The more vital any behavior was to primal survival, the more intense the attraction imprinted in the human genome. So our primal preferences range over a spectrum, with attractions to food and drink and the reciprocal aversion to hunger and thirst among the most potent. At the other end of the spectrum would be preferences for touch, natural light, generosity and relaxation.
If you are like most people, you are aware of only your most potent primal affects. Their strength brings them to your consciousness. You know that eating is deeply satisfying and that loneliness is a downer. But the preferences closer to the mellow end of the spectrum can escape our awareness. We can grow to an old age and never discover them and their impact on our happiness.
There are two ways to get that knowledge. The first is experiential and the second intellectual. The first occurs when we have a primal experience and discover how wonderful it feels. For example, growing up in suburbia and lacking much contact with nature, I had no idea of my innate biophila, the love of living things, until my mother bought a small waterfront lot on a beautiful island in my teens. Without that early experience I might have missed out on decades of nature travel which has contributed immensely to my happiness. Similarly, only when I got my first massage in my twenties did I discover how much I liked human touch. The masseur was highly skilled and I was flooded with a profound sense of wellbeing as he worked my shoulders and legs. I’ve been a regular bodywork customer ever since.
In the primal era, the experiences triggering our likes and dislikes would have been a regular feature of life. Our ancestors’ primal preferences would have been constantly triggered and thus they would have been familiar with all of them. But modern society is dramatically different, and we can easily miss the experiences that help bring our primal nature to our consciousness.
Here is where out intellect can help out. By understanding affective evolution we can identify both positive and negative primal experiences; then we can go out and get the former and avoid the latter and actually feel the beneficial impact on our emotional state. Our thinking mind drives our emotional awareness.
But another feature of modern life may prevent that: conditions can invert our primal inclinations. We can learn to dislike the primal experiences our genes want and like experiences to which we are innately averse. Even powerful primal biases can be inverted like that.
The best example is sex. Because intercourse was essential for the perpetuation of the species, affective evolution ensured that our genes really like it. Most people recognize sexual activity as an intensely positive experience. Yet many unfortunate folks can learn to see it very negatively. For example, if they suffered sexual assault for years as a child or were raised in a sex-negative religion where even the slightest sexual expression was severely punished, they can emerge as adults with powerful aversions to sex. So they consciously avoid sexual activity and miss out on its many pleasures.
A more common example involves a less powerful primal bias, our attraction to movement. Most of us spend the bulk of our day sitting on our butts, at home, work, coffee shops, bars, and restaurants. To move lots takes energy and a fit body, but constant sitting makes us lazy and feeble. In that state the thought of physical activity pains us. Our lifestyle stamps a primal inversion in our mind. We now dislike an experience our genes evolved to enjoy. Sadly, modern life causes many such inversions and they are very difficult to erase because they are supported by entrenched habits that are much more powerful than the primal attraction they invert.
By not recognizing our primal predilections, or even worse, learning to invert them, we suffer a major loss in life happiness. Collectively our affective biases are responsible for most of our emotional wellbeing. There is no universal source of happiness other than the couple dozen generic primal experiences, which of course can occur in countless ways. So our primal attraction to movement can be satisfied by dancing or playing sports or bike riding or jogging or all of these and many more examples. To avoid this primal experience in all of its forms is to miss a major contribution to happiness. My work hopes to show that most of us lack much experience in many of the primal genres and are therefore less fulfilled than we could be.
If we have a range of primal preferences, is there an optimal balance in satisfying them? The principles of affective evolution suggest the answer. We nourish our emotional self best when our lifestyle contains the rough proportion of primal experiences that prevailed on the ancestral savannah. If for over 100,000 years humans survived doing a set of basic activities for fairly consistent lengths of time, then the ancients who preferred similar proportions of activity and time had a survival advantage. People who liked to wander all day would burn out. People who liked to rest all day would starve. But nomads who liked the primal mix would pass on their genes. And we got them. So if our ancestors spent 4-5 hours a day on their feet moving around their homeland, we should be physically active for that same amount of time. If they spent 8-10 hours sleeping and resting, we should as well. The closer our lifestyle mirrors the primal mix, the happier we will be.
Such a neo-primal lifestyle would not require us to live like nomads. That is neither possible nor desirable. Our ancestors had no antibiotics, wheels, writing, hospitals, pensions or any of the myriad wonderful things that civilization provides. Many features of modernity please our genes just as much as physical mobility and the other ancient experiences do. The neo-primal formula would simply guide us to the experiences both ancient and modern that we evolved to enjoy and away from the behaviors that leave our primal heart cold.