Are we getting happier?
Close to where I live, there is a small but beautiful park on the top of the hill, called Baldegg. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon when I went there for a walk. Many families were around, kids and dogs alike, running everywhere. The small restaurant nearby was at full service: Parents, old couples, young guys, all enjoying the panoramic view to the alps while having something to eat, or drinking some wine or beer. I heard laughts and cheery conversations everywhere. The forest still looked quite empty, as the trees are on the way of getting new fresh leaves and the spring blossoms have not yet fully developed, as normally in early March, but the environment was still pleasant and joyfull.
While walking, I started to reflect: What a beautiful and easy life people have nowadays. Unlike our ancestors, we don´t have to spend all our time trying to hunt some wild animal, or work for many incessant ours in our farms to get something to eat. If you crave for something sweet you just have to stop by a shop or a restaurant and buy yourself some ice cream or cake. If you want to have some warm dish, you just need to sit and wait for some minutes until a waitress comes and takes your favourite warm meal order. We have everything we need to maintain ourselves nourished and confortable.
Then, Monday morning came. As every Monday, I walked down from home to the train station on my way to work. I could not help but notice, that all the friendly faces I saw on the Sunday afternoon in the park, completely vanished on the new picture of the Monday early morning at the train station. Many people rushing, many already with cigarrettes on their mouths. Many others with a cup of coffee on one hand and the phone on the other. Walking fast and looking straight, mechanized, like if they are about to miss something if they don´t walk faster, all on their way to work. All of them with a large, rather bitter and sad expression on their faces. Where are all those happy faces I saw the day before, enjoying themselves at the park?
Modern life. It seems like as humanity, we are at unprecedent times of prosperity and well being. Like never before, we have mastered our surroundings, and have everything served at our convenience. We have managed put this World at the mercy of our wishes. From being just an insignificant Species mining our own business in some remote part of Africa some million years ago, and who took some thousands of years of slow development from the cognitive revolution, agricultural and all the way to the industrial revolution, we have managed in a couple of centuries to become the complete and indisputable masters of the World we see today. Yet, there is a question still unanswered. Are we really getting happier? Is this modern World fulfilling at last our deepest desires and fantasies?
As Homo Sapiens, we are indisputably very successful in the unprecedent expansion of our species. With 7 billions living on this planet, we can congratulate ourselves in our preservation success story. Of course, that came with a cost. We have in our way to the top destroyed half of the planet, and drove to extintion thousands of species that once shared this World with us. With our whopping 7 billion number, we can add another “success story” in terms of multiplication and preservation: According to animal farm and Fao sources, we also have managed to preserve 1.4 billion cattles, 1.6 billion sheeps, 19.6 billion chickens, and 980 million pigs (FastCompany.org). Of course, the destiny of all those billions of animals is not really a fairy tale, but rather a tragic end. And what about our other animal fellows? We surely have seen many giraffes, elephants and wolves in movies, on the TV screen, zoos and in the children´s books. But in reality there are not many out there anymore. According to the Earths Biospehere report (2012) there are just about 80,000 giraffes, 200,000 wolves and only 200,000 chimpanzees… and just about 3,200 tigers in the whole World. As Noval Harari says in his book Sapiens: “Our once green and blue planet is becoming a concrete and plastic shopping centre“.
So, we have now everything we need at the expense of our mother nature. Has that made us any happier? Can we really say that our ancestors that had for sure a much more rough life, our gatherer hunters, and peasants on the farm, had a more miserable life than ours? If confort is supposed to bring us to a better place, why have the suicidal rates increased by 60% worldwide since 1945? (WHO.org)
Those long faces on Monday mornings do say something. We are the prisoners of the free market economy and the current global politic dynamics. The majority of us now chose to live in a limited area of concrete fully populated, instead of living in freedom in the vast forests, mountains and valleys where our gather-hunterer ancestors once lived. Has all this been worthwhile? Are we as humanity advancing in our desire to reach a happy destination? does “happily ever after” exist?
Definitely, a complicated topic. We have no empirical evidence, that it has been the case. We do not know for certain, if people in the past felt happier than the people now. If we correlate happiness with well-being, then definitely, we should be living one of the happiest moments of our life as species. However, it seems that is not necessarily the case. If having more means being more happy, why do we keep being anxious, why are we still depressed, and craving and wanting more? What is missing?
We have heard, that “Happiness is in the inside, not in the outside“. Does that mean that we have been all the way wrong, and that all the effort of getting more food, more clothes and more things meant nothing at the end? What is the point of living life as a race, where you keep working harder, and harder and consume more and more… to take you nowhere? If hapiness is on the inside, how can we reach it?
Biochemistry teaches us that happiness is just a combination of chemical reactions that make us feel pleasant sensations, however those sensations do not last forever. Psychology tells us that happiness is the individual perception of overall contendness with our life. Economy has found that happiness is positively correlated with wealth, but just to a certain point. It makes a difference only if the degree of change in your life is significant. If a low class factory worker which earns 100 dlls a month working non stop on a factory and having to feed a family of 6 suddently earns the lottery, will feel a much intense feeling of hapiness with the unexpected money than a high level manager earning 200,000 dlls per month who suddenly gets a double salary increase. He/she might feel happy in the moment, but later on she will adjust to the “new life standard” thus making no inherent difference in the level of happiness.
So if happiness cannot really last, is really long lasting happiness per se our main purpose? Or are we looking for something more?
Maybe, we are missing our “old good times”. Our connection to nature. Our true intuitive sense of the World. In our race towards doing more and more, we have lost our capacity of perception. We lost our awareness of the very life force and the intimate connection to our surroundings.
I hope I had an answer. But it is so hard to make any conclusion about anything, with the speed at which we are evolving, which is impressively fast specially over the last hundreds of years. For sure, there must be an answer, and we will keep striving to get the answer. Will new technologies help us with this pursuit of happiness? Is artificial intelligence going to solve all our problems?
The future is an open book. I am positive, that our collective humane brilliance will find once, the answers to this and many other questions. In the meantime, I believe that happiness can be also a choice. Wether you find it sometimes in the outside, or in the inside. Being happy can be a decision, being grateful for the very life that has been granted, and develop also a sense of gratitude to what you have and just to the very fact that we can be still here, experiencing this miracle called life.
We have an open invitation to think… What can we do better, what can we change?
What about you? what is your meaning of happiness?
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