Authors: Yuval Noah Harari
This kind of logic might drive humankind to make happiness its second main goal for the twenty-first century. At first glance this might seem a relatively easy project. If famine, plague and war are disappearing, if humankind experiences unprecedented peace and prosperity, and if life expectancy increases dramatically, surely all that will make humans happy, right?
Wrong. When Epicurus defined happiness as the supreme good, he warned his disciples that it is hard work to be happy. Material achievements alone will not satisfy us for long. Indeed, the blind pursuit of money, fame and pleasure will only make us miserable. Epicurus recommended, for example, to eat and drink in moderation, and to curb one’s sexual appetites. In the long run, a deep friendship will make us more content than a frenzied orgy. Epicurus outlined an entire ethic of dos and don’ts to guide people along the treacherous path to happiness.
Epicurus was apparently on to something. Being happy doesn’t come easy. Despite our unprecedented achievements in the last few decades, it is far from obvious that contemporary people are significantly more satisfied than their ancestors in bygone years. Indeed, it is an ominous sign that despite higher prosperity, comfort and security, the rate of suicide in the developed world is also much higher than in traditional societies.
In Peru, Guatemala, the Philippines and Albania – developing countries suffering from poverty and political instability – about one person in 100,000 commits suicide each year. In rich and peaceful countries such as Switzerland, France, Japan and New Zealand, twenty-five people per 100,000 take their own lives annually. In 1985 most South Koreans were poor, uneducated and tradition-bound, living under an authoritarian dictatorship. Today South Korea is a leading economic power, its citizens are among the best educated in the world, and it enjoys a stable and comparatively liberal democratic regime. Yet whereas in 1985 about nine South Koreans per 100,000 killed themselves, today the annual rate of suicide has more than tripled to thirty per 100,000.
There are of course opposite and far more encouraging trends. Thus the drastic decrease in child mortality has surely brought an increase in human happiness, and partially compensated people for the stress of modern life. Still, even if we are somewhat happier than our ancestors, the increase in our well-being is far less than we might have expected. In the Stone Age, the average human had at his or her disposal about 4,000 calories of energy per day. This
included not only food, but also the energy invested in preparing tools, clothing, art and campfires. Today Americans use on average 228,000 calories of energy per person per day, to feed not only their stomachs but also their cars, computers, refrigerators and televisions.
The average American thus uses sixty times more energy than the average Stone Age hunter-gatherer. Is the average American sixty times happier? We may well be sceptical about such rosy views.
And even if we have overcome many of yesterday’s miseries, attaining positive happiness may be far more difficult than abolishing downright suffering. It took just a piece of bread to make a starving medieval peasant joyful. How do you bring joy to a bored, overpaid and overweight engineer? The second half of the twentieth century was a golden age for the USA. Victory in the Second World War, followed by an even more decisive victory in the Cold War, turned it into the leading global superpower. Between 1950 and 2000 American GDP grew from $2 trillion to $12 trillion. Real per capita income doubled. The newly invented contraceptive pill made sex freer than ever. Women, gays, African Americans and other minorities finally got a bigger slice of the American pie. A flood of cheap cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers, laundry machines, telephones, televisions and computers changed daily life almost beyond recognition. Yet studies have shown that American subjective well-being levels in the 1990s remained roughly the same as they were in the 1950s.
In Japan, average real income rose by a factor of five between 1958 and 1987, in one of the fastest economic booms of history. This avalanche of wealth, coupled with myriad positive and negative changes in Japanese lifestyles and social relations, had surprisingly little impact on Japanese subjective well-being levels. The Japanese in the 1990s were as satisfied – or dissatisfied – as they were in the 1950s.
It appears that our happiness bangs against some mysterious glass ceiling that does not allow it to grow despite all our unprecedented accomplishments. Even if we provide free food for everybody, cure all diseases and ensure world peace, it won’t
necessarily shatter that glass ceiling. Achieving real happiness is not going to be much easier than overcoming old age and death.
The glass ceiling of happiness is held in place by two stout pillars, one psychological, the other biological. On the psychological level, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. We don’t become satisfied by leading a peaceful and prosperous existence. Rather, we become satisfied when reality matches our expectations. The bad news is that as conditions improve, expectations balloon. Dramatic improvements in conditions, as humankind has experienced in recent decades, translate into greater expectations rather than greater contentment. If we don’t do something about this, our future achievements too might leave us as dissatisfied as ever.
On the biological level, both our expectations and our happiness are determined by our biochemistry, rather than by our economic, social or political situation. According to Epicurus, we are happy when we feel pleasant sensations and are free from unpleasant ones. Jeremy Bentham similarly maintained that nature gave dominion over man to two masters – pleasure and pain – and they alone determine everything we do, say and think. Bentham’s successor, John Stuart Mill, explained that happiness is nothing but pleasure and freedom from pain, and that beyond pleasure and pain there is no good and no evil. Anyone who tries to deduce good and evil from something else (such as the word of God, or the national interest) is fooling you, and perhaps fooling himself too.
In the days of Epicurus such talk was blasphemous. In the days of Bentham and Mill it was radical subversion. But in the early twenty-first century this is scientific orthodoxy. According to the life sciences, happiness and suffering are nothing but different balances of bodily sensations. We never react to events in the outside world, but only to sensations in our own bodies. Nobody suffers because she lost her job, because she got divorced or because the government went to war. The only thing that makes people miserable is unpleasant sensations in their own bodies. Losing one’s job can certainly trigger depression, but depression itself
is a kind of unpleasant bodily sensation. A thousand things may make us angry, but anger is never an abstraction. It is always felt as a sensation of heat and tension in the body, which is what makes anger so infuriating. Not for nothing do we say that we ‘burn’ with anger.
Conversely, science says that nobody is ever made happy by getting a promotion, winning the lottery or even finding true love. People are made happy by one thing and one thing only – pleasant sensations in their bodies. Imagine that you are Mario Götze, the attacking midfielder of the German football team in the 2014 World Cup Final against Argentina; 113 minutes have already elapsed, without a goal being scored. Only seven minutes remain before the dreaded penalty shoot-out. Some 75,000 excited fans fill the Maracanã stadium in Rio, with countless millions anxiously watching all over the world. You are a few metres from the Argentinian goal when André Schürrle sends a magnificent pass in your direction. You stop the ball with your chest, it drops down towards your leg, you give it a kick in mid-air, and you see it fly past the Argentinian goalkeeper and bury itself deep inside the net. Goooooooal! The stadium erupts like a volcano. Tens of thousands of people roar like mad, your teammates are racing to hug and kiss you, millions of people back home in Berlin and Munich collapse in tears before the television screen. You are ecstatic, but not because of the ball in the Argentinian net or the celebrations going on in crammed Bavarian
. You are actually reacting to the storm of sensations within you. Chills run up and down your spine, waves of electricity wash over your body, and it feels as if you are dissolving into millions of exploding energy balls.
You don’t have to score the winning goal in the World Cup Final to feel such sensations. If you receive an unexpected promotion at work, and start jumping for joy, you are reacting to the same kind of sensations. The deeper parts of your mind know nothing about football or about jobs. They know only sensations. If you get a promotion, but for some reason don’t feel any pleasant sensations – you
will not feel satisfied. The opposite is also true. If you have just been fired (or lost a decisive football match), but you are experiencing very pleasant sensations (perhaps because you popped some pill), you might still feel on top of the world.
The bad news is that pleasant sensations quickly subside and sooner or later turn into unpleasant ones. Even scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final doesn’t guarantee lifelong bliss. In fact, it might all be downhill from there. Similarly, if last year I received an unexpected promotion at work, I might still be occupying that new position, but the very pleasant sensations I experienced on hearing the news disappeared within hours. If I want to feel those wonderful sensations again, I must get another promotion. And another. And if I don’t get a promotion, I might end up far more bitter and angry than if I had remained a humble pawn.
This is all the fault of evolution. For countless generations our biochemical system adapted to increasing our chances of survival and reproduction, not our happiness. The biochemical system rewards actions conducive to survival and reproduction with pleasant sensations. But these are only an ephemeral sales gimmick. We struggle to get food and mates in order to avoid unpleasant sensations of hunger and to enjoy pleasing tastes and blissful orgasms. But nice tastes and blissful orgasms don’t last very long, and if we want to feel them again we have to go out looking for more food and mates.
What might have happened if a rare mutation had created a squirrel who, after eating a single nut, enjoys an everlasting sensation of bliss? Technically, this could actually be done by rewiring the squirrel’s brain. Who knows, perhaps it really happened to some lucky squirrel millions of years ago. But if so, that squirrel enjoyed an extremely happy and extremely short life, and that was the end of the rare mutation. For the blissful squirrel would not have bothered to look for more nuts, let alone mates. The rival squirrels, who felt hungry again five minutes after eating a nut, had much better chances of surviving and passing their genes to the next generation. For exactly the same reason, the nuts we humans
seek to gather – lucrative jobs, big houses, good-looking partners – seldom satisfy us for long.
Some may say that this is not so bad, because it isn’t the goal that makes us happy – it’s the journey. Climbing Mount Everest is more satisfying than standing at the top; flirting and foreplay are more exciting than having an orgasm; and conducting groundbreaking lab experiments is more interesting than receiving praise and prizes. Yet this hardly changes the picture. It just indicates that evolution controls us with a broad range of pleasures. Sometimes it seduces us with sensations of bliss and tranquillity, while on other occasions it goads us forward with thrilling sensations of elation and excitement.
When an animal is looking for something that increases its chances of survival and reproduction (e.g. food, partners or social status), the brain produces sensations of alertness and excitement, which drive the animal to make even greater efforts because they are so very agreeable. In a famous experiment scientists connected electrodes to the brains of several rats, enabling the animals to create sensations of excitement simply by pressing a pedal. When the rats were given a choice between tasty food and pressing the pedal, they preferred the pedal (much like kids preferring to play video games rather than come down to dinner). The rats pressed the pedal again and again, until they collapsed from hunger and exhaustion.
Humans too may prefer the excitement of the race to resting on the laurels of success. Yet what makes the race so attractive is the exhilarating sensations that go along with it. Nobody would have wanted to climb mountains, play video games or go on blind dates if such activities were accompanied solely by unpleasant sensations of stress, despair or boredom.
Alas, the exciting sensations of the race are as transient as the blissful sensations of victory. The Don Juan enjoying the thrill of a one-night stand, the businessman enjoying biting his fingernails watching the Dow Jones rise and fall, and the gamer enjoying killing monsters on the computer screen will find no satisfaction
remembering yesterday’s adventures. Like the rats pressing the pedal again and again, the Don Juans, business tycoons and gamers need a new kick every day. Worse still, here too expectations adapt to conditions, and yesterday’s challenges all too quickly become today’s tedium. Perhaps the key to happiness is neither the race nor the gold medal, but rather combining the right doses of excitement and tranquillity; but most of us tend to jump all the way from stress to boredom and back, remaining as discontented with one as with the other.
If science is right and our happiness is determined by our biochemical system, then the only way to ensure lasting contentment is by rigging this system. Forget economic growth, social reforms and political revolutions: in order to raise global happiness levels, we need to manipulate human biochemistry. And this is exactly what we have begun doing over the last few decades. Fifty years ago psychiatric drugs carried a severe stigma. Today, that stigma has been broken. For better or worse, a growing percentage of the population is taking psychiatric medicines on a regular basis, not only to cure debilitating mental illnesses, but also to face more mundane depressions and the occasional blues.