is life so full of suffering?"
It is a bit embarrassing to admit a preoccupation with this gigantic
old question, but it is human, I suppose. Tackling it straight on seems
to be an exercise in hubris, but if you stick to science, you soon realize
that we are still struggling to figure out what the question is. It
helps, I think, to distinguish four separate questions.
The first question is why capacities for suffering exist at all. Why
do organisms care if they are injured? Why do they try so hard to avoid
dying? Why do they fight just to have sex? Why do we experience a certain
kind of pain just from being ignored? Such motives, behaviors, and experiences
are made possible by brain mechanisms shaped by natural selection. While
many individual experiences of suffering arise because something has
gone wrong, either in person's life or brain, the capacities for suffering
and pleasure exist because they are useful, at least for the genes that
make them possible. This is terribly sobering. Many people still confuse
the question of why capacities for suffering exist, with the very different
question of what causes suffering in individual instances. I have called
this the "clinician's fallacy" because doctors and therapists
so often treat defenses as if they were diseases. Eventually the distinction
will become clear.
The second question is why we so often continue to do things that make
us miserable. Why do we pursue goals we can't reach given that this
causes so much unhappiness? Why we can't take Buddha's advice and transcend
our desires? The answer is that people who have given up difficult goals
have had fewer children. These goals are not just wealth, power and
sex. Trying without success to protect and help one's children causes
intense suffering and everyone recognizes why we can't give up this
goal. The evolutionary origins of our motives do not make us helpless
puppets but they can help us to understand why controlling our desires
The third question is why we treat others the way we do. It is silly
to say that people are innately generous or selfish, but the fact of
poverty is universal. I spent this week on call where the truth hits
you in the face; for all the riches of our society, millions of people
have no job, no money, few friends and not even a warm place to sleep.
Politicians enact policies that make it even easier for the rich to
keep their riches. This is nothing new, but neither is it unalterable.
Any improvement, however, needs to start from the realities of human
The fourth question is very different. The other three ask why people
are mostly the same, but this one instead asks why people are different.
The explanations for differences in suffering include differences in
genes, experiences, personalities, and social settings. Most of our
efforts to understand suffering have been here. This research provides
genuine knowledge, but only part of a complete answer.
Big problems often motivate proposals for grand quick solutions that
give rise to horrendous unanticipated consequences. A gradual deepening
of our evolutionary understanding of ourselves offers more modest but
surer hope. Many misgivings about evolutionary approaches to human behavior
come from a simple misconception. Natural selection explains how the
competitive struggles of life shaped us, but this does not mean that
life is only a struggle nor does not mean that life cannot be made better.
Quite the contrary. If we want to prevent social catastrophes and gradually
improve our world, we had better start with a real understanding of
why we are the way we are. Negative psychology tells us why some people
are unhappy and how bad this is for them. In another corner, positive
psychology tells us why some people are happier than others and how
good this is for them. What we need now is "diagonal psychology"
that investigates the costs of experiencing positive emotions when they
are not warranted, and the benefits of capacities for suffering. This
will offer a real foundation for understanding why the world is so full
Randolph M. Nesse is Professor
of Psychiatry and Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan
and editor of Evolution and the Capacity for Commitment.