Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
Part 4: The Scientific Revolution, Chapter 19: And They Lived Happily Ever After
A scholarly approach to elucidating the nature of humankind’s happiness has only just begun. This pursuit of understanding raises many immediate questions: how, if at all, has suffering and happiness changed overtime, what does it mean to be a satisfied human - is being happy to be satisfied?, how could a seemingly subjective experience even be appropriately measured? Countless additional questions arise and different avenues of thought can be followed, leading to no clear conclusion as of yet. There are several theories at this early stage of thought in the broad happiness question; in short they postulate that human happiness is dependent on either progress and capability, one’s subjective expectations in comparison to objective reality, one’s biology (i.e., genetics), or the meaning one associates with their existence.
Happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage or discourage survival and reproduction. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that evolution has molded us to be neither too miserable nor too happy. It enables us to enjoy a momentary rush of pleasant sensations, but then these never last for ever. Sooner or later they subside and give place to unpleasant sensations.
The inevitability of progress is a belief to which many modern humans cling tightly, and see as a benefit to society. Most modern humans would likely be taken-aback at the position that overall, people are not living better lives than our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived; yet it is not unlikely those pre-modern humans were living fulfilling lives in a world in which they were well-adapted, while today we live in highly unnatural physical and social confines. Although our physical needs are widely more well provided for, and the average wealth globally has increased, the facets of a modern human’s life concerning the social, ethical, and spiritual are dull or at times completely lacking; these latter areas are shown to offer more long-term happiness than health or money can provide.
If happiness is determined by expectations, the two pillars of our society - mass media and the advertising industry - may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.
A corollary to the findings of studies showing that community and other intangible comforts give more long-term happiness, is that one’s happiness depends on their expectations in light of their objective situation.
… maybe Third World discontent is fomented not merely by poverty, disease, corruption and political oppression but also by mere exposure to First World standards.
People of cultures in which arranged marriages are the norm, like in some parts of India, have been shown to find love and contentment, while that idea is anathema to most modern Americans. Does that mean that either the American or the Indian is more correct or more valid in their feelings of what could make a person happy? According to the theory correlating expectations versus reality in happiness, the question is moot. If this theory has truth to it, then modern humans are perhaps the least happy of all, as our collective expectations are being constantly altered and biased toward higher, widely unattainable standards thanks to the media and advertising industry.
… perhaps happiness is synchronising one’s personal delusions of meaning with the prevailing collective delusions. As long as my personal narrative is in line with the narratives of the people around me, I can convince myself that my life is meaningful, and find happiness in that conviction.
From a biological perspective, “People are made happy by one thing and one thing only - pleasant sensations in their bodies” (p. 386). This viewpoint asserts that although outside stimuli seem to make us happy (e.g. a delicious meal or a kiss from your partner), it is truly only the chemicals firing off in your body that make you feel anything at all. The pleasant sensations we call ‘happiness’, and its opposing feeling, perhaps ‘misery’, serve human genes well: they allow humans to experience reward for positive actions, but never be too content thus limit their propagation; however, not all humans, nor their experience of emotion and feeling, are created equal. People have different ranges in which their emotional state may lie based on their genetics, for example some may find they are usually ‘happy,’ even in sub-optimal situations, or some may fine they have a wide range of emotional experiences from depressed to manic.
The pharmaceutical industry is a booming happiness factory, allowing people to overcome undesirable emotional states simply by altering the chemicals in their bodies; however, some assert that this easy way out does not achieve true happiness for humans. One of the most widely accepted forms of joy to a person’s life is raising a child, yet a recent study finds that the majority of time spent rearing a child is described by adults as being unpleasant. The results of this study imply that happiness is not simply having pleasant feelings, it is rather “seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile” (p. 390). From a scientific perspective, all life is meaningless, as it is just a random outcome of circumstances over time, so to follow this line of thinking, one must be deluding themselves in some fashion.
All of these schools of thought may have a piece of the truth - it might not be a disjunctive question after all. A potential consideration when examining these theories is whether the paradigm from which they are posed is even valid, that paradigm being liberalism.
Liberalism sanctifies the subjective feelings of individuals. It views these feelings as the supreme source of authority.
From the liberal perspective, there is no objective happiness, or objective rule on what is good, or beautiful, etc, thus allowing for the question of happiness to be even asked. Most ideologies of the past have posed a view that is antithesis to that of liberalism, one in which objectives truths are given by some higher authority to be indiscriminately adhered to by the masses. Buddhism as an ideology stands out, as a main question is seeks to address is the one of happiness. It turns the happiness question on its head, maintaining that the pursuit of happiness and flight from misery never will satisfy, and true contentment comes from recognizing that these aims are ephemeral and fruitless.
Maybe it isn’t so important whether people’s expectations are fulfilled and whether they enjoy pleasant feelings. The main question is whether people know the truth about themselves. What evidence do we have that people today understand this truth any better than ancient foragers or medieval peasants?
- Perhaps we are widely thinking about happiness and suffering now because the average human is well provided for materially (like humanity has achieved the first tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs).
- Capitalism thrives on increasing people’s expectations.