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People are happy when they are "in control", that is, when they feel competent to satisfy their needs and reach their goals

The utilitarians have posited the basic value or goal that society should strive for as "the greatest happiness for the greatest number". However, how to create such happiness remains one of the eternal philosophical questions. Different philosophers have proposed the most diverse answers to that question. The only thing most of these answers seem to have in common is that they are so vague or ambiguous that you cannot test them out in practice. Insofar that some of these utopian views of the ideal society or way of life have been realized, for example in communism, they have generally turned out to be disastrously wrong.

Our evolutionary-cybernetic philosophy, on the other hand, proposes an answer which seems both theoretically well-founded and in good agreement with psychological and sociological observations of the factors that correlate with happiness. We will first sketch the theoretical argument, then review the empirical evidence.

The evolutionary-cybernetic theory of happiness

In an evolutionary world view, the basic value is fitness. Fitness is the capacity to survive and reproduce in a given environment. Cybernetics adds that for living systems, fitness is in the first place achieved through control, that is, the capacity to counteract deviations from the goal state in which the system can optimally survive. Such deviations are for example lack of nutrients, too high or too low temperature, or damage to the organism. When the organisms deviates too much from the goal state it cannot survive. Therefore, it must remain in the vicinity of that state. The different variables defining the optimal state can therefore be seen as intrinsic needs. The better the control an organism has over its situation, the more perturbations it can survive, and thus the higher its fitness. Control does not only take into account the present situation, but its likely evolution, by anticipating further deviations. Anticipation requires knowledge of cause and effect relations, and therefore control is the basis for cognition (see the law of Requisite Knowledge).

We can define momentary happiness as pleasant feeling or the subjective experience of well-being. Long term happiness then corresponds to the preponderance of pleasant feelings over a prolonged period. This corresponds to the degree to which people feel satisfied with their life as a whole. Though not exactly the same, this sense of happiness is nearly synonymous with life-satisfaction, quality-of-life, or even "self-actualization" (Heylighen, 1992).

An evolutionary theory of happiness must clarify the connection between the objective property of fitness and the subjective experience of feeling well. Biologically, feelings function to orient an organism away from dangerous situations (signalled by unpleasant affects such as fear, hunger or pain), and towards positive situations (signalled by positive affects, such as enjoyment, love, satisfaction). Thus, feelings play the role of vicarious selectors: they select appropriate actions, such as drinking when thirsty, and reject inappropriate actions, such as touching a flame, thus substituting for natural selection. Therefore, positive feelings will normally indicate that the organism is approaching the optimal state.

Happiness can therefore be seen as an indication that a person is biologically fit (near to the optimal state) and cognitively in control (capable of counteracting eventual deviations from that optimal state), in other words that he or she can satisfy all basic needs, in spite of possible perturbations from the environment. Such control over one's situation has three components (Heylighen, 1992):

material competence:
you must have the necessary resources or opportunities to satisfy your needs. You cannot quench your thirst without water, or satisfy your need for social contact when you are marooned on an uninhabited island.
cognitive competence:
it is not sufficient that the needed resources are there, you must also be able to find them, recognize them and apply them effectively. Except in trivial cases, need satisfaction demands problem-solving skills, i.e. knowledge, intelligence and creativity.
subjective competence:
it is not sufficient that the resources are there, and that you are capable to find them, you must also believe in your own problem-solving capacity. Otherwise you would not be motivated to do the necessary effort.
The problem of promoting happiness then simply reduces to promoting material competence (by providing resources and opportunities), cognitive competence (by education in the broadest sense, and by cognitive aids such as computers), and subjective competence (by making people feel that they are competent or "in control") (cf. Heylighen, 1992).

Empirical confirmation of the theory

The cybernetic theory of happiness says that the presence of these three components is a necessary and sufficient condition for well-being. Let us now look at the empirical data to see in how far this hypothesis is confirmed. The sociologist Ruut Veenhoven has created an extensive World Database of Happiness, collecting the results of hundreds of studies in which people were asked how happy or how satisfied they are with their life. Veenhoven (1991, 1995) then studied the main factors that correlate with the resulting happiness scores. His first conclusion is that happiness is not relative or dependent on a purely subjective outlook, as some theories posit. Indeed, happiness can be rather accurately predicted on the basis of the objective "liveability" of the society in which the individual lives, and on the basis of his or her personal profile. Let us discuss the factors that have strong positive correlations with happiness. We will begin with the characteristic of societies where people tend to be happy:
(measured by average purchasing power). This is obviously an important measure of the material competence to satisfy basic needs. It is interesting to note that the correlation between purchasing power and happiness becomes less important for more wealthy societies, implying that once the basic material needs of nutrition and shelter are satisfied, further prosperity adds little to happiness.
access to knowledge
(measured by literacy, school enrolment and media attendance). This obviously reflects the component of cognitive competence.
personal freedom
people are more satisfied in societies which minimally restrict their freedom of action, in other words, where they are in control rather than being controlled. This is again a form of material competence.
this factor is somewhat less pronounced. Social inequality implies less control for those who are in the weaker position, and more risks of losing their privileges for those in the stronger position.
> On the individual level, the differences in happiness between people living in the same society depend on their situation and on their personal characteristics:
life-satisfaction tends to be larger among those that are in good physical and mental health. Inversely, happy people are much less likely to fall ill and die than unhappy people (Blakeslee & Grossarth-Maticek). This directly reflects the strong correlation between happiness and biological fitness.
psychological characteristics
happy people are characterized by the belief that they are able to control their situation, whereas unhappy people tend to believe that they are a toy of fate. This reflects what we have called subjective competence. Happy people are also more psychologically resilient, assertive, empathetic and open to experience. These are all features which, according to our theory of self-actualization (Heylighen, 1992), accompany the perceived competence to satisfy needs.
social position
happiness is more common among those that have intimate ties (e.g. marriage) and that participate in various organizations. This reflects the degree to which people manage to satisfy their social needs, and get better control of their own situation by relying on the support of others. Occupationally, happiness tends to be more common among professionals and managers, that is, people who are in control of the work they do, rather than subservient to their bosses.
happiness is clearly correlated with the presence of favorable events (such as promotion, marriage, etc. ) and the absence of troubles or bad luck (such as accidents, being laid off, conflicts, etc.). These events on their own signal the success or failure to reach one's goals, and therefore the control one has.
In conclusion, although these observations cannot prove that perceived competence to satisfy needs is necessary and sufficient for happiness, they do confirm the basic tenets of the evolutionary-cybernetic theory of happiness. Moreover, they clarify how happiness can be promoted in practice, namely by the promotion of wealth, education, freedom, equality, health, personal control, self-actualization and intimate relations.


Copyright© 1999 Principia Cybernetica - Referencing this page

F. Heylighen,

Jul 29, 1999 (modified)
Nov 5, 1997 (created)


Metasystem Transition Theory


Evolutionary Values

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