Rousseau, Happiness and Human Nature



In the eighteenth century, Rousseau argued that the principal source of human unhappiness was our tendency to make invidious comparisons when humans were forced to cooperate in the pre-social state of nature. This increased proximity fuelled a desire for status and relative position which is the main source of the unhappiness in modern civilisation. I argue, first, that there is now substantial evidence supporting Rousseau's view that status matters much more to individuals than do absolute levels of wealth. However, I also argue that there is mounting evidence that Rousseau failed to appreciate the extent to which our desire for status is natural. According to some evolutionary biologists, human beings evolved in an environment of scarcity and resource competition, where each individual's position was closely linked to his or her prospects for survival and reproductive success. Consequently, we are adapted by evolution to compete for status and relative position, which leads to a situation in which most people end up less happy.