The Evolution of Happiness

What is the origin of the smile? I cannot be the only one who has been enchanted by the subtle charm of someone’s lips turning upward, inching into the familiar frame of what we have all come to interpret as the universal indication of happiness. Yet this badge that we bear each day, sometimes without a conscious thought, has to have some evolutionary meaning, as all things do to have made it this far in the game. My theory depicts two cavemen, or even more primitive creatures, perhaps playing a friendly match of prehistoric Ping-Pong, when Ut hits his buddy Oof in the face with the ball which amuses him very much. Suddenly, an instinctual impulse compels Ut to contort his facial muscles into a grimace-like structure, bearing his teeth and setting his eyes aglow with pleasant warmth.

The first smile. And somehow, due to some twist of fate, Oof knew exactly what it meant. Of course, I am no paleoanthrohistoriopologist, and that is not a true account of the origin of the smile. However, it is probably not far off from the truth for, by definition, a theory can only be so accurate. Whatever its origins may be, the smile changed the course of history.

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My age group, a faction of the late 20th century born millennials, consists of those of us who established ourselves in the Nineties and now dwell amongst the generational potpourri of youth, adults, and seniors in that awkward transitional phase between childhood and the adult world. To the youngsters who have not yet escaped the claws of puberty, we are viewed as the Wise Ones; we know what to do, how to do it, and why we’re doing it. To our elders, we are self-indulgent, self-absorbed, and self-everything. There is little to contradict their statements that portray us as naive and narcissistic, for the internet era has made it easy to find obsession in how we look, dress, talk, eat, and live. This pressure encourages today’s teenagers to retract socially from their families and peers, with the excuse of being active in social media.

In tandem with this, college enrollment has increased in the past fifty years and stretched to a record high. Some school districts are bulking up their curriculums and condensing them to the point where a month’s worth of information is compacted into a single day’s lesson. Students are not only engulfed in the warp of what’s trending online but also caught in the downpour of the academic storm. In this jumble of daily distractions, all foresight has been lost; students have ceased to see the future that lies ahead. Instead of perceiving the lives we will lead after high school, it is stamped in our minds that if we don’t get it right in these first eighteen years, we will never find success.

We have lost touch with reality, and as the first generation to grow up in the age of technology and connection, we couldn’t be more disconnected. I am not suggesting that a mere smile can contribute to the history and the reputation of our generation. A smile is not happiness; it is purely a symptom of happiness. It is what lies beneath the smile, and what it means to be content with ourselves and our surroundings that can make the world view us as promising adults entering reality as their equals. We do not need to stack AP courses like Jenga pieces, because the imminent crash is psychologically detrimental to a teenager who has not developed the resilience to handle defeat.

The only change we millennials can benefit from is an attitude adjustment because we have come to accept that we are a gift to this massive planet, instead of the reverse. Why we inhabit this colossal beauty is still unknown, but until it is known, it is our duty to appreciate the myths and mysteries in the periphery of our stress-infused lives. Twitter and Facebook allow us to smother one another with relentless updates on our thoughts, our activities, and our appearances. These serve as an alternative to living; instead of keeping moments sacred in our memories, we feel the compulsive need to document our each and every action until we are completely withdrawn from society and orbiting nothing but ourselves.

Academic demand swells the problem even more, as college applications and challenging courses drive students into the ground, buried under a heaping pile of commitments. These two factors blended together make for a lethal recipe that is poisoning our school environment. As our student careers chug along the tracks bound for adulthood, we forget to glance out the window and appreciate what’s passing us by. Swarmed by overwhelming stress to conform, we buy the same clothes as our peers, mimic each other’s speech like well-trained parrots, and shelter the parts of us that are most different, and most valuable. We hide ourselves. In a 2012 release, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration stated that teen depression triples in girls ages 12-17.

Hollywood portrays high school as the Emerald City where everyone flourishes and lunch periods are jazzed up with musical numbers and choreography. The TV screen tells us that everyone has a niche, yet somehow each clique manages to coexist peacefully and without judgment. In reality, pulling back the curtain would reveal the daunting stacks of obligations and peer scrutiny that strike like a blow to the gut each year that students progress through the grades. High school isn’t what Disney channel led us to believe and, in turn, students have been stripped of our ability to envision the big picture and to look beyond what weighs us down in these early years. We have forgotten how to truly smile.

There is something infinite about being young. Toddlers wake up with a silly grin because for all they know, the world exists solely for their entertainment. There is logic behind the video craze on babies laughing; it’s contagious. Infants have no worries since they have nothing that prohibits them from seeing a spoon and giggling about it for the next forty-five minutes. That is what I long for: that everyone may pry themselves away from their lives and be able to devote some time to laugh at a spoon with a baby.

Yet these are all simply hopes, and it is foolish to believe these minor optimisms I have dug from the depths of my consciousness will inspire a generation of youth, and perhaps a bit unrealistic to expect us to expand our awareness of humanity’s existence. It is natural to succumb to distractions, but no piece of technology is an excuse for an epidemic of narcissism. Adolescence will never be Disney Channel nor will it prove to be glamorous like the Emerald City, but that is what we must learn to earn passage into our adult lives. If every trait our species has inherited is a result of natural selection, then grins and giggles and laughs exist for a reason. The endorphins we gain from happiness are the fuel that keeps us from breaking down when we encounter bumps along the road. Petty happenings in one individual’s life pale in comparison to what the effect would be of an entire world of smiles.

This planet is our home and Dorothy had it right: there’s no place like home.