Can we be happy?

What is the point?

What is the point of new ideas, technological development and social struggle? Why do we have agriculture, industry, cities, writing, money, empires, science, property, human rights and democracy? If these things do not make us happier, then what is the point of pursuing them? The historian Yuval Harari poses this question in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.1 And it is a pressing question indeed. Why should we pursue them?

Things do not happen to make us happier. Humans switched to agriculture because agriculture feeds more people. The farmers had miserable lives compared to the hunter-gatherers that preceded them. They worked harder, their diet was less varied, and they had more violent conflicts.1 Once people planted crops, their population grew, and they could not go back to life as it was before as that would mean starvation.

Technological advances occur because investors expect to profit from new technologies or because governments want to use them, for instance, to win a war. And so, scientists fetch budgets for their research and get busy. Smartphones exist because investors profit from making them. Your smartphone does not exist to make you feel better, but to make you addicted. And now we have smartphones, we cannot go back.

Social reforms do not always make people feel better. If there is a norm, for example, the man being the head of the family, many women might be content with the arrangement. If women had been in charge, men might have accepted that too. A norm gives clarity, and change brings discomfort. Feminism liberated women, and overall it probably made women happier. It also raised tensions, and many men would like to see a return to the times before the MeToo movement when they did not have to be so careful.

So what makes us happy? This question is not easy to answer. It depends on the individual and the circumstances. Several issues influence our happiness:

  • our needs
  • chemical processes in the body
  • money
  • our expectations
  • our desires
  • having a sense of purpose
  • social trust
Maslov’s hierarchy of human needs

Hierarchy of human needs

Abraham Maslow came up with a hierarchy of human needs. He claimed that basic needs such as food and shelter are paramount. Once you have them, you desire security. Maslow believed that if you have food and security, you crave love and attention. And if you have all that, you want to be respected and have a sense of purpose in your life. These needs exist but do not come to us in a hierarchical order.

Chemical processes in the body

Some people are always cheery despite adversity and misery. Others are always bitter and angry, even when they prosper and face no serious problems. That has to do with body chemistry. If cheerfulness comes from chemistry, we can be happier by taking pills. Pharmaceutics can end depression, but might also give a false sense of happiness. And do pills make you better or do you become addicted to them? The difference between prescription drugs and harmful substances like cocaine is not always clear. Nevertheless, more and more people use pills to feel better.


If you are poor, some extra money will make you happier. Poor people worry about making ends meet. And that is why poor people often feel miserable. It becomes less clear once you can buy the things you need and have no financial worries. More money can make you happier, for instance, if you spend it on the right things. What is right is a personal matter. So if you can afford it, you should buy that garden gnome you always craved.

The more you have, the less extra makes you happier. Your first automobile can make you happy. You can go where you want when you want. A second car makes less of a difference. You and your husband can go to different places on the same evening, but that rarely happens. A third and a fourth car probably have no use unless you are a car collector and have a garage where you can spend your days gazing at your automobiles.


Suppose I promised you an ice cream. If you expected to get a small cone, but I gave you a medium-sized one, the outcome exceeded your expectations. It can make you happy. But if you anticipated a large cone and got the same medium-sized cone, the result failed to meet your expectations. And that can make you unhappy.

If you anticipated less than what you get, that could make you happy, but if you expected more, it could make you feel unhappy. People adapt to new situations. After a while, the happiness or the sadness is gone. Having low expectations can be a path to happiness. If you expect the day to be miserable and that does not happen, it can make you happy.

Similarly, if you are better off than your peers, it can give you satisfaction. Alternatively, being worse off can be displeasing. Your happiness depends on the people to which you compare yourself. The attention given to celebrities, their riches, and their beautiful husbands and wives can give you the unpleasant feeling that your life is subpar.

It can make you go to the gym or the plastic surgeon, buy things you cannot afford and turn down potential spouses who are not rich or do not look so great. The advertising industry uses this to make us buy more stuff. It may explain why people in more equal societies are often happier.

Rock cut seated Buddha statue, Andhra Pradesh, India


Gautama Buddha also weighed in on the issue. He lived 2,500 years ago and founded Buddhism. Mr Buddha taught that people crave temporary feelings and things, which causes permanent dissatisfaction. As soon as you have achieved a desired goal, such as love, or acquired a desired object, for example, a car, you will crave something else.

That ties us up in this world so our souls will reincarnate and keep suffering from craving, or so Mr Buddha said. When we stop doing that and disengage ourselves from this world, we disappear into nothingness, a state of eternal peace. So, according to Mr Buddha, happiness is about letting things go. And that became a religion.

Having a sense of purpose

Believing that your life has a purpose can make you feel better. If you believe in God, you may think you play a role in the cosmic scheme of God, while atheists may believe their life has no purpose. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman arrived at a similar conclusion. He interviewed women about their daily activities and which gave them pleasure. He also asked these women what made them happy.

Caring for their children was among the activities that gave them the least pleasure. But when he asked these women what made them the happiest, they answered that their children gave them the most joy. The children gave meaning to their lives. Maybe these women deluded themselves. Similarly, if you think that your job is significant, that may give purpose to your life, but that can be a delusion too.1

Social trust

Can you trust your family and neighbours? Is the contractor who renovates your home honouring the agreement, and you have no worries that he does? If you leave your bike behind, do you expect it to be there when you return? Do you feel safe on the streets? Is no one carrying a gun or a knife? Do you trust the police and the government? Can you believe what you hear on the news and read in the newspapers? Are most strangers trustworthy? If you can answer all these questions with yes, you live in a society or village with a lot of social trust.

Societies can make us happier if there is social trust. Otherwise, your neighbours might steal your possessions, criminals rule the streets, corporations dump their waste in the sea, the government is spying on innocent people, and you carry a knife or a gun to protect yourself from others who carry a gun or a knife. Would it not be better that you could leave your home without locking the door and that you do not have to worry about criminals, the government, or corporations, and can go where you please without feeling unsafe? Many villages and some societies are like that or were.

Latest update 17 May 2023

Picture: Rock cut seated Buddha statue, Andhra Pradesh, India CC BY-SA 3.0. Adityamadhav83. Wikimedia Commons.

1. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari (2014). Harvil Secker.

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