (or most recent) relationship partner and (in Study 2) most other people. The authors found that low self-esteem participants, but not high self-esteem participants, responded to failure by exaggerating the virtues of their romantic partners. These findings highlight the flexibility of self-enhancement strategies and provide further evidence that low self-esteem people pursue indirect forms of self-enhancement in their efforts to blunt the adverse impact of adverse feedback.

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