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Evolution and Pleasure


Explanations > Emotions > Happiness > Evolution and Pleasure

Desire and reward | Temperament, mood and emotion | Particular pleasures | So what


What has evolution got to do with happiness and pleasure?

Desire and reward

The most fundamental purpose of pleasure is as a motivator in getting us to act in ways that serve our evolutionary purpose of propagating our genes in order to support survival of the species (and our kind in particular).

This can happen in two basic ways: desire and reward.

Desire makes us want. It pushes us into action. For survival and propagation it makes us ready to work hard and take risks in order to get food and shelter. Plus of course it motivates us to find and keep a mate.

Reward happens after we have complied with the motivation of desire. It includes the pleasure of feeling full after eating or satisfaction of having won a competition.

Desire is created by the neurotransmitter dopamine whilst reward is created by opiates.

Temperament, mood and emotion

There are different benefits to evolution in the three time-based emotions of temperament, mood and emotion.


Over the longer term, a person has a stable temperament that may be more positive or more negative, making them generally happy or generally depressive. This is a longer-term experiment by evolution to find how successful happy or depressive people are. The jury is still out on this as there is a fairly even spread of both.

However it seems likely that generally positive people will be more desirable company and more successful, so evolution should make us generally more and more positive. Yet being too positive makes us take risks and so the more negative caution can also be a successful strategy.


Mood is a shorter-term thing, for example lasting a day. This can be useful for lifting us when there are things to be done that need a positive approach. Sad days can be kept for when it is more beneficial that we conserve energy and reflect.


Shorter-term emotions such as joy are useful as simple rewards for a job well done.

Particular pleasures

Physical joys

There are pleasures in desiring and completing physical activities. Of course this includes sexual procreation, that most basic of evolutionary drives. Playing in competitive sports where physical abilities (useful for fighting and hunting) are honed is also very enjoyable.

Beauty and aesthetics

How does beauty benefit evolution?

Physical beauty of partners is related to their ability to support procreation. Men like such as firm breasts to feed the young and wider hips for sound birthing. Women like strength and power to protect and support themselves and their children. Both like health (clear eyes, clear skin and so on).

Producing beautiful things has long been a part of the courtship ritual, such as the carving of 'love spoons'. Even as far back as the pre-language homo erectus there is evidence of them carving many flint tools that were not actually used -- presumably to demonstrate competence in terms of motor control and determination.

Even landscapes are affected. It has been found that common landscape pictures are preferred even by those who live in different climes. These include trees with low forking (easier to climb), plains with clean water and docile animals (for food) and distant mountains (as protecting walls). Such scenes were common in the Pleistocene age where we evolved.

Social relationships

Much pleasure is gained in friendship and social relationships are very important to us. We are happiest in company where we feel a sense of belonging and where others admire us.

From an evolutionary viewpoint, living in tribes has proved particularly successful in the way we can share out the work and keep each other safe. For tribes to work it must feel good to help others and be a worthy citizen.

Knowing and learning

Knowledge, both know-what and know-how, helps you do things and live well in the world. It is hence not surprising that we feel good when we do something well and take professional pride in our jobs.

It also feels good when we realize some truth, experiencing that 'aha' moment as we learn something important. Learning often requires some risk so the brain rewards us with a shot of endorphins in congratulation not just for risking but for gaining something from this.

So what?

Understand nature's drivers and reward system that makes us feel good. Then use it to trigger and reward the actions you want.

See also

Motivation, Learning Theory, Needs


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