The ideas shared in this blog are mostly taken from: Harari, Y. N. (2017). The Right to Happiness. In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (pp. 30-43).
Author Yuval Noah Harari has two bestseller books over the past 5 years, ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’ both of which I’ve immensely enjoyed during the past few weeks. Harari’s PhD in History from Oxford, professorship at the Hebrew University in Israel, and deep commitment to Vipassana meditation lend him the moxy to answer big historical and future-oriented questions.
Harari is also partly responsible for my interest in Vipassana meditation because of the benefit which he ascribes to his annual 30 or 60 day silent retreats. I assume that his clarity of ideas is a result of his Herculean efforts of concentration on retreat and in daily practice.
In ‘Sapiens’, he explains the rise and success of humanity from the savannas of East Africa to modern Wall Street through the development of writing, money, and capitalism. He offers interpretations on the costs and benefits of major developments in human history such as how the creation and valuation of money and capital has created a global standard allowing worldwide transmission of ideas and services while simultaneously creating the greed and apathy necessary for the Atlantic slave trade and global warming.
In ‘Homo Deus’, Harari’s 2nd book, he muses about the future of humanity and the great existential challenges we will face. Since the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago, humanity has mostly occupied itself with preventing and or dealing with plague, famine, and war. For the last half century, the world has been mostly peaceful, mostly without widespread starvation, and mostly without catastrophic epidemics. There are, of course, horrendous exceptions to these rules which any person finds intolerable (Syria, Central American gang violence, US border detentions of immigrants, AIDS, Ebola, Rwanda). Harari contextualizes these episodes without dismissing their import, compared with all known history, we are currently in the most peaceful, well-fed, and healthy time ever.
If the trend continues and we avert ecological collapse or nuclear holocaust (two enormous ifs), Harari would argue that humanity will use its newly freed resources to improve levels of happiness. The marker for national success will shift from per capita income and Gross Domestic Product (G.D.P) to G.D.H. – Gross Domestic Happiness. As evidence for the shifting trend from productivity to happiness, Harari highlights the discrepancy between Singapore and Costa Rica. Singapore’s $90k per capita GDP eclipses Costa Rica’s $17k per capita GDP, yet Costa Rica continually scores higher on measures of citizens’ well-being. Clearly money correlates with happiness, but Harari suggests that there are diminishing returns after a certain point and there are factors other than money to consider when seeking happiness. More money and more productivity does not always translate to more fulfillment (p. 32).
Instead of continually rising GDP and per capita income, citizens will demand their governments improve their levels of happiness. The quasi-socialized governments of Scandinavia provide models for the future: healthcare for almost all, access to good education, less wealth disparity. The state assumes a bigger role in its citizens’ well-being. Our inalienable rights may be life, liberty, and (the pursuit of) happiness. Harari predicts this will increasingly be the expectation for governments (p. 32).
However, there are some troubling statistics that are not easy reconciled with the idea of ever increasing happiness by way of state provision as Harari notes. In Peru, the Philippines, Guatemala, and Albania the suicide rate is roughly 1 per 100,000 citizens per year while far wealthier and socialized Switzerland, France, Japan, and New Zealand have a rate of 25 per 100,00 citizens per year. In 1985, South Korea was a whisper of the regional power it is today. Its citizens are wealthier, better educated, and living under a far less authoritarian government. Why then has the suicide rate tripled in 30 years? (p. 33)
Since the 1940’s the US GDP grew 500% and per capita income doubled. Women, African Americans, non-heterosexuals and other minority groups increased their share of rights. A deluge of cheap goods from the recently globalized marketplace equipped almost every home with a TV, AC unit, computer, and other gadgets (p.34). Why then has subjective well-being stayed mostly the same or even decreased over that time? Statisticians and epidemiologists would find many correlations for this phenomena: rising income inequality, 24/7 work expectations, a decreasing sense of community. Harari’s Buddhist philosophy shines through as he explains this phenomena is a basic tendency of the human mind as much as it is a sociological problem.
As our access to goods and services increases, so do our expectations. We don’t feel content or grateful that we no longer have to use an outhouse or scythe our grains, instead we see it as normal and look for a new source of happiness. Harari further illuminates,‘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?' (p. 34)
Our mind has evolved over millions of years to ceaselessly seek pleasurable experiences. A wild ape that experiences everlasting bliss from eating a single mango would have no motivation to do anything else with its life, including sex or seeking more food. Baby chimps would never birthe and that line of genetic material would orgasmically howl to a stop. Part of our success as a species results from our endless need for stimulation (p. 37).
Our modern rewards are no longer as simple as food to survive and mates for procreation. Instead they are a job promotion, a better looking partner, or a more exotic vacation. While the tangible prizes have dramatically shifted over the past 12,000 years, our internal biochemistry and mindset has not (p. 38). No matter the means, pleasant sensations and thoughts never last and today’s excitement becomes tomorrow’s humdrum.
Harari and the Buddha might say that there is (and has been) a fork in the road for humankind. One path attempts to perpetuate the stream of pleasant sensations so that we never experience boredom, frustration, or sadness, while the other seeks to circumvent the whole system and see sensations for what they are – ephemeral and unworthy of pursuit or avoidance.
Harari believes humanity has mostly chosen to increase access to pleasant sensations as evidenced by our consumer culture that encourages us to do more, be more, and consume more in the name of happiness. He also cites the increasing usage of psychiatric drugs for less ‘serious’ psychiatric conditions especially in already well-off industrialized countries (p. 39). Of course, psychiatric drugs and services are essential to many, but the thrust of Harari’s point is that our consumer culture assumes that happiness is around the corner and through the gift shop. And the cost of our ballooned expectations and consumption is a degrading global ecosystem and a troubling rise in suicide.
While Harari is careful to offer possibilities rather than solutions, we may look to his own personal life in addition to his writing to find some hope. Collectively, we will continue our exponential problem-solving capacity through computer learning and bioengineer new ways to keep ourselves happy and, if we’re lucky, avoid environmental doomsday. New technology will extend the quality and length of our life while artificial intelligence will create new dimensions of the mind and consciousness. Individually, we will re-examine what it means to be happy and instead of hastening our pursuit of pleasure, we might restrain it.
My ongoing exploration into therapy related topics.