How to be happier by learning from animals – live in the moment, don’t care what others think, and don’t worry about death
- Animals may sometimes be better off because they don’t possess our particular form of intelligence, author Justin Gregg says
- If we live more in the moment, we might be satisfied with what we have now and not be plagued with thoughts about finding meaning in life, he says
Although human intelligence has played a central role in the evolution of our species, it also has some negative effects. Animals may sometimes be better off because they don’t possess our particular form of it.
So believes Justin Gregg, who made his name with the book Are Dolphins Really Smart?, which investigated commonly held beliefs about dolphin intelligence.
Gregg is a senior research assistant with the Dolphin Communication Project, a non-profit based in the US state of Florida that studies dolphins and promotes their conservation. He also lectures on animal behaviour and cognition at St Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada.
In his new book, If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal, he continues to explore the theme of intelligence – this time, putting humans under the microscope.
The book is subtitled: “What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity.”
“Humans have a few traits that have made us strangely successful. Those abilities are things that animals don’t have,” Gregg says from his home in Nova Scotia.
“We are always trying to find out what other people are thinking, and animals don’t do that. Animals also don’t concern themselves with why things happen.”
These two skills allow humans to make complex assumptions about how the future will unfold, but such assumptions generally turn out to be wrong due to swathes of missing information and the role of chance, he says.
“Animals do think a little bit about the future and the past, so they don’t live fully in the moment,” Gregg says. “But humans live very much not in the moment.
“We are very concerned with thinking about our future and planning for it, to the point that we will try to plan what happens after we die.”
That is not always beneficial, Gregg says.
“A lot of pleasure and a lot of good comes out of thinking about the future, but it can be destructive, too.
“In a world where people were truly inclined to live in the moment, in a Buddhist kind of way, and were less concerned with thinking about the future, perhaps they would be a little more satisfied with what they have,” he says.
“Or at least a little less nihilistic and miserable.”
Intelligence is a difficult quality to define and the scientific community has no standardised definition of it.
It is generally thought to involve collecting useful information and then making a plan to act on it, but there are many variations on this theme.
“Human intelligence is not a single thing, it’s a combination of cognitive skills that arose during evolution,” Gregg says. “This weird combination of cognitive skills makes us different.
“These cognitive skills do resemble those that you see in other species. But the human versions are more sophisticated, and make up the intelligence that we recognise as human.
“We have an understanding of causality … of why things happen. Put that together with the theory of mind [the knowledge that other individuals also have minds and act independently of us], and the human capacity for language, and suddenly you have a combination that allows us to do really complicated things that animals can’t do.”
Our knowledge that we are going to die someday shapes the way we look at the world, Gregg says. Animals do have some kind of knowledge about the death of others, but they don’t know that they are going to die themselves.
The human obsession with trying to find meaning in our lives stems from this knowledge, Gregg says.
“Animals probably do not search for meaning,” Gregg says. “Because they lack ‘death wisdom’, that is, the knowledge of their own inevitable demise, it’s unlikely that they are looking for meaning – they aren’t plagued by those kind of thoughts.
“Whether the search for meaning is good or bad is a subject of debate. A lot of beautiful things come out of our death knowledge, and our subsequent search for meaning – art, music, everything that’s amazing.”
Looking for meaning also makes people act badly towards each other.
“People and societies tend to take the moral high ground when they think that they have found the best way to live. If that way is different to the ideas of another group, conflict ensues.”
The wars between religions throughout history are a powerful example of how our search for meaning can turn destructive, he says. Animals, after all, don’t go to war.
That’s not to say that animals live in a peaceful paradise. Nature is vicious, Gregg says.
“Any species, especially if it’s mammalian, has to deal with other species, and those relationships are generally antagonistic. You are either food, or you are going to eat something.
“Being peaceful, in the sense that everyone gets along, is not really part of nature.”
Humans are also a violent species, and we fit neatly into nature’s struggles, Gregg says. “Humans are just so good at being destructive!”
Our violent disposition may be due to us evolving from chimpanzees, which maim and kill members of competing chimpanzee social groups to demonstrate social dominance, Gregg says.
“Chimpanzees are quite destructive, but bonobos aren’t. If we had evolved from a different species, we may not have been so destructive,” he says.
Do animals feel more happiness than humans? Like intelligence, happiness is a difficult quality to define, but psychologists have come up with some workable definitions.
“Animals do feel a kind of low-level happiness similar to the way we feel pleasure,” Gregg says.
The ability to gain a high-level state of happiness by philosophising about the meaning of life is certainly real for humans, but on a day-to-day basis, most of our pleasures come from simple pursuits like drinking a cool glass of lemonade on a hot day, he says.
Animals can relate to that feeling when their daily needs are met.
“Pleasure is a part of all biological systems, and happiness and pleasure is what drives an animal to do anything,” he says.
“Animals are riddled with emotions. They feel emotions all the time, and that is what drives their behaviour.
The difference is that human intelligence has equipped us with the capacity to assess our own levels of happiness in an abstract form, he says, something that animals are not able to do.
Many people outside the scientific community still refuse to believe that humans have any mental similarities with animals, and some refuse to believe that we are actually part of the animal world at all, Gregg says.
“People who come from Christian or Judaic traditions often don’t want to believe that,” he says.
“The ancient Greeks held that belief, and it made its way into Christian thought. Our secular society has come out of the Christian tradition, and I have friends who are not Christian but still believe there is something different about humans.
“In other cultures around the world, or indigenous cultures here in Canada, there isn’t the same differentiation. They feel that we are all cut from the same cloth.”
Even though there may be something to learn from the animal world about some of the stupid things we do, Gregg cautions against looking at animals and animal societies for life lessons.
“It’s mainly blood, tooth and claw,” he says. “It’s a tough life.”