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Chapter 19: And They Lived Happily Every After (Sapiens)

Happiness

The last 500 years have seen breakthroughs in every area of human concern. We have become more scientifically competent, economically prosperous, peaceful, and secure, but are we happier?

Historians rarely ask these questions, but they should.

One progressive idea is that since we are more capable than our ancestors, we must be happier, but this viewpoint has its limitations. Having better skills does not necessarily result in a better life, especially not for everyone. The European colonizers yielded great power but made the lives of Africans and Aboriginal Australians miserable.

Our transition from agriculture to industry has led us to live unnatural lives that limits the full expressions of our instincts and inclinations – we cannot satisfy our deepest yearnings. The average life of an urban middle-class dweller cannot compare to the excitement of joy of a forager band, when hunting a mammoth successfully.

But there are clear benefits to modern life. The improvement of medicine is an example – the dramatic decrease of child mortality clearly improves the lives of many individual infants and their families. And there is less violence, less famine, and virtually no international wars.

It is difficult to measure happiness because people do not really know themselves. It may be that a that life of comfort and alienation is worse than a life of frugality, community, and religion.  

Questionnaires that measure happiness, how people feel about their lives, have shown that happiness increases with wealth, but only up to a certain point. A top executive earning $250,000 a year will not feel much happier after winning $1,000,000.

Another finding is that illness decreases happiness in the short run but is only a source of long term suffering if it progressively gets worse. If the illness does not get worse, people tend to adjust to their new situation and rate their happiness as high as healthy people.

Family and community seem to impact happiness more than money and health. People in tight knit communities with strong familial bonds are significantly happier than people who are alienated or are part of dysfunctional families. Married people are happier than single people, but it may be that happier people are simply more likely to get married because of their disposition.

Contentment

The most important finding suggests that happiness doesn’t depend on objective conditions of wealth, health, or even community, but rather on the correlation between your subjective expectations and your objective conditions. If you want a bicycle and get one, you’ll be happy, but if you wanted a brand-new Ferrari and end up with a used Fiat, you won’t be.

Poets and philosophers have been telling us to be content with our lot for ages, but it is nice to see this wisdom backed by statistics.

If contentment is the source of happiness, then the advertising industry and mass media may unwittingly be depleting the world of happiness. If you were a good looking in a village with 50 women, you might feel good about yourself. But if you compare yourself to the models you see on social media, you might not feel so good anymore. The average Egyptian in 2012 had it much better than the average Egyptian under Cleopatra but a violent revolution broke out, probably because they were comparing their situation with developed nations, and not with their past.

People aren’t made happy by anything external (winning the lottery, getting a promotion, finding true love), they are happy because of different hormones moving through their bloodstream, and the storm of electric signals flashing in different areas of their brain.

Unfortunately for all hopes of creating heaven on earth, our internal biochemical system seems to be programmed to keep happiness levels relatively constant. There’s no natural selection for happiness as such – a happy hermit’s genetic line will go extinct as the genes of a pair of anxious parents get carried on to the next generation.

Evolution has unsurprisingly moulded us in a way so that we are neither too happy nor too miserable. Sex with women is a pleasurable activity for men, but the pleasure quickly subsides. If the pleasure did not end quickly, men would have little reason to hunt for food or do anything else.

Genetics play a big role in determining how happy you are. Some people will waver between 3-7 on happiness scale no matter what good fortunes they are given. Others will waver between 6-10 no matter what bad fortunes befall them.

This gives us good reason to focus our efforts into hacking our biology rather than looking for external sources of happiness. The key to heaven on earth may be found in pills like Prozac rather than in winning the lottery. Yet Huxley’s dystopian novel Brave New World feels wrong even though it is hard to point your finger at what’s so bad about people being happy all the time.

Meaning

Perhaps the meaning of life is what is missing. Daniel Kahneman reports a study that shows how parents rate their lives when raising their children. Mostly, it is filled with conflict, unattractive chores, and incessant discomfort. Yet these parents say that their children are their biggest source of happiness.

Do these people not know what’s good for them? Perhaps it has more to do with values. As Nietzsche put it, if you have a why to live, then you can bear almost any how.

Our ancestors may have found meaning in their collective delusions of an afterlife.

Self-delusion (meaning) and pleasant sensations (pleasure) are two pathways to happiness. Is there a third alternative?

The Liberal Art philosophy is to follow your passion, or listen to your heart, but is this the best way forward? Most religions and ideologies would disagree. They state that there are objective standards for goodness and beauty, and for how things should be. Religions did not place too much trust in individual feelings.

At the entrance of the temple of Apollo at Delphi, pilgrims were greeted by the inscription: ‘Know thyself!’ The implication was that the average person is ignorant of his true self, and is therefore likely to be ignorant of true happiness. Freud would probably concur.

Christian theologians would also agree. Most people would rather have sex than pray to God, but that doesn’t mean sex is the pathway to happiness according to St Augustine and St Paul. It only proves that man is sinful by nature and is easily seduced by Satan. From a Christian perspective, man is not much different from the heroin addict. A psychologist who studies heroin addicts who claim that they are only happy when they shoot up clearly can’t conclude his research by stating that the key to happiness is heroin.

Darwin and Dawkins may agree with St Augustine and St Paul on this point. The former two acknowledge that DNA manipulates humans into doing things for its own selfish aims. In other words, it will do things that are bad for the individual as long as they increase its chances of propagation.

Most males spend their lives toiling, worrying, competing and fighting, instead of enjoying peaceful bliss, because their DNA manipulates them for its own selfish aims. Like Satan, DNA uses fleeting pleasures to tempt people and place them in its power.

Buddhism shares the same basic insight as biologists when it comes to happiness – namely, that they come from chemicals inside us rather than something in the external world. Most people associate happiness with pleasant feelings, and unhappiness with bad feelings. But Buddhists think that these are merely vibrations, they change from minute to minute.

If you felt joyful five minutes ago, and now you don’t anymore, you might feel sad. If you want to experience these pleasant feelings, you have to keep chasing them, and drive away unpleasant feelings. Even if you succeed, you have to constantly start again, without ever getting a lasting reward for your effort.

Liberation occurs not when experiencing pleasure, but understanding their impermanence, and to finally stop craving them.

The resulting serenity is so profound that those who spend their lives in the frenzied pursuit of pleasant feelings can hardly imagine it. It is like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise. Eventually, he sits down on the sand and just allows the waves to come and go as they please. How peaceful!

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"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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