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What Evolutionary Psychology, Buddhism, and Happiness Have in Common

Happiness Psychology
What Evolutionary Psychology, Buddhism, and Happiness Have in Common

Robert Wright is the visiting professor of science and religion at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan and the New York Times bestselling author of four books, including The Moral Animal and Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. He sat down with Sam Mowe, the editor of Lineages, to talk about the relationship between natural selection and suffering, how evolutionary psychology supports the Buddhist idea of not-self, and how meditation can lead to everything from stress reduction to an understanding of Buddhism’s most radical philosophical concepts.

Sam: Why Buddhism is True is a bold title. Let’s start by clarifying what you mean by both “Buddhism” and “True.” What Buddhist tradition are you writing about?

Robert: If you had to really boil down the Buddhist claim that I’m defending, it’s that the reason we suffer—and the reason we make other people suffer—is that we don’t see the world clearly. We have illusions about ourselves, other people, and the world. Buddhism posits that we tend to misperceive fundamental aspects of our existence.

Of course, there are a lot of different Buddhist traditions, but I’ve tried to focus on elements that are found across the great bulk of Buddhist traditions—for example, not-self and emptinessNot-self is the idea that the self, in some sense, doesn’t really exist and emptiness is the idea that things don’t possess the essences that we usually attribute to them. With both of these ideas, I think modern psychology—and, in particular, evolutionary psychology—is on my side in defending at least some version of them.

Sam: Is that what you mean when you say that Buddhism is true—that certain Buddhist ideas are corroborated by modern psychology? And, since it gets special emphasis in the book, it might be helpful if you can explain what evolutionary psychology is.

Robert: Evolutionary psychology is the study of how the human mind came to be the way it is as a result of natural selection. In writing my book about evolutionary psychology, The Moral Animal, I became convinced of two things: that the mind was not designed to see the world clearly and that we weren’t designed to be happy. Yes, in some cases, the mind does a good job of perceiving the everyday world, but that was not the bottom-line criterion of natural selection. The bottom-line criterion in natural selection is to favor traits that do a good job of getting genes into the next generation. And if having illusions about yourself or other people will help get genes into the next generation, then natural selection will favor a tendency toward illusion. This has an obvious connection to Buddhism, since Buddhism holds that we indeed tend to suffer from illusion unless we work to dispel it.

The other takeaway from evolutionary psychology, that we weren’t designed to be happy, also has a clear connection to Buddhism. We were designed to have recurring dissatisfaction with the state of things and to suffer in specific ways because emotions like fear, sadness, and anxiety can help us get our genes into the next generation. For example, being anxious about our social standing seems to have been favored by natural selection because being held in high esteem was correlated, during evolution, with getting genes into the next generation.

“One reason we suffer is that we don’t really see and live in accordance with the reality of impermanence.”

Finally, I would say that not only does evolutionary psychology corroborate the Buddhist ideas that we suffer and that we tend to not see the world clearly; I think it also supports the Buddhist idea that there’s a connection between these two things.

Sam: How so?

Robert: Well, for instance, there’s the Buddhist idea that one reason we suffer is that we don’t really see and live in accordance with the reality of impermanence. For example, we don’t recognize that gratification is impermanent. The happiness we get upon attaining some goal—eating some food, having sex, or whatever—tends to evaporate fairly quickly. Evolutionary psychology, I think, gives us a pretty plausible explanation of why this happens: if it didn’t, then animals wouldn’t keep pursuing their goals of eating and having more sex. And, of course, those are things that are part of getting genes into the next generation.

In other words, suffering is conducive to genetic proliferation and so suffering is built into us. From this perspective, it makes sense that we would be engineered to focus more on the gratification that reaching a given goal is going to bring rather than on the fact that the gratification is going to evaporate and leave us restless and unhappy afterwards. This kind of suffering is very subtly and deeply built into us.

Sam: Would you say that all dukkha or suffering can be attributed to natural selection?

Robert: I would say all suffering is the result of natural selection only if you include things that are the result of natural selection in a very indirect way. A certain amount of the suffering we experience was not “intended” by natural selection. (Whenever I personify natural selection by saying it designs things or intends things, I, of course, have to use quotes because it’s not a conscious process.) In the modern environment, we encounter situations that were not part of the environment in which humans evolved. So things like public speaking induce anxiety in a lot of people—and even to a clearly counterproductive extent, like when you can’t sleep the night before a presentation—but, of course, there weren’t big public talks in our natural environment. We’re just not designed to deal with that kind of situation at all.

In the public speaking example, there’s a form of suffering that would be natural in hunter-gather societies—anxiety—but it is evoked in a novel way that was not “intended” by natural selection. So, while it’s connected to natural selection, you wouldn’t say that this suffering is some kind of direct product of natural selection.

“Suffering is conducive to genetic proliferation and so suffering is built into us.”

Sam: Can you give an example of dukkha or suffering when it’s functioning as natural selection “intended”?

Robert: Yes. Say you’re hiking and you know that there are poisonous snakes around. Every time you hear a rustling in the underbrush you will feel a surge of fear and you become more alert. That fear is suffering, but it’s suffering that’s functioning as “designed.” Of course, there might not even be a snake there so your fear can be the result of an illusion. That’s a case where natural selection favors a false positive, so to speak, on the grounds that you’re better safe than sorry.

So I would distinguish between times we suffer when we are operating as “designed,” so to speak, and times we suffer when what we’re experiencing is a natural form of suffering misfiring because of the environment we’re in.

Sam: You mentioned that one of the Buddhist ideas you defend in the book is not-self—the claim that, in some sense, the self doesn’t really exist. Can you say more about not-self?

Robert: Not-self is both a metaphysical and a moral claim. As for the metaphysical dimension of the claim—or, if you prefer, the psychological dimension—there is a lot of evidence in psychology that our intuitions about the self are just wrong. We tend to think of the self as a kind of conscious CEO, thinking thoughts and making decisions, yet there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that human consciousness is more like an observer of the thoughts and decisions that are unconsciously generated. But we are under the impression that consciousness is the generator. It’s like a passenger of a plane thinking that he or she is flying the plane.

There’s actual experimental evidence showing that people make up stories about why they did certain things and then they believe the stories. So they’re making up stories on an unconscious level. We also tend to think we’re very good people, better than average. It can’t really be the case that most people are better than average morally, and yet study after study shows that most people think they are. We have these kinds of basic misconceptions about ourselves. We believe there’s more in the way of a “CEO self” than there is, and we’re inclined to think that this “self” is an exemplary citizen.

Sam: How can Buddhist practice help us see through some of our basic misconceptions about ourselves and the world?

Robert: I think that by quieting the mind sufficiently you actually start liberating yourself from some of the mechanisms of distortion that natural selection built in. When I say that, I’m thinking particularly of feelings. Beginning with just aversion and grasping—the basic dichotomy between avoidance and approach—and building all the way up to the complex emotions, I think all of these things are natural selection’s way of controlling our perceptions and our thoughts. So, for example, feelings of dislike for a rival color our moral evaluation of them, leading us to judge them more harshly than we otherwise would. So it stands to reason that if you have a meditative practice that lets you start seeing things without such pervasive influence from feelings and emotions, you would start seeing things more clearly, because you’re escaping the fundamental mechanism of delusion.

“By quieting the mind sufficiently you actually start liberating yourself from some of the mechanisms of distortion that natural selection built in.”

Sam: While you are only interested in what you describe as the “naturalistic parts” of Buddhism, you engage with Buddhist meditation in a way that goes beyond those who see it mostly as a palliative technique or productivity tool. Meditation for you is a way to pursue enlightenment or, at least, a way to become more enlightened.

Robert: Yes, that’s right. Although, I also wanted to draw a connection between those two things. In other words, I wanted to convince people that, even if their practice is basically therapeutic—they’re just using meditation for stress reduction or something—they may be on the path to a deeper exploration that can be enlightening. I think, for example, if you change the way you relate to your anxiety in such a way that you’re no longer identifying with it, then I think you could see that as an incremental realization of not-self.

In fact, this view is consistent with the spirit of what the Buddha said in his Discourse on Not-Self. He goes through the different parts of the mind and basically says: “Does it really make sense to view this part of the mind as part of yourself? You can’t control it. It leads to affliction. Do yourself a favor and don’t think of it as yourself.”  And yet, by the end of the Discourse, he says: “And if you do this with everything you had previously considered yourself, you will have achieved complete liberation.”

I think some people may be fortunate enough to have spontaneous awakenings of various kinds and just suddenly have the experience of not-self; I envy them. But, I think, for most people, it’s going to be more incremental than that. I think there can be a direct connection between the kind of practice that’s sometimes dismissed as merely therapeutic and the kind that’s deeply spiritual and philosophical.

Sam: How has having a meditation practice changed your own life?

Robert: Well, on the one hand, it has helped me deal with anxiety and also with stress. At the end of the day, if I’m feeling stressed out, I’ll sit down and meditate for a while. But, at the same time, I have seen how doing that can lead to something deeper, especially when on retreat.

While on retreat, I’ve occasionally had the experience that the bounds of myself had dissolved. As I described one experience in Why Buddhism is True, I felt that a bird singing outside the meditation hall was no less a part of me than a tingling in my foot. If you look at what paved the way for that experience, I think a big part of it is viewing various things that I normally think of as part of myself with less attachment. The interior of my mind was feeling more diffuse than usual, was feeling less aggregated than usual, precisely because I was not closely identifying with it. And I think that’s one reason there seemed to be more continuity between what I normally think of as the interior of me and what I normally think of as the exterior. This made it harder to say where my “self” ended and the world out there began.

“I felt that a bird singing outside the meditation hall was no less a part of me than a tingling in my foot.”

I think this is morally significant, by the way. To the extent that you don’t see a big boundary between you and the world out there, you’re probably going to see less of a moral distinction between your welfare and the welfare of beings out there. And, of course, this is part of Buddhist teaching: there can be a connection between the experiential apprehension of not-self and becoming more selfless in the moral sense of the term.

Sam: You suggest that this is one of Buddhism’s most remarkable claims: that seeing the truth of things will also make you a good person.

Robert: Yes, I think this claim is underappreciated. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the truth about reality naturally converges with your happiness and moral truth? When you think about it, that’s the Buddhist claim. As you see things more clearly, you’ll suffer less, and you’ll also be less of a jerk. That’s an incredible claim about the very structure of reality.

Sam: In the book, you make both intellectual arguments and experiential arguments to support your case. The intellectual arguments rest primarily on the findings of modern psychology and the experiential arguments come from your personal experience meditating. Can you talk about the relationship between these different kinds of evidence?

Robert: Well, I didn’t want to rely too much on my own reports of my own experiences. I use them to supplement, and hopefully enrich, the argument I make in the book. But I hope that the basic argument could be appraised by someone who’s never meditated. It doesn’t depend on your having had some particular set of experiences.

It is a really interesting feature of Buddhist history that, on the one hand, Buddhist philosophers argue their propositions the way Western philosophers do and, on the other hand, they also believe that the truths can be directly, experientially apprehended. Because to just buy the intellectual arguments is definitely not the same thing as, in a sense, feeling the truth of these things. I mean, of course I can’t personally say that I’ve had the depth of apprehension of certain ideas that more adept meditators have had, but I’ve had enough brushes with some insights, especially while on retreat, to get a sense for what it’s like. And I think I can safely say that accepting the intellectual arguments is not the same thing as experiencing the truth.

My hope is that the arguments in Why Buddhism is True—and in particular the explanations for why natural selection built the mind to be the way it is—will make people more inclined to explore these things meditatively. Perhaps people who have never meditated might be tempted. But I hope also that people who already meditate and get some therapeutic benefit out of it, but haven’t really taken the enlightening aspects of meditation all that seriously, might now be inclined to pursue the practice more intensively.


This conversation originally appeared on the Garrison Institute’s blog. The mission of the Garrison Institute is to demonstrate and disseminate the importance of contemplative practices and spiritually grounded values in building sustainable movements for a healthier, safer, and more compassionate world.

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