Rethinking Happiness

Here’s a trick question.

Are we any happier today than we were 500 years ago?

Your gut reaction might be to answer, “What kind of question is that? Infant mortality has almost disappeared. Drones deliver packages to my doorstep. Soon, my car will be driving itself. Just a while back, people were living on a dollar a day in today’s dollars. C’mon, of course we’re happier.”

Yet, in his bestselling Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Harari challenges us with a similar question:

But are we happier? Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? … Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry?”

The answer isn’t as clear as you might think.

Everything Changed, Nothing Changed

We humans tend to overestimate the effect of life changes.

In This Will Make You Smarter, Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes:

“Income is an important determinant of people’s satisfaction with their lives, but it is far less important than most people think. If everyone had the same income, the differences among people in life satisfaction would be reduced by less than 5 percent.
“Income is even less important as a determinant of emotional happiness. Winning the lottery is a happy event, but the elation does not last. On average, individuals with high income are in a better mood than people with lower income, but the difference is about a third as large as most people expect.”

This is an instance of what Kahneman calls the focusing illusion — when we consider changes, we over-focus on the differences and ignore the things that stay the same. We think a shiny new Tesla automobile will improve us, but we don’t consider that we will still get stuck in traffic.

It’s easy to see why this is a problem.

We spend much of our lives aiming for goals that we think will make life better for us, our family, our community, our society or our species. But what happens if we’re fooling ourselves about how meaningful these goals truly are? We’ve just wasted one of our most precious and nonrenewable resources — our time.

I’m Rich! I’m Alone!

One of the few things that does seem to have a significant effect on happiness is community. Strong family ties and a supportive community seem to matter a lot more than, say, a $10,000 increase to your salary.

This leads to a startling possibility. Harari writes:

“This raises the possibility that the immense improvement in material conditions over the last two centuries was offset by the collapse of the family and the community. If so, the average person might well be no happier today than in 1800. Even the freedom we value so highly may be working against us. We can choose our spouses, friends and neighbours, but they can choose to leave us. With the individual wielding unprecedented power to decide her own path in life, we find it ever harder to make commitments. We thus live in an increasingly lonely world of unravelling communities and families.”

Well that’s fascinating, isn’t it?

We associate words like “freedom” and “choice” with a life sipping coconuts on a beach, free of care. But freedom is a tremendous responsibility — one that, more often than not, leaves us indecisive, lost and afraid.

Now, let’s look at what Harari calls the “most important finding of all” in the happiness research — the effect of expectations.

Your Abs Are Making Me Sad

Calvin and Hobbes

Rather than wealth, health or community, the biggest factor in happiness may be the gap between what we have and what we want, says Harari:

“If you want a bullock-cart and get a bullock-cart, you are content. If you want a brand-new Ferrari and get only a second-hand Fiat you feel deprived. … When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations shrink, and consequently even a severe illness might leave you pretty much as happy as you were before.”

One consequence of our interconnected world is that we now compare ourselves with everyone, not just with the members of our village. And, with technologies such as the Internet, it is becoming easier than ever for others without our best interests in mind to influence our expectations:

“If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society — mass media and the advertising industry — may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment. If you were an eighteen-year-old youth in a small village 5,000 years ago you’d probably think you were good-looking because there were only fifty other men in your village and most of them were either old, scarred and wrinkled, or still little kids. But if you are a teenager today you are a lot more likely to feel inadequate. Even if the other guys at school are an ugly lot, you don’t measure yourself against them but against the movie stars, athletes and supermodels you see all day on television, Facebook and giant billboards.”

Still, there is some good news.

If companies can use tools (advertising) to manage our expectations, then what’s stopping us from using other tools to adjust our own expectations?

Old Wisdom

These insights are not trivial.

Since I’ve become aware of the happiness-expectation relationship, I’ve made some changes that have drastically improved the quality of my life.

Some of the improvements:

  • I care less about what others think
  • I focus far, far more on cultivating true friendships and less on chasing numbers
  • I take more time to stop and appreciate what I have
  • I am comfortable with what possessions and have no strong desire (still got ’em though) to have more
  • I’m more resilient to disappointment and failure

Most of these changes come from studying our ancient traditions (Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Stoicism, etc.), which recognized this problem long before it was verified by modern research. Two good books to start learning about these traditions are William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life and Steve Hagen’s Buddhism Plain and Simple.

Why Question?

So let us return to our original question. Are we any happier than we were 500 years ago?

The truth is, I have no idea. I don’t think anyone has any idea — we will never be able to pin down and measure something nebulous and ever-changing like happiness.

Still, the question is worth asking.

A frightful majority of us never stop to consider the motivations behind what we do. Why? In part, I think it is because we are scared. Nobody wants to face the possibility that the last two decades of one’s life were a sham and a complete waste. So what do we do?

We keep going and hope we aren’t wrong.

But when you do stop to ask yourself a question like “Is what I am doing really going to make me any happier?”, this leads to all sorts of other interesting questions.

If material things don’t make me happy, what will? If I’m content already, how should I spend my life? Should happiness be my ultimate goal? Is it worth suffering for some higher good? What do I even mean by higher good? What other mistaken assumptions am I making? What are the consequences?

These are scary questions, but I’ve found every single one of them worth asking.

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