Why We Vote For The Happiest Cavemen

11/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I rail at the notion that American voting is all about the Cult of Personality, guilt by association, and frantic character assassination. It would be so civilized if we voted for a political philosophy or, at least, a platform of ethical principles. But most of us don't. What we vote for is a set of profoundly embedded personal characteristics - those difficult-to-describe elements that make one candidate more trustworthy, more caring, and more charismatic. This is the candidate we want to follow on the path, and to whom we entrust our lives. In the American political system, we will give him or her extraordinary political power.

Our attraction to certain personal characteristics is integral to how we evolved as humans. Years of social research has taught me that what appeals to modern-day voters is not one bit different from what elicited the grunt of approval our prehistoric ancestors gave to the men and women who led our survival as a clan species on the Savannahs of Africa or in the caves of Lascaux.

How do we leap from prehistoric clan success to modern day presidential politics? By the utterly surprising route my partner and I took while researching the attributes and choices that make human beings happy.

In the late 1990s, Greg Hicks and I were amazed that our research into the characteristics of extremely happy people suddenly morphed into a compelling description of the best leaders. What emerged were nine distinct "happiness" characteristics that were perfectly descriptive of great leaders. As only one example: the happiest people tell the truth, and so do the best leaders. But, at first, happiness and leadership seemed like conflicting bedfellows. The big question was: how, and why, are happiness and leadership connected?

As we continued our work, medical researchers and medical anthropologists led us to the answer. It turns out that the pleasurable feelings of happiness and well being we get from doing certain things - like telling the truth as we see it - are actually biochemical "rushes" that are physiologically pre-programmed rewards for doing what will secure our survival as individuals. And, it is a simple, scientific fact that one caveman's survival characteristics are also good for the survival of our entire clan. Although humans didn't walk the earth at the time of the dinosaurs, as one candidate has asserted, we're not so different from our earliest relatives. Like them, we are drawn to people with these happy attributes and want to follow them, because they are the same behaviors that make us and our modern-day political system most successful.

Here is the profile for which we are most likely to vote - and, as the presidential election devolves into ugliness and mudslinging, it is also the profile that opposing political operatives most try to destroy. Our politicians and their handlers would do well to take note.

• The most attractive candidates will be people of transparent intention. We'll know where they're coming from. And, they'll appear to choose their reactions to circumstance, rather than be a victim of external events.
• They won't blame, because we see victim-y blamers as weak and ineffective. We want them to say, "Here's what I can do about circumstance," rather than wag their fingers at others.
• They are also people who are passionate about the job of office-holder, not opportunists who want power.
• They don't just talk about passion - they live it.
• They are adept at converting difficulties (and trauma) to learning and opportunity, rather than being trapped by life's hardships, and they help all of us do the same.
• They're flexible, and lead the way in opening options rather than closing them, because, after all, having options is synonymous with hope; having no options generates despair.
• These are highly appreciative people and express appreciation as a way of including others in life's bounty.
• They're "givers," individuals with great generosity of spirit who revel in acts of service, material giving, and sharing ideas. They also allow others to give to them - in effect, they give others the gift of being a "giver."
• They tell the truth. They don't want a personal "picture of Dorian Gray" in their own attics, and they certainly don't want a collective pall of dishonesty hanging over our country.

Which ticket most exemplifies the above? To my eye, neither is perfect. But look carefully: the "happy" characteristics are evident - or missing - during public appearances by the candidates. Along with the pundits, focus groups have rated the winners for debate performances entirely on these characteristics. And, at the other extreme, a tidal wave of political backlash is generated when candidates violate these behaviors.

Who's going to make it to the White House? In these times of unprecedented turmoil, we must vote for the candidates who lead us on the clearest path to a successful future - and, ultimately, to our long term survival. Now more than ever before, it's critical we elect the happiest cavemen.

Rick Foster is a leadership consultant and co-author (with Greg Hicks) of three books: Choosing Brilliant Health, How We Choose to Be Happy, and a children's book, The Martha is Mine...An Almost True Story. He can be reached at