Were cavemen (and women) happy?

Posted March 7, 2018

By Robert Biswas-Diener

Prehistoric psychology may be an overlooked opportunity to help students develop critical thinking skills.

A backpacker on the trail.
In 1992, while still a teenager, I grabbed a backpack and headed to Asia. I spent months exploring remote corners of India and Nepal. I am guilty—I admit—of wearing the memory of this trip as a badge of superiority. Occasionally, when I speak with a millennial about to embark on a modern version of the same voyage, I am taken aback. Because of the Internet, my younger counterparts are able to book rooms on-line and use Google Earth to explore their destinations right down to individual park benches and shady spots at the beach. “The good ol’ days,” I am tempted to say to them, “when traveling was an adventure!” Of course, in these moments of weakness I am reminded of the aged hippies I met in the Himalayas in the early-nineties. They shook their heads sadly at me and said, “you should have been here in the sixties; now, that was real travel!” I am certain that my great grandmother could have scolded them on their fancy air travel; advocating for the good ol’ days when ship travel ruled. It is a familiar trope: Back and back we can go. Each generation longing for the times of old when, certainly, things were better.

Which brings us to the intriguing question: If we go back all the way—to the paleolithic era and the advent of modern humans—were times, indeed, better? A fascinating new Noba chapter on Paleolithic happiness by Darrin McMahon, the Dartmouth historian and author of Happiness: A History, ponders exactly this question. While McMahon cautions against romanticizing the lives of our Stone Age forebears, he also suggests life may not have been awful. Perhaps it had a little more Flintstones fun and not as much Jurassic Park terror. It is difficult to pinpoint the quality of life of paleolithic people but, despite the absence of written records, it is possible. According to McMahon:

  • The small human population likely meant that turf wars and border skirmishes were less common than they are today.
  • The fossil record seems to suggest that our nomadic hunting and gathering ancestors died of starvation at a lower rate than did their post-agricultural revolution counterparts.
  • The “work week” of hunter-gatherers is significantly shorter than the modern work week (many estimates based on modern hunter-gatherer societies suggest a 20-hour work week).
  • Smaller family and community groups also suggests much lower rates of the spread of epidemic illnesses.
A cave painting of human figures.

Are these indicators proof that prehistoric humans were happy? Not really. Even so, more free time, better health, greater good security, and the ability to flee violence appear desirable. McMahon’s most interesting argument is not found in food, health, or work. Instead, he makes the case that human psychology has changed in important ways over the last ten millennia or so, and that this change can clearly be seen in the case of happiness.

In English, “happiness” is a word that was originally associated with good luck. To be happy, in other words, was to have good fortune. In olden days, a person’s happiness was an “easy come, easy go” phenomenon. Some days had good weather and plentiful fruit to eat and other days had rainstorms and the occasional rampaging mammoth. It is even possible to see vestiges of this type of fatalism in traditional societies in the modern era. Certainly, the ability to accept the whims of fate represented a psychological resilience in the unpredictable landscape in which our ancestors lived.

It is easy and interesting to contrast that attitude with the contemporary one. Nowadays, people—especially those in technologically and economically developed societies— have a very different mindset. Most of us believe that we are agents in our own lives: capable of affecting outcomes ranging from finding meaning at work to adjusting our optimism about the future. We believe—at least intuitively—that we are so powerful that we can make missing luggage appear by complaining or affecting the sales of products and services by leaving on-line reviews. While this modern attitude makes us feel powerful, it is also quite a responsibility to bear. Simply put, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that if we aren’t happy it is somehow partly our own fault.

In the end, the question of whether cave people were happy is less about arriving at a single factual conclusion and more about how to make a reasonable case one way or the other. McMahon offers evidence to support his conclusion but it is easy to think of refutations. Here is where a chapter like this can be used as a classroom or homework assignment to promote students’ research acumen and critical thinking. Consider the example assignment below:

Target article:

McMahon, D. M. (2018). From the Paleolithic to the present: Three revolutions in the global history of happiness. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of well-being. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers. DOI:nobascholar.com



In the target article referenced above, the author makes the case that early humans enjoyed a relatively—even surprisingly high—quality of life. He offers a review of research and of historical trends to support his conclusion. After reading the article, reflect on the degree to which you found it persuasive. Did the author convince you? Do you have lingering doubts? If so, what are they? Write a one-page response paper in which you assess the evidence presented by the author. Present any concerns you have about gaps in the evidence, or evidence pointing to a different conclusion. To do so, you will need to conduct a brief literature review and cite sources.

The chapter on paleolithic happiness is just one of 60 new chapters available at Noba’s scholarly sister-site, Noba Scholar. Where Noba Project provides modules for undergraduate and high school level instruction, Noba Scholar is intended for an advanced understanding of psychology (Honors or graduate students, or those holding an advanced degree). Currently, Noba Scholar is host to the Handbook of Well-being. This handbook is an edited volume that includes chapters on culture, assessment, theories, intervention, correlates and other areas related to happiness. More comprehensive handbooks on other topics will be published in the future. Feel free to check it out, share it, and let us know what you think.



Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is the senior editor of the Noba Project and author of more than 50 publications on happiness and other positive topics. His latest book is The Upside of Your Dark Side.