Have 500 years of amazing discoveries, developments, and revolutions made people happier? Are people today happier than in the Middle Ages, or in the Stone Age? If not, what was the point of all these changes? Most history books ignore these issues, yet these are the most important questions we can ask about history. New studies in biology, economics, and psychology are offering fascinating insights into the history of human happiness.
In this week’s lecture Dr Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem discusses happiness and how it is measured. We try to discover whether all the progress has made us happier. The following are my lecture notes created using the subtitles from the Coursera videos.
Has progress made us happier?
We have discussed the scientific revolution, and the impact that it had on the world and humankind. The last 500 years have witnessed a breath-taking series of changes. The Earth has been united into a single economic and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially and humankind enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stuff of fairy tales. Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind powers and practically limitless energy. The social order has been completely transformed, as have politics, daily life and human psychology. But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last few centuries, translate into more happiness? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? Going further back in time, we can expand this question and ask about the entire human history, the whole 70,000 years of history. Did these 70,000 years of revolutions and changes make the world a better place to live in? Are we happier than the hunter-gatherers that lived tens of thousands of years ago? If not what was the point about all these changes?
Historians seldom ask such questions. They do not ask for example, whether the citizens of Babylon were happier than the hunter-gatherers that lived in Mesopotamia 20,000 years ago. or whether the rise of Islam, made Egyptians more pleased with their lives, or if the collapse of the European empires in Africa made Africans happier or more miserable. Yet these are the most important questions that we can ask about history. For what could be the purpose of achieving economic growth, political freedom, or social equality, if it does not result in making people happier? Few have studied seriously in a scientific way, the long-term history of happiness. Almost every scholar and layperson has some vague preconception about it.. One common view, points out that human capabilities have increased dramatically throughout history. Since humans usually use their power to alleviate miseries and to fulfil their aspirations, it follows, according to this view, that we will have much more power than our ancestors, we must be happier, than our medieval ancestors. They in turn must have been than happier than stone age hunter gatherers. But this progressive view of the history of happiness is not very convincing. As we have seen many times during this course, more power and new kinds of behaviours and skills do not necessarily make life better and happier.
For example, when humans learned how to farm during the agricultural revolution the collective power of humankind to shape the environment, and to control what is happening in the world, definitely increased. Humans were far more powerful after the agricultural revolution. But the fate, the living condition, the daily life of individual humans was in many respects worse than previously. Peasants had to work harder than foragers, and received in return a less nutritious diet. Peasants were far more exposed to disease and to exploitation, and to invasion from their hunter-gatherer ancestors. So the agricultural revolution definitely increased the power of humankind, but not necessarily its happiness. Similarly the rise and spread of the European empires in the modern age certainly increased the collective power of humankind, by circulating ideas, circulating technologies and crops, and opening new avenues of commerce and industry. Yet all these developments and changes, and all these growing power of humanity, was hardly good news for the tens of millions of Africans and Native Americans and aboriginal Australians, who found themselves enslaved by the Europeans.
Given the proven human tendency to misuse power it seems naive to believe that there is a direct line leading from power to happiness. Some critics of this positive view take a diametrically opposed position. They argue that there is not a positive correlation between power and happiness. There is actually an inverse correlation between power and happiness. Power corrupts. As humankind gained more and more power through history, it created a very cold, mechanistic world, which is ill-suited for the real needs of Homo sapiens. Evolution, according to this view, more than shaped our minds and bodies for the life of hunter-gatherers. The transition, first to agriculture, and later on to industry, actually condemned human beings to live unnatural lives. That cannot give full expression to our inherent instincts and cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings and needs. Life may be very comfortable today, but nothing in the comfortable life of the urban middle class, can approach the wild excitement, the sheer joy experienced by a forager band on a successful mammoth hunt.
This romantic view of history, a romantic insistence on seeing the dark side of every invention, in every development in history, is as dogmatic as the belief in the inevitability of progress.
Perhaps today we are out of touch with our inner hunter-gatherer, but it’s not all bad. All the developments of history are not necessarily bad. For example, over the last two centuries, modern medicine has decreased child mortality from about 33% to less than 5%. No one can seriously doubt that this made a huge contribution to happiness, not only of those children who would otherwise have died from diseases, but also of their parents, and families and friends.
A third common position about the long-term history of happiness, takes a middle road. It argues that until the scientific revolution, there was no clear correlation between power and happiness. Medieval people may have been more miserable than our hunter-gatherer ancestors tens of thousands of years ago. But according to this position, in the last few centuries, during the scientific revolution, humans have finally learned how to use their power more wisely. The triumphs of modern medicine are just one example of this. Other unprecedented achievements of humankind, following or during the scientific revolution include the steep decline in violence.
Optimism of the modern age.
The virtual disappearance of international wars and the near elimination of large-scale famine, of fewer and fewer people on average that die today from starvation and famine. This is a middle approach to the history of happiness. Until the scientific revolution increasing power did not lead to an increase in happiness. Science has given us the ability, the wisdom, to finally link power and happiness. In the last few decades and centuries, an increasing power does indeed cause a significant increase in human happiness, yet this too is an oversimplification, firstly because this view bases its optimistic assessment of the modern age, on a very small sample of years. The majority of humans began to enjoy the successes of modern medicine no earlier than 1850. The drastic drop in child mortality is a 20th Century phenomena, only a phenomena of the last 100 years. Mass famines continued to plague much of humanity until the middle of the 20th Century. International wars became rare only after 1945, largely thanks to the new threat of complete nuclear annihilation. Hence, even if the last few decades have been some kind of unprecedented golden age for humanity, this is a very short time. It is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in the currents of history, or an ephemeral wave of good fortune.
The second problem with this over optimistic view of the modern age is that even if this brief golden age of the last half-century was very good for us, it may have been during this period that we sow the seeds of future catastrophe. Over the last few decades, with all our good fortune, we’ve also been disturbing the ecological equilibrium of our planet in numerous new ways with what is likely to be very difficult and dangerous consequences for ourselves. There is a lot of evidence indicating that we are destroying, over the last few decades, the very basis for human prosperity, in a kind of orgy of reckless consumption. Maybe we are experiencing very good years but we will be paying a high price in the next decades and century. Nobody really knows what the consequences of the dramatic ecological disturbances that we are responsible for in this age will be.
Another reason to be cautious about this overoptimistic view of modernity is that we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishment of modern Homo sapiens, only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals.
Much of the material wealth that shields us today against disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys and dairy cows and millions and billions of conveyor belt chickens. Tens of billions of such animals have been subjected over the last two centuries to a regime of industrial exploitation, whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth. If we accept even just a tenth of what animal rights activists are saying, then modern industrial agriculture may well turn out to be the greatest crime in history, which caused massive suffering. When we come to evaluate global happiness it is of course wrong to count only the happiness of say, the upper classes, or Europeans, or men, and not take into account the happiness of say, women or Africans. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans, when we try to assess global happiness levels and forget all about the happiness or suffering of other animals. These are the problems with this third option of viewing modernity as an era in which happiness really began to rise thanks to the rise in human power.
Another problem with all the views which we have discussed so far is that they discuss happiness largely as a product of material factors, such as health, diet, wealth, and so forth. If people are richer and healthier, according to this approach, then they must also be happier. But is this really so obvious? Philosophers and priests and poets throughout history, have thought about the nature of happiness and the causes of happiness. Many of the greatest minds of humankind for the last centuries and millennia came to the conclusion that social, and ethical, and spiritual factors have as great an impact on our happiness as material conditions. Though nobody could argue that material conditions today are better than in the past, if happiness depends not only on material condition, but also on social and spiritual factors, and so forth, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are happier than our ancestors. Perhaps people in modern affluent societies suffer greatly from alienation and meaninglessness, despite their prosperity. Perhaps our less well-to-do ancestors did manage to find a lot of contentment and joy in community relations, in religion, in a bond with nature, and things like that.
The History of Happiness
Many philosophers, and poets, and thinkers throughout history when they thought about the nature of happiness, and the causes of happiness, many of them reached the conclusions that, yes material factors are important, but social, ethical and spiritual factors also have a very important, a very big impact on our happiness, so we came to ignore them. In recent decades, psychologists, economists and biologists have taken up this challenge of scientifically studying what really makes people happy and through that understanding the dynamics of happiness in society in history. Are people made happy by money, by family relations, by genetics, perhaps by their virtues and good deeds? The first step, when we try to study happiness and what causes people to be happy, is to define what happiness is and to find some way of measuring it. Without a definition and a measurement you can’t study scientifically.
The generally accepted definition of happiness as is studied today in the social and life sciences is that happiness is subjective wellbeing. This is the professional term for happiness. According to this definition, happiness is something that we feel. It is either a sense of immediate pleasure, or a sense or a feeling of long-term contentment with the way life is going. If happiness is something that people feel, how can scientists measure it from outside? Presumably, we can do it. Scientists can do it by asking a lot of people to tell us how they feel. Psychologists or biologists who want to assess how people feel. Simply give them questionnaires to fill out and to report what they are feeling. They give these questionnaires to thousands of people. This is how they build statistics about happiness.
A typical subjective well-being questionnaire asks interviewees to grade on a scale of say, zero to ten their agreement with all kinds of statements like, I feel very pleased with the way I am, I feel that life is rewarding, I am optimistic about the future, and life is good.
Then the researchers add up all the answers and calculate your general level of subjective wellbeing according to the answers. Such questionnaires are used in order to study the relation between happiness or subjective wellbeing, and other factors, like wealth or political situation or social situation. For example, if you want to know whether money makes people happy, whether rich people are happier than poor people, you take a thousand people who earn say $100,000 a year. And give them, all these thousand people, you give them this questionnaire to fill out, and compare the results with the answers of those who earn only $50,000. If the study discovers that the group of richer people have a subjective well-being level of 8.7 and that of the poorer ones is only 7.3, then they conclude that there is a positive correlation between wealth and subjective well-being, in simple English, that money brings happiness. When people earn more money, they feel better about themselves, about their lives, as can be seen from these statistics. If just one or two people are asked there could be statistical problems, but if you give this questionnaire to thousands of people, and if you do the research properly, then scientists believe it can give you a good indication for the influence of wealth on happiness. This same method can be used to examine other questions, other factors such as whether people living in democracies are happier than people living in dictatorship, whether married people are happier than single people or divorcees or widowers.
Before pointing the problems of this type of study it’s worth considering some of the finding of these scientists. The most important finding of numerous, dozens and hundreds of such researches done over the last few decades, the most important conclusion is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth or health or even society. Rather, happiness depends above all, on the correlation between expectations and conditions. What does that mean? It means that you’re happy not because your objective situation is x. You are happy because your expectations, whatever they are, get fulfilled. This is the important thing. If, for example, you dream about getting a bullock cart, and you get a bullock cart, then you are content. You got what you wanted, you are happy. If on the other hand, you dream about having a brand new Ferrari, and you get only a second-hand Fiat, then you aren’t as satisfied even though the Fiat is much faster, much more sophisticated than the wagon. You are not happy with it because you aren’t comparing it with the wagon of your great-grandfather, but with the brand new Ferrari about which you’re dreaming. Therefore you will be dissatisfied despite the improvement in objective conditions of transportation.
Happiness from expectations
The implication of this line of thinking is that even dramatic changes in the conditions of human beings in history did not necessarily make them happier or change their happiness level for better or worse. The basic mechanism of human satisfaction discovered by these studies is that when things improve, expectations balloon. We expect far more and consequently even dramatic improvement in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied, because we expect far more than before. When things deteriorate, when conditions are worse than before, then expectations will tend to shrink. People expect less, and therefore even severe deterioration in conditions leave them as happy as they were before because expectations got adapted to this new condition. This implies that, for example, people in the middle ages were not necessarily much less happy than people are today, It’s true that people in the Middle Ages had much more difficult living conditions in many respects than people today in the world. But their expectations were also very different from ours.
It’s very hard for many people to accept this line of thinking. The problem is that when we try to imagine how people in the past felt, we inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes, not how they must have felt, but how I would have felt if I had to live under those conditions. This is wrong, because it forgets to take into account the change in expectations. The people in the Middle Ages did not live like us but they did not have our expectations. Let’s take a simple example. In modern affluent societies around the world today it is customary for people to take a shower, and to change their clothes every day. Medieval peasants on the other hand, whether in Europe or China, or the Middle East went without washing sometimes for many weeks and months and hardly ever changed their clothes, because they didn’t have many clothes. For us, just thinking about living like that, without washing, without changing clothes, stinking, makes us feel very, very uncomfortable. But those peasants didn’t mind, they were used to the feel, and to the smell, of a dirty shirt, and a dirty body. It’s not that they wanted to take a shower every day and change their clothes every day but couldn’t. They had what they wanted. They were content with what they had, because they didn’t expect such things. So at least as far as showers and clothing goes, even though they were far poorer than people today in affluent society, it doesn’t mean that they were much more miserable. This example shouldn’t surprise us so much. After all, think for example about our chimpanzee cousins. Chimpanzees almost never wash themselves, and never change their clothes, but they don’t complain or seem particularly miserable because they have to stay in the same dirty fur all day.
Most cats and dogs never shower or at least, only once in a few years and never change their clothes, yet their owners, pet and hug and even kiss them. We don’t expect a dog to take a shower every day but we don’t mind petting or even kissing it. We expect people to shower every day, if your spouse or if one of your family members doesn’t shower for a month, you wouldn’t approach them because they stink, but you’re perfectly all right with it when it comes to dogs.
Even more interesting to think about in relation to this, is that what happens with small children. Small children in affluent societies often don’t like showering. It takes sometimes years of education and fighting with their parents to discipline them, and to make them shower every day. In many houses there is, every day, some conflict about the child not wanting to take a shower. The parents say, no, you have to take a shower before going to bed. If showering was such a wonderful thing, why would small children object to it? The fact is that taking a shower every day is not natural to human beings. It’s not important for their happiness until they get used to it. Once they get used to it, once it becomes an expectation then it becomes important. Then if you don’t get your shower every day you will feel miserable, at least until you get used to your new condition. [My note – I have never met a child who doesn’t like to get wet as often as possible, be it a shower or bath or a river or even a puddle – Dr Harari must know some different children to my experiences.]
This is the central importance of expectations for happiness and for the history of happiness. An interesting conclusion from this is that if happiness is indeed determined by expectations, then two of the central pillars of modern society, the media and the advertising industry, may actually be working to ensure, not necessarily on purpose, but they are working to ensure that people won’t become happier even if there are huge improvements in their conditions. The media and the advertising industry exposes us to more and more to better and better things and all the time they’re working to increase our expectations. They are preventing an increase in our happiness. For example, take the issue of how people relate to their bodies, what people think about how they look. Think, for example, about some 18-year-old teenager in a small village 5,000 years ago who probably thought that he looked pretty hot because in those times he knew only the other 50 men in his small village. Most of these 50 men were older than him, or they were scarred or wrinkled and suffered from some disease, or they were just small kids. So he thought, based on his acquaintance with the other 50 guys around him, that he looked pretty good. A teenager today is far more likely to feel that he doesn’t look good enough, that he’s inadequate. Even if he is surrounded by other teenagers or other youngsters who don’t look better than him, he is exposed to movie stars and athletes and supermodels that he sees every day on television and on giant billboards and on the Internet and so forth. He measures the way he looks compared to them not to the other 50 kids in his school or in his college. Therefore, it’s no wonder.
The social sciences view of happiness
There are lots of studies that show that the body image of people today is far lower than in the past. People are far less satisfied with the way they look today than they were 100 years ago or 1,000 years ago. This leads some scholars to argue that the issue of expectations in the media and so forth, cause discontent. As we see today in the Third World, in developing countries, discontent is caused, not only by poverty, disease, corruption and political oppression, but, perhaps most importantly, simply by their exposure to the standards of the developed world, of the first world. Take Egypt, for example. The average Egyptian enjoyed better conditions under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, than under the rule of any previous government in the history of Egypt. They were much less likely to die from starvation, or plague, or war than under Pharaoh Ramses the Second, or Cleopatra. The material condition of the average Egyptian was never so good. The chance of an Egyptian woman to die while giving birth was smaller in the age of Hosni Mubarak than in any previous age in Egyptian history.
The chances of a new-born baby in Egypt to reach adulthood without dying from some terrible disease on the way were much better in the days of Hosni Mubarak than in the days of any previous government in Egypt. Their chances of dying from starvation or from war were much lower than in the Middle Ages or in the days of the Pharaohs. Nevertheless, you would have thought that the Egyptians, in consequence, would go dancing in the streets, thanking Allah for their good fortune to be living under Hosni Mubarak and not in a previous era. But as we all know, they were not very happy with it. They staged a revolution. They went to the streets in anger, toppling Mubarak from power, saying that they were not satisfied with their living conditions, even though their living conditions at least with respect to objective measurements were much better than in any previous era in history, at least since the agriculture cultural revolution. Egyptians were dissatisfied because they were comparing themselves not to their ancestors hundreds of years previously, but to their contemporaries in Europe and America. The Egyptians did not expect to live like the Middle Ages and then they were very happy when the conditions were actually better. They expected to live like the people they see on television in America and were very dissatisfied when Hosni Mubarak could not provide such a standard of living.
So these are the main findings of scholars in fields such as psychology and sociology and economics. Happiness depends on expectations. Because expectations adapt to conditions, happiness levels throughout history changed to a smaller degree than we usually think.
The biologists view.
The question of happiness has been studied by scholars in other fields. Not only in the social sciences, like ecology and sociology, but also by scholars in the life sciences, like biology and medicine. They reached rather similar conclusions to the conclusions of some psychologists and economists, but from a different approach or perspective. Biologists argue that our mental and emotional world is governed by biochemical mechanisms that were shaped by millions of years of evolution. Like all other mental states, our happiness, our subjective wellbeing, is not determined by external factors like our salary, or our social relations, or the political situation in the country, it is determined by a complex, internal biological system of nerves and neurons and synapses in the brain and various biochemical substances such as serotonin and dopamine and oxytocin. These control our moods and even our joy or sadness, happiness, or suffering. Nobody, according to biologists, is ever made happy by winning the lottery, or by buying a house, or by getting a promotion at work or even by finding true love. People are made happy by one thing, pleasant sensations in the body. A person, who has just won the lottery or just met the love of his life, jumps for joy, because he or she is reacting to various hormones that are now going through the bloodstream, in reaction to the storm of electric signals flashing between different parts of the brain. Unfortunately for all the hopes of creating heaven here on earth our internal biochemical system is programmed by evolution to keep happiness levels relatively constant.
Happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage or discourage survival and reproduction. Evolution has no inherent interest in happiness as such. It might not be surprising therefore, that evolution has shaped us to be neither too miserable, nor too happy. A biochemical system in our body shaped by evolution enables us to enjoy momentary rushes of pleasant sensations. But these never last long, or at least not forever. Sooner or later, the rush of hormones and the electrical signals in the mind and so forth change and the pleasant sensations subside and give place to much more unpleasant sensations.
For example, evolution provided pleasant feelings of orgasm and other sexual feeling to males, and females who spread their genes by having sex. A male who has sex with a fertile female is rewarded by evolution with this pleasant feeling of an orgasm. If sex was not accompanied by pleasant sensations in the body, few males would bother about having it. At the same time, evolution is not really interested in making these males happier. It’s only interested in making them pass their genes to the next generation so it tempts them with these pleasant feelings, but the pleasant feelings quickly go away. If evolution really wanted infinite happiness then it would have designed males which have orgasms that last forever.
Obviously, this is not the case because evolution is interested in survival and reproduction. If, orgasms lasted forever then the very happy males who had them would simply die of hunger for lack of interest in looking for food, and would not take the trouble for finding additional fertile females to carry their genes to the next generation. As a result, external events, such as having sex, or winning the lottery, or being hit by a car, can temporarily increase or decrease our happiness. In the long run, the biochemical system of our body will tend to return us to square one and will not allow our happiness levels to increase or decrease beyond a certain threshold.
Some scholars actually compare human biochemistry to a kind of air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature constant, no matter what happens outside. Some air, some air conditioning systems are set at 25 degrees Celsius, others at 20 degrees. Similarly, the biochemical systems of different people are not the same. They differ from person to person on a scale, of say, zero to ten. Some people are born, genetically programmed, with a cheerful biochemical system that allows their mood to swing between level six and level ten, stabilizing with time around level eight of happiness. Such a person, with a cheerful biochemical system, will be quite happy even if she lives in an alienated big city or loses all her money in a Stock Exchange crash. Other people are born with a gloomy biochemical system that swings between three and seven and stabilizes with time at five. Such a person is likely to remain depressed and dissatisfied, even if she enjoys the support of a very tight community, wins millions in the lottery, and is as healthy as an Olympic athlete. Think for a moment about yourself, your friends, and your family members. You will probably find you are familiar with just such people who remain relatively joyful and satisfied, no matter what happens to them. Then there are other friends or family members who always seem to be dissatisfied and disgruntled.
Most of us tend to believe that if we only changed our workplace, got married, finished writing that novel or that paper for college, if we only had the money to buy a new car or to repay the mortgage, then we’d be completely happy and satisfied. Yet, when we get what we desire, most of the time, we don’t seem to be any happier than before. Buying cars and writing novels do a lot of things but do not change our biochemistry. They can startle it for a fleeting moment but very soon, the biochemical systems return us to our set point. This is the biological approach to happiness. If we accept this biological approach to happiness, that happiness is determined by our internal biological system, biochemical system, and not by events outside then it turns out that history is not very important, at least, not very important for human happiness, because historical events have very little impact on the structure of the human biochemical system, on the internal structure of our bodies and brain. History can change the external stimuli that causes say serotonin to be secreted in the brain. But history does not change the resulting serotonin levels; therefore it cannot really make people happier than before.
Compare for example, a Medieval French peasant, to a modern Parisian banker. The peasant lived in an unheated mud hut, looking upon the local pigsty. In contrast, the banker may go home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest technological gadgets and get a wonderful view over the Eiffel Tower. Now most people would expect the modern banker to be much happier than the medieval peasant. However, a man’s happiness is determined by his brain. The brain does not know anything about mud huts or penthouses or the Champs-Elysees. The only thing the brain knows about is chemical substances like serotonin.
When the medieval peasant completed building his tiny mud hut, brain neurons secreted serotonin bringing it up to level X. In 2013 when the banker made the last payment on his wonderful super technological penthouse brain neurons secreted a similar auto serotonin bringing it up to a similar level X. The brain of these two individuals is unaware but the penthouse is much more comfortable than the mud hut. The only thing the brain knows is that at present, the level of serotonin is x. What led to this it does not know. Consequently if the banker and the medieval peasant have the same level of serotonin in the brain they will be as happy as each other.
This logic is applicable, not only to the lives of individuals but also to great collective events. Take for example, the French Revolution. It changed many things in French society and politics. The revolutionaries executed the king and gave land to the peasants. They declared the Rights of Man, abolished noble privileges, and they waged war against the whole of Europe. Yet, none of these actions changed the basic structure of the French biochemistry or French brain. Consequently, it is likely if we accept the biological theories, it is likely that despite all the political, social and economic upheavals brought about by the French Revolution, its impact on French happiness was very small.
Those who won a cheerful biochemical system in the genetic lottery were just as happy before the revolution as after it. Those who got a gloomy biochemistry complain about Robespierre and Napoleon with the same bitterness with which they earlier complained about Louis XVI or Marie Antoinette. If this is the case then what good was the French Revolution? If people did not become any happier as a result of it, what was the point about all the chaos, and the fear, and the bloodshed? If you really understand and accept the biological approach to happiness, then the conclusion is that it was pointless. Biologists would not have encouraged you to storm the Bastille because it wouldn’t change anything.
People fantasize that this political revolution or that social reform would make them happier but the biochemistry tricks them again and again and again. The political revolution comes but the biochemistry remains the same, and therefore, the level of happiness remains the same. According to this view, there is only one historical development that has real significance for the history of happiness. Today, when we finally realize that the keys to happiness are in the hands of our internal biochemical system, we can stop wasting our time on politics and social reforms and wars and ideologies and all that stuff. Instead, we should focus on the only thing that can make us truly happy and this thing is manipulating our biochemistry. The one thing that is important in the history of humankind from this perspective is the advance in science, particularly in the life sciences. If we invest billions of dollars in cracking the codes of our biochemistry and genetics and so forth, and use this knowledge to develop better treatments, we can make people far happier than they ever were before, without any need of political and social revolutions. Prozac and other psychiatric drugs work, they increase your happiness, not by changing the regime or implementing some economic reform, but by raising, in an artificial way, the serotonin level in your brain, and this does manage to lift at least some people out of their depression.
Brave New World
Nothing, perhaps, captures better the biological approach to happiness than the famous new age slogan, happiness begins within. Money, social status, politics, plastic surgery, beautiful houses, none of these things will bring you happiness. Lasting happiness, according to the biological approach, can come only from within, from Serotonin, from Dopamine, from Oxytocin, and from the other biochemical compounds and systems that are your body. In his novel, Brave New World, Aldous Huxley back in the 1930s already envisaged a world, in which happiness was the supreme value of society, and psychiatric drugs that control and increase happiness levels, replaced the police and elections, and government, as the foundation of politics. In the world he envisaged, each day, every person in the world took a dose of soma, a synthetic drug that made people satisfied with their lives and feel very happy about themselves, without harming their productivity and efficiency. The world’s state that ruled the whole world in this scenario, governed the entire globe and was never threatened by any wars, any revolutions, strikes or demonstrations, because all people in the world were supremely content and satisfied with the current conditions, no matter what these conditions were. The system was built on controlling and manipulating the biochemistry and not the conditions that surround people. If you do this successfully, then anything that happens outside doesn’t really matter. This vision of the future is, many people find it far more troubling than for example George Orwell’s Dystopia, 1984. Huxley’s World seems monstrous to most readers but, it is very hard to explain why. After all in Huxley’s world, everybody is very happy all the time so what could be wrong with it?
The problem has to do with the definition of happiness. In Huxley’s world, happiness is defined in biological terms, simply as pleasure. To be happy is no more and no less than to experience pleasant bodily sensations more and more of the time. Since our normal biochemistry, our normal biochemical system limits the volume and the duration of these pleasant sensations in the body. The only way to make people experience a high level of happiness over an extended period of time is to manipulate the biochemical system with the help of drugs and other medical treatments. This indeed is a direction in which our world today is progressing, not in some science fiction fantasy, but in the real world. It’s progressing in that direction in a very fast rate. But, the definition of happiness as pleasure, which is common today in our society is not accepted by all scholars or by all people.
In a very famous study, Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize of Economics, studied, amongst other things what causes people happiness. He asked people to recount a typical working day, to tell what happened to them in that day in great detail. Going through it, episode by episode, and evaluating how much they enjoyed or dislike each of them. He did one of these studies on 900 and something women in Texas from the working class. He asked each of them to break up her day, a typical day, into segments, into episodes, of two, three, five minutes, write what she’s doing each five minutes, and write how much she enjoyed or disliked what she did. So you have these long stories, long diaries, that I talked on the phone with a friend, and then I took a bus to, to work, and then I had to wait for the bus, and then I was on the bus, and then at work, the boss yelled at me, and I went, went back home, and I watched TV, and I did the laundry, and so forth. About each of these small episodes, she also wrote how much she enjoyed or disliked it, and what turned out is that the things, the episodes that these women, on average, dislike most or some of the things that they disliked most was the taking care of their children. Most of their activities which were concerned with their children were rated as the least joyful activities of the day, like changing diapers, washing the dirty clothes, preparing food for them, and having to deal with temper tantrums, children fighting and yelling at each other. According to the grades they gave, they even find more joy at work than being with their children at home. He also asked these women to write in general terms, what were the things that contribute most to their happiness. Most of them said that their children were their chief source of happiness, even though their activities involving contact with their children were rated as the least enjoyable.
How can we explain this discrepancy? There are two ways in which scholars understand these results. One school of thought is that people, not only these women in Texas, but people in general just don’t really know what’s good for them. They think that one thing is the source of their happiness, perhaps because society told them that this is what the source of happiness is, but it’s not true. When you actually look at events from close up, it doesn’t fulfil these expectations. Another option is that what Kahneman’s and other such studies discovered is that happiness is simply something different from pleasure. Happiness is not the surplus of pleasant moments over unpleasant moments; rather, happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile. There is a very important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values are what make the difference in the way that we see ourselves. Our values make the difference between seeing ourselves as miserable slaves to a baby dictator, and seeing ourselves as lovingly nurturing a new life, in how you relate to this job of raising children. These scholars argue that meaningful activities can be extremely satisfying, even if they’re not easy, even if they are not joyful very much. Whereas a meaningless life, activities in which you don’t find any meaning, can be a terrible ordeal, even if it is very comfortable. It’s like somebody who goes to climb Everest, or goes on a difficult trek. It’s not comfortable. Most of the things he or she will experience will be difficult things. It’s easier to stay at home, sit on the sofa and watch TV. However if this person finds meaning in this ambition to climb Everest, or some other high mountain, he may reflect upon this entire chapter of his life as being a very happy period. The time when I climbed Everest was much happier than the time when I sat at home on the comfortable sofa and watched TV. Why? Because happiness isn’t comfort, it isn’t pleasure; above all it is finding meaning in what we do, even if what we do involves a lot of hardships and difficulties. It’s not rosy and joyful all of the time.
This approach has important implications for the history of happiness. People in all cultures and eras have probably felt the same type of pleasant and unpleasant sensations in their body, but, the meaning they gave to their experiences might have been very different. If so, then the history of happiness might have been far more turbulent than what biologists imagine. It’s not a straight line that everybody always has relatively the same levels of happiness because pleasure and unpleasant sensations in the body remains the same. If meaning has an important impact on happiness, then there could be huge differences between the meanings that people in different cultures find to their lives. If this is true, this implies that life in the modern age is not necessarily better, happier, than life in previous eras like the middle ages. If you look at life minute-by-minute, activity-by-activity, and judge how hard it is, or how easy it is, then certainly life in the Middle Ages, for most people, was much harder, much more difficult, much less comfortable than life is today at least for people in affluent societies. However, if happiness depends on meaning, then still, Medieval people could have been even happier than people today in affluent societies. They could find meaning to everything that happens in their lives in the promise of everlasting bliss in the afterlife for example, and of their being part of this huge cosmic plan of God. Everything that happened might have been difficult, but was full of meaning. In contrast, to these Medieval people, who had a very meaningful life, modern, secular people in affluent societies may have a very comfortable life but, for many of them, it’s meaningless. In the long-term, they can expect nothing except complete and meaningless oblivion. There is no heaven, there is no hell, there is no cosmic plan, everything that happens is simply unimportant and meaningless. So, if you ask how comfortable life is, then yes, life today is far more comfortable, but if you ask people how satisfied they are with life, and how meaningful it is then people in the Middle Ages, despite all the difficulties, might have been in an equal situation, even a better situation than people today. The problem is that this is another approach to the history of, of happiness. It gives a lot of importance to meaning, much more than to pleasant sensations and comforts, and from this perspective it turns out that life today is not necessarily much happier, much more meaningful than in the past.
It’s just a delusion
The problem with this approach is that, from a purely scientific viewpoint, human life has absolutely no meaning. According to science, at least to science in the early 21st century, humans, like, just like all other phenomena in the world, are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without any purpose, without any goal, without any meaning. Our actions, our lives are not part of some divine cosmic plan. If planet Earth blew up tomorrow morning, with all the humans, elephants and giraffes on it then the rest of the universe would keep going about its business as usual. It wouldn’t change anything to the universe that the whole Earth with all its people disappeared, blew up. According to modern science any meaning that people ascribe to their lives, their decisions and their actions is simply a delusion. We think we have meaning, but we don’t. All these religious meanings, otherworldly meanings, that Medieval people found to their lives were delusions. Similarly, the meaning that modern people try to find to their lives, humanists, nationalists, capitalists meanings of the lives of modern people, they too are just delusions.
Today scientists may say that my life is meaningful because of the increased store of human knowledge. A soldier may say that life is meaningful because he fights to defend the homeland. A business person might say that life is meaningful because he’s building a new and successful company. But these too, these are all delusions. Just like Medieval people who thought that their lives had meaning in reading scriptures, or going on crusades, or building cathedrals. We look back and say they were just deluding themselves. So the same is true about the lives of people today.
The conclusion of this line of thinking is that if the key to happiness is to have meaning in your life, then the real key to happiness is to synchronize your personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. There is no meaning in the world but as long as my personal story fits, is in line with the stories of the people around me, then I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and thereby find happiness and satisfaction. This is a pretty depressing conclusion. It implies that happiness, that having happiness, that being happy, depends on self-delusion, and depends on the fact that nobody will come from outside and destroy your delusions.
Back to Buddhism
So far we’ve seen that happiness depends on feeling pleasant sensations. In order to be happier, we need to re-engineer our biochemical system. If happiness is based on feeling that life is meaningful, then in order to be happier we need to delude ourselves more effectively. Is it perhaps another way of understanding happiness? One alternative that receives growing attention from scholars of happiness is the Buddhist view. Buddhism assigns the question of happiness more importance than perhaps any other religion in history. The main question of modern Eastern religions is “given that God exists, what does he want from me?” In contrast, the main question of Buddhism is “given that suffering exists, how do I get liberated from suffering and enjoy happiness?” Therefore, for the last 2,500 years, Buddhists have systematically studied the essence and causes of happiness, which is why there is a growing interest among the scientific community in Buddhism, both in Buddhist philosophy and in Buddhist meditation practices.
For example, today brain scientists are taking Buddhist monks and asking them to sit in the laboratory and meditate. They connect them to electrodes and brain scanners, and scan their brains to see what happens when these monks meditate. There’s a lot of research of this kind going on today. Buddhism shares the basic insight of the biological approach to happiness, namely that happiness results from processes or caring within one’s body, and not from events happening in the outside world. This is something very similar in Buddhism, and the biological approach to happiness. However, starting from the same insight, Buddhism reaches very different conclusions. According to Buddhism, most people identify happiness with the pleasant sensations and feelings in their body, while identifying suffering with unpleasant feelings. People consequently ascribe immense importance to what they feel. People crave to experience more and more pleasure, while avoiding as much as possible, pain and unpleasant feelings. Whatever we do throughout our lives, whether we scratch our leg, or move slightly in the chair, or fight world wars, we are just trying to get pleasant feelings. The problem, according to Buddhism, is that our feelings are no more than fleeting vibrations, changing every moment like the waves in the ocean. If five minutes ago I felt very joyful and purposeful, now these feelings from five minutes ago are gone. I might well feel sad and dejected, so if I want to experience pleasant feelings, I have to constantly chase them while constantly driving away the unpleasant feelings. Even if I succeed, I immediately have to start all over again without ever getting any lasting reward for all my troubles.
What, then, asks Buddhism, is so important about obtaining such ephemeral prizes? Why struggle so hard throughout our lives to achieve something that disappears almost as soon as it arises? According to Buddhism the root of suffering is not the feeling of pain, and not the feeling of sadness, and not even the feeling of meaninglessness. It is this never-ending and pointless pursuit of ephemeral feelings which causes us to be in a constant state of tension, of restlessness, and dissatisfaction. Because of this pursuit of pleasant feelings, the mind is never satisfied with reality as it is. Even when we experience something pleasant we are not content, our mind fears that it might soon disappear, and we crave that this feeling should stay and intensify. People are liberated from suffering, not when they experience this or that fleeting pleasure, which immediately disappears but when they understand the impermanent nature of all of their feelings and therefore stop craving them and chasing them. This is the aim of Buddhist mediation practices. In mediation you are supposed to closely observe your own mind and body, to witness for yourself the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and thereby to realize how pointless it is to chase after them, to pursue them. When the pursuit stops the mind becomes very relaxed, very clear, very satisfied. All kinds of feelings still go on arising and passing. There’s still joy and anger, and boredom, and lust that arise and pass, but once you stop craving to have particular feelings, then you can accept whatever comes. You can accept whatever feelings come, just watching it, coming and going without losing your head over them. The resulting serenity, according to the Buddhist view, is so profound that people who go on living their lives in frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly even begin to imagine what it is like to be outside of this pursuit.
This idea is so alien to modern Western culture, that when Western new-age movements encountered Buddhist philosophy, meditation, and insights, they turned them upside-down, turned them on their head. New Age cults frequently argue that happiness does not depend on external conditions in the outside world. Happiness depends only on what we feel. So people should stop pursuing external achievements, such as wealth and beauty and status, and instead connect with your feelings. Or as many New Age cults put it, in brief, happiness begins within. Now this is exactly what biologists argue, but it is more or less the opposite of what Buddha said. Buddha agreed with modern biology and with modern New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet, his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent from inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance that we give our inner feelings, the more we crave for them and the more we suffer. The basic recommendation of Buddhism is not merely to slow down the pursuit of external achievements but above all, to slow down the pursuit of inner feelings. If we accept this view of happiness then our entire understanding of the history of happiness might be misguided. Maybe it isn’t so important whether people enjoy pleasant feelings, and whether people feel that their life has meaning. The main question is whether people understand the truth about the nature of their feelings. We have no evidence that people today, in the 21st century, understand this truth any better than ancient foragers, or medieval peasants. So this is the Buddhist view.
This is not the time and place to try to judge between all these different approaches to happiness. Scholars began the scientific study of happiness only a few years ago and we’re still just formulating initial theories, and searching for the appropriate research methods. It’s much too early to jump to conclusions and to end the debate before it hardly even begins. What is important at this stage is to get to know as many different approaches to happiness as possible, and to remember to ask the right questions. Most history books focus on the ideas of the great thinkers, on the bravery of warriors, on the charity of saints, on the creativity of artists. Most history books, however, have much to tell us about social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the invention and spread of technology, but they have much less to tell us about how all this has influenced the suffering and the happiness of individuals. This is the biggest gap in our understanding of history. We don’t really know how all this impacted happiness in the world, so we had better start filling this gap because, without knowing this, we can’t say that we actually understand history.
With this thought we end our journey through the human past, from the cognitive revolution 70,000 years ago, to the present. During these 70,000 years, a lot of things happened. We are just not sure whether it was all good or bad. But there is still one more subject which we need to address before terminating this course, A Brief History of Humankind, the future. We’ve talked a lot about the past, but history also includes the future. In the next and last lesson of the course, we will try to say something about the likely future of human kind.
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- A Permanent Solution (louisecharente.wordpress.com)
- International Happiness Day (Wikipedia.com)
- How to Make Your City Happier (nextcity.org)
- 10 Things To Stop Caring About If You Want To Be Happier (lifehack.org)