When our earliest ancestors noticed their immediate surroundings change – the trees began disappearing and their environment morphed into open savannah – they sensed they had a huge problem on their hands.
They were easy prey. They lacked adequate speed, strength and sharp sense of smell that would be useful for protection from predators.
But if they huddled together, they would be more protected. So like a school of fish or a herd of zebras, early humans began to band together as they roamed the dangerous and exposed plains.
But in any herd of zebras, a few slowpokes, the very young or old, the ill or injured, get eaten alive. This needed a solution.
Early humans improved their odds of survival by using handheld tools to kill predators from a distance, for example, by throwing rocks at lions in a coordinated defense.
Once they developed a coordinated, weapon-centric defense, they began using these same weapons offensively, in order to hunt.
They enjoyed the most successful hunts when they cooperated, communicated and coordinated, imagining future scenarios, strategizing and planning together. This required sharper cognition.
They traded brawn for brain.
And so an unprecedented cognitive revolution began, one that made humans the most remarkable species the world has ever seen.
In today’s episode, psychology professor Bill von Hippel explains the evolutionary science behind how we’re hardwired as humans.
We’re wired to be social, to connect, to communicate and cooperate.
We’re wired to want to learn and teach, to build a collective body of knowledge that stretches beyond what any single individual could ever learn in their lifetime.
We’re wired to feel surges of happiness that fade, so that we’re intrinsically motivated to keep repeating behaviors that lead to additional surges of happiness.
Once we understand the evolutionary science behind what makes us happy, Dr. von Hippel explains, we can apply this knowledge to making better decisions for our work, money and lives.
Bill von Hippel is a graduate of Yale University and the University of Michigan. He’s currently a psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Australia. He joins us to share his insights into the history and science of happiness.