The point of technological development and social change
What’s the point of technological development and social change? What’s the point of agriculture, cities, writing, money, empires, science, industry, human rights and democracy? This universe doesn’t exist to please us. The same is true for technological advances and social changes. These things don’t happen to make us happier. For instance, humans switched to agriculture because agriculture could feed more people. Farmers soon outnumbered hunter-gatherers even though the lives of these farmers were more miserable.1 Private property, individual rights and independent courts emerged because countries that had them came to dominate the planet. It is survival of the fittest, not happiness that drives history.
Technological advances happen because investors expect to profit from new technologies or because governments see some use of it. And so scientists fetch budgets for their research and get busy. Efficiency considerations do the rest. More efficient designs win out. Making people happier may be a side-effect but not necessarily so.
Social reforms can make people happier, but it is a lot harder than you might think. For example, equal rights for women and minorities, and many other social justice issues have a long history of struggle and are yet to be fully resolved. Cultural differences are often an underlying cause of these issues. For instance, the gap between liberals from the city and rural conservatives can be too large to bridge. It is difficult to alter views and attitudes so trying to resolve them can lead to social conflicts.
And so social reforms don’t necessarily make people happier. If there is a social norm, for example of the man being the head of the family, then women may be happy with this arrangement. Introducing feminist ideas can produce tensions and women may not always become happier as a consequence, let alone men. Perhaps propaganda can help. If you are taught that women and men should have equal rights, you may be happier with such an arrangement.
So what makes people happy? It is an important question. There are several issues that seem to have an effect on our sense of happiness:
- chemical processes in the body
- human needs
- having a sense of purpose
- the social and political environment
Chemical processes in the body
Some people are always happy despite adversity and poor living conditions. Other people are always bitter even when they prosper and have no serious problems. That has something to do with chemical processes in the body. If happiness is about chemical processes in the body then making people happy is about inventing the right pills and distributing them. Indeed pills can help to end a depression. Many people believe that pills give a false sense of happiness. Still, more and more people take pills to feel better.
Hierarchy of human needs
Abraham Maslow came up with a hierarchy of human needs. He thought that basic needs such as food and shelter are paramount. Only if these needs are fulfilled you want security. Maslow thought that if you don’t have food, security becomes of secondary importance, and if you have food and security, love and attention become more important. And if you have all that, you want to be respected and have a sense of purpose in your life. And even though the hierarchy is contested, the needs Maslow identified aren’t questioned.
Does money make you happier? A lot of research has gone into this question. The results aren’t surprising. If you are poor then more money will probably make you happier. Poor people often worry about making ends meet. As soon as you can buy the things you need and have no financial worries, the picture becomes confusing. In that case more money can make you happier, but only if you spend it right. But what is right is a personal matter. So if you have the money, you should go on that vacation or go to that concert, but only if that is what you really want to do.
Expectations can be important. If you expect to get a small car, and you get a medium sized car instead, your expectations are exceeded. That can make you happy for a while. But if you expected to get a big car, and you get the same medium sized car, your expectations are not met. And that can make you sad for a while. In both cases it is the same car. If you expected less, you are happy with the car, but if you expected more, the same car makes you feel bad. People tend to adapt to a new situation so after a while the happiness or the sadness from missed expectations is gone. Lowering expectations is a possible path to happiness.
Similarly, if you are better off than your peers, it can give you satisfaction. Alternatively, if you are worse off it can displease you. Happiness can depend on the people you compare yourself to. The attention given to celebrities, their riches, and their beautiful husbands and wives can give you the unpleasant feeling that you have to keep up with them. This can make you go to the gym or the plastic surgeon and buy things you can’t afford and turn down potential spouses who aren’t rich or don’t look so great. The advertisement industry makes use of this by trying to make us unhappy so that we will buy more stuff. It can also explain why people in more equal societies are happier on average.
Gautama Buddha also weighed in on the issue. He lived 2,500 years ago and was the founder of Buddhism. You may have seen a statue or a picture of him because his image has become quite popular in recent decades. Buddha taught that people are always craving for temporary feelings and things. This craving causes a permanent state of dissatisfaction. As soon as you have achieved a desired feeling, for example love, or acquired a desired object, for example a car, you will start to crave for something else. That probably sounds familiar.
Buddha also taught that this craving will tie us up in this world so that our souls will continue to reincarnate and suffer from craving. Only when we stop craving and disengage ourselves from this world, we can disappear into nothingness, which he believed to be a state of eternal peace. This type of happiness is a tranquillity can cause by detachment from mundane affairs that may come close to not caring.
If you think that your life has meaning that can make you happy. Religious people may be happier than atheists because they believe that they play a role in the great cosmic scheme of God while atheists may believe that their life has no purpose. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman came up with a similar conclusion. He researched a group of women and interviewed them about their daily activities, and which activities gave them pleasure. He also asked the women what made them happy.
Caring for their children were amongst the activities that gave them the least pleasure. But when he asked these women what made them the most happy they answered that their children made them the most happy. Perhaps the children gave meaning to their lives. Perhaps these women were just deluding themselves. Similarly, if you think that your job is important, that may give meaning to your life, but that can be a delusion too. If you didn’t do your job, someone else probably would. Such delusions can make us happy so it may not be so bad to have them.
Social and political reforms
If we contemplate social reforms we might need to ask ourselves: “Will they make us happier?” Perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much from social and political institutions in this respect. That doesn’t mean improvements aren’t worthwhile. If they don’t matter then it doesn’t matter where you live. So why do so many immigrants come to Europe or to the United States? Most immigrants try to escape poverty or they flee for oppressive regimes.
Perhaps people in Africa and South America learn about the life in Europe or the United States and become dissatisfied because they are worse off. Whatever their motives might be, it appears that prosperity and social institutions do matter, and that is why it can be a good idea to engage in social and political reforms, and to aim for the highest standards everywhere around the globe, so that life in Africa and South America is as good as it is in Western Europe.
In developed countries the role of the state and the market economy increased at the expense of the family and the community. This can cause alienation and stress as humans have evolved to live in small groups of kins, not in the anonymity of the state and the market. So developed countries may have to change too. Reducing the role of governments and markets may require enlarging the role of communities and families. Life in communities and families wasn’t ideal either so people may not always become happier as a consequence.
– Rock cut seated Buddha statue, Andhra Pradesh, India CC BY-SA 3.0. Adityamadhav83. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22764139