When faced with problems or difficulties, are you usually one to become moody and discouraged, or are you ready to take on any challenges with a positive attitude?

According to a study by Cornell researchers, the people who fall in the latter category hold an evolutionary advantage.

Using a computational model, the researchers simulated generations of evolution and found evidence to support ancient philosophical teachings from India, Greece and China, many of which endorsed pursuing long-term life satisfaction over instant gratification.

“In an evolutionary sense, you have to evaluate your life on the basis of more than what happened just now,” said Shimon Edelman, professor of psychology at the university and a co-author of the study, along with computer science doctoral candidate Yue Gao.

Edelman and Gao found that the “agents”, or simulated actors, that placed more importance on long-term happiness compared to momentary happiness were the ones more likely to survive and produce offspring, especially in times of food scarcity.

They were also able to recall and hold on to happy moments from the past for a longer period of time compared to others.

Those who had a more positive outlook also tended to be more evolutionarily fit, something which was not affected by the abundance or lack of food, meaning that in times of difficulty, these agents were able carry on, thanks to their focus on the upswings in life rather than the downswings.

In the simulation, the counterparts that prioritized short-term happiness and had a negative attitude were the ones to die off, particularly the green-eyed folks who liked to compare their food resources with their friends’ – they were found to do even worse when food was plentiful.

“It may indeed be advisable, at least under conditions of scarcity or adversity, to focus on longer-term well-being or contentment over momentary pleasures and to be less envious of one’s neighbors. Also, in general, it may be wise to mark happy events more than unhappy ones,” Edelman said.

The study used an integrative computational framework to understand how the brain/mind works, whereby minds are seen as a network of computational processes that are carried out by brains.

Edelman said that the study’s hypothesis asked whether “giving more weight to long-term considerations, like life satisfaction, or at least a longer period than just right now, would be advantageous – at least in some conditions.”

The study, entitled “Between Pleasure and Contentment: Evolutionary Dynamics of Some Possible Parameters of Happiness”, saw the researchers creating an algorithm involving agents that possessed various combinations of traits, including positive or negative outlooks, an emphasis on either short-term (hedonic) or long-term (eudaimonic) happiness, and a tendency or an aversion to comparing performance to that of friends.

These agents were then made to forage for food in four types of simulated terrains with different distributions of food over six experiments. In every experiment, each environment was populated with 400 agents per generation for 40 generations; each of the six experiments were then repeated 10 times.

At the end of each experiment, agents in the top 50 percent were chosen to produce offspring for the next generation of agents, while those in the bottom half were eliminated.

The findings revealed that the only time that those with a more cautious outlook did better evolutionarily was in a harsh terrain, as poison was distributed along with food.

When asked to sum up the study’s findings, Edelman had this to say: “Know thyself.”

“Instead of relying blindly on advice from self-help authors about how to be happy, get to know yourself – what your brain/mind is like, how it works and how it interacts with the world – and you’ll be in a better position to decide for yourself,” he advised.

So rather than the meek, perhaps it’s the cheerful ones who will inherit the earth instead.

image via pixabay

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