Updated: Aug 11, 2022
By Mike Jones, Better Happy Founder
Humans are an evolutionary species. By having a brief understanding of this we can better understand why we act, think and feel the way we do. More importantly for this article, we can understand how - in our modern developed world - the workplace is, contrary to popular belief, key to human happiness.
I believe the key to human health and happiness in the modern age lies in a combination of individual will and businesses being run in the right way.
Although we like to think we are each a completely rational being, that's untrue.
Our brains work in separate parts and although part of our brains do lead to us functioning rationally another part of our brain leads to us feeling and acting emotionally.
Much of the emotional hard wiring in our brains is the leftover developmental remnants of hundreds of thousands of years we spent as a hunter-gatherer species.
Due to the way we evolved we have developed certain subconscious needs. For most of human history those needs were met as a natural by-product of living, today they're not. As these needs are largely subconscious - combined with the fact they are no longer provided naturally - unless we develop a conscious understanding of them we run the risk of feeling unhappy and unfulfilled without being clear on why.
In this article, we'll explore how many of those needs can mainly be fulfilled through businesses in modern life and how that is only a good thing.
Let us start with where we are as a species.
The Big Picture
The way we live our lives today is unlike anything we've ever done before in our history as a human race. It's suggested that Homo Sapiens - that's our branch of human if you like - came on the scene around 200,000 years ago. In the image above every icon represents 1000 years of life. As you can see, for the majority of our existence - 95% - we have been hunter-gatherers.
Around 10,000 years ago we figured out that we could grow food and farm animals so we moved into the agricultural revolution. A lot happened since agriculture, but to keep things simple let's say that the next major change in the way we live our lives was the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution happened around 1750, just under 300 years ago. This accounts for so little of human time on this planet - 0.15% - it's difficult to show it on the first image.
This starts to give us scope as to just how new our lifestyles are in comparison to our total time alive as a species. But our lives today are drastically different to how they were during the agricultural revolution, so again let's zoom into the last 10,000 years of our time here.
Each icon in the image above accounts for 50 years of life over the past 10,000 years. As you can see, for 97% of the past 10,000 years humans have by and largely been farmers.
Around 300 years ago we went through the industrial revolution which created some major changes in the way we lived. Then in the last 50 years - plus or minus a little - we have embarked on the technological revolution. Technology has created the most significant changes to the way humans live their lives we have ever experienced in the entirety of our existence. This period of unprecedented change accounts for 0.5% of the last 10,000 years and 0.025% of Homo Sapien's 200,000 years of existence. The chances of you and I living in this particular time of human existence are so infinitesimally small I won't try to go into it.
But what on earth does this have to do with happiness and business you might be asking yourself by now.
The key summary points here are:
For most of our time alive as a species we have been hunter-gatherers
The way we live our lives now is unlike anything before in human history
We have evolved certain needs from our time as hunter-gatherers, many of which modern life doesn't provide naturally
Here is where things get interesting for businesses and people leaders. We will briefly explore some of the mental needs humans have developed over the past 200,000 years. In each case, we will find that modern life no longer fulfils those needs naturally, but businesses can. This can help you not only better understand yourself but better understand your people and become a more inspirational leader/business.
1. The need to belong to a tribe
Even the most introverted amongst us crave a level of human interaction. The worse punishment a prison imposes on inmates with nothing to lose is solitary confinement.
Each of us desires to belong to a great tribe where we fit in. Each of us has an understanding that loneliness is a bad thing. But why?
For hunter-gatherers belonging to a tribe meant survival, and loneliness meant death. Our desire to belong and avoid loneliness is a hardwired survival mechanism developed over hundreds of thousands of years.
For most of our lives, we've had no choice but to belong to a tribe of people that we get on and collaborate.
The scientific and technological developments we have been through - especially in the last 10 years - have, for the first time in human history, changed that.
Humans can now, for the first time, legitimately survive without being part of a tribe. What's more, wireless internet and social media are leading to masses of people becoming increasingly disconnected from the small tribes they are fortunate enough to have around such as their friends and family. In a world where we are increasingly connected digitally, we are decreasingly connected physically - and that's a problem.
Again up until recently it was the norm for the masses to fulfil their desire to belong to a community through religion - which might be why there is a lot of data suggesting that religious people report being happier and living longer. Religion is also something that has declined in the scientific and technological era for a variety of reasons. I do not doubt that humans will continue to argue for and against religion for as long as we're alive but one thing we can't deny about religion is that it is excellent at bringing communities together.
So how can/do modern humans fulfil their natural desire to belong? Increasingly through their work. People actively look for work where they feel they will belong.
This explains why a LinkedIn survey found that 9/10 of millennials would seriously consider taking a pay cut to work for a company that's mission and values align with their own. When we know a person or company's values are similar to our own we feel that we will fit in with them and therefore fulfil our need to belong.
Modern employees aren't just looking to work for a wage, they're looking to work for happiness through belonging.
2. The need for a unified goal/purpose
Humans feel happiest and fulfilled when they are working towards something meaningful with others. Even professionals that are notoriously introverted such as authors find fulfilment through knowing that people are reading their work.
If you doubt the efficacy that a unified goal has on human happiness think for a moment about the popularity around the world of football or sports in general. Millions of people that otherwise have no connection or common interests will squeeze together, hug, cry, laugh and cheer because they are connected through a unified goal. The wonderful spectrum of human emotions a sports fan goes through would be severely dissipated if they were the only person in the world watching.
This has again been hardwired in each of us throughout our evolution. For most of human history, groups of humans have worked together towards one major goal - survival and a better life. From an evolutionary perspective, it made complete sense for us to develop a deep desire to collaborate with others toward goals.
For those of us fortunate enough to be born into peaceful developed societies, survival is not something we have to worry about. Whilst this is of course a good thing it also presents a new challenge. The need for survival has been, for 99% of our existence, the thing that has pushed humans together to collaborate. Now that goal has gone and been replaced with comfort. The problem is we've not evolved in comfort. Comfort doesn't fulfil our deep hard-wired evolutionary desire to pursue meaningful goals with others and therefore in excess can lead to feelings of unfulfillment or depression.
What is something that most people have to do to survive in modern life? Work.
What do all businesses have that is pertinent to this point? A vision, a mission and goals. Not only do businesses fulfil the deep human desire for human connection, but they also provide a meaningful goal for those humans to work towards. As we have just discovered, this is key to human happiness. So the modern happy business doesn't just have a vision/mission and goals. It communicates them regularly to their people and shows them how they are contributing towards it.
3. The need to contribute through unique strengths
Each of us is unique. Not only would life be extremely boring if we were all the same, but we'd also be dead as the dodos - extinct. It's a variety of physical and mental strengths amongst us that has enabled us to thrive as a race.
The wider the variety of strengths in a tribe of hunter-gatherers the more likely their chances of survival. A tribe would have benefitted from some members being great at planning, some leading, some foraging, some physically strong, some fast, some light, some creative etc.
The strengths each of us is endowed with are gifts and we feel at our best when we get to help others by utilising our strengths. If I was a great thinker and I used my intellect to help my tribe solve a problem that meant we could make our food last for the winter, I'm going to feel great. If I was a great thinker and my tribe didn't listen to me but just put me on watch at night, I'm going to feel shoddy (and my tribe is going to go hungry over the winter).
For most of our history, working together toward the unified goal of survival our strengths would have come out naturally and been utilised. If we put 15 random people on a deserted island - minus any with psychological illnesses - with no other instruction than to survive, they would very soon be utilising their strengths - and feeling good about it.
Again in modern life, the need to discover and utilise individual strengths has dissipated. Although our school system is improving it's built on measuring children against one set standard. It's built on ensuring compliance with the one way of doing things. There's little room for individual creativity or self-discovery. Unfortunately, many of our businesses are still built on similar principles from the industrial period. During this time businesses didn't need creative happy people who utilised their strengths. They needed quiet, reliable conformists who could follow a set process.
Thanks to technology things look very different now. Technology has opened up the world of business. Consumers are no longer limited to the businesses within their geographical location but instead, have access to businesses throughout the globe. Anybody can start a business... quickly. All of these factors have changed the way businesses function and what they require of their people.
Due to the volume of competition and speed of change, businesses of today have to be agile. They have to embrace change and where possible be ahead of the curve. For this to happen they need teams of motivated engaged employees with a wide variety of personal strengths. Just like not so many years ago the tribe with the widest variety of strengths was most likely to prosper, today that goes for businesses and their employees. Modern businesses are positioned therefore not only as the best place for people to use their strengths but also as the place to help people discover them.
4. The need to feel value and purpose through our contributions
I was once serving in Afghanistan with the British military. I was fortunate enough to be attached to the Special Forces - you know, the guys they make films about. There was a special forces major, for this article I'll call him Tim, who had just finished talking to some of the Afghan soldiers we were training. As you can imagine they have had a very tough life and weren't particularly happy due to it. They left the conversation with Tim with huge smiles on their faces. Tim was one of the most respected people in the entire military, the guy that leads the best guys. I asked Tim what he had said to the Afghans to make them smile so much and with a straight but kind face he said to me "Mike, all anybody wants in life, including you and me, is to know they're doing a good job". Tim's words struck me deeply not because they were poetic but because he was such an inspiring leader, and this principle of his was so simple and true.
Our first point highlighted that humans have a desire to belong because for so long this meant survival. This is why we also crave recognition. Being ousted from the tribe meant death. So we evolved regularly comparing ourselves to others and seeking positive feedback to make sure we were fitting in. Considering this, it's not difficult to see why social media can create so many mental health challenges for us.
So, not only do we want to belong, we want to have a shared goal with those that we belong to, we want to utilise our unique strengths to contribute to that goal, and this final point highlights that we want to be recognised for doing so. It doesn't matter how emotionally strong you are, there is a deeply embedded part of all of us that craves recognition, that craves being let to know that we're doing a good job.
By now we all know that the perfect place in modern society for all of these things to happen is the workplace.
The modern business is ideally placed to support human happiness because for many, it is the only place they can fulfil their deeper human desires.
Our ancestors sacrificed so much to enrich those of us reading this article with a level of comfort never seen before.
The challenge they would not have foreseen was how the removal of most of life's common struggles would lead to masses of people living longer but unhappily.
We're at that place now, the evidence of which is all around us through epidemic levels of poor physical and mental health.
When understood, this is a huge opportunity to be grasped by businesses. Currently - 2022 at the time of writing - most businesses do not grasp this concept. Much of their foundations have been built on principles developed for and during the industrial revolution. These processes are very military in their design. They are top-down, not conducive to creativity, collaboration or human happiness. They were developed at a time when jobs were scarce and businesses needed masses of people to act as robots. The outcomes in a business relying on these outdated principles are visible throughout the UK. Low levels of employee engagement, high levels of employee turnover and absence, and lost productivity all leading to lost profits.
Shifting to a business conducive to happiness isn't easy but it's also not the hardest thing in the world. It's also exactly what any business needs to survive and thrive in the modern world.
Is your business contributing to your happiness and the happiness of your employees? It should be. If it's not, what needs to change, what deep evolutionarily developed human desire above are you not supporting and why?
Mike Jones Better Happy Founder
Mike founded Better Happy in 2018.
He now works with a variety of businesses ranging from small accountancies up to large organisations such as Travelodge on improving employee happiness. Mike's vision and the vision of Better Happy is 'Every employee happy, every business thriving'
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