The point of technological development and social change
What’s the point of technological development and social change? What’s the point of inventing agriculture, cities, writing, money, empires, science and industry if that doesn’t make us happier? What’s the point of human rights and democracy? If these things don’t make people happier then why bother? Making people happier is not always the reason why things happen. Technological advances do not happen to make us happier but because investors expect to profit from a new technology or because a government sees some use of it. And so scientists fetch budgets for their research and get busy.
That may be different for social reforms, but it is a lot harder than you might think. For example, equal rights for women, ending discrimination of minorities, and many other social justice issues have a long history, and are yet to be fully resolved. It is difficult to alter views and attitudes. And social reforms don’t necessarily make people happier either. 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, and the introduction of feminist ideas can produce tensions. Women may not always become happier as a consequence, let alone men.
Chemical processes in the body
Some people are always happy despite adversity and poor living conditions. Some people are always sad despite being prosperous and without serious problems. That has something to do with chemical processes in the body. But if happiness is about chemical processes in the body then promoting happiness is just inventing the right pills. Indeed pills can help to end a depression. Many people believe that these pills give a false sense of happiness, but more and more people take these pills.
Hierarchy of human needs
Abraham Maslow came up with a hierarchy of human needs. He thought that the most basic needs such as food and shelter are the most important. If these needs are fulfilled then people start to be more interested in 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, it becomes more important to you 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 can 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. What is right is a personal consideration. So if you have the money, you should go on that vacation or go to that concert, but only if that is what you want to do.
Expectations can be important too. 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 sad. People tend to adapt to a new situation so after a while the happiness or the sadness is gone.
Similarly, if you are better off than others, it can give you satisfaction. Alternatively, if you are worse off than your peers, 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. It is sometimes argued that the advertisement industry aims 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 was the founder of Buddhism. You may have seen a statue or a picture of him because he 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 very 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 is a state of eternal peace. This is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. What Buddhism teaches us, is that accepting the things the way they are, and stop craving for things and feelings that only give temporary pleasure, can make us happier. This type of happiness is a form of tranquillity caused by detachment from mundane affairs.
Last but not least, if you think that your life has meaning, that can make you happy. Religious people may be happier than atheists because they may 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.
It turned out that 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 like religious people. 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. Yet, if ignorance is bliss and delusions can make us happy, it may not be delusional to believe in them.
Social and political reforms can be worthwhile
If we contemplate social reforms we might need to ask ourselves: “Will they make us happier?” Perhaps we shouldn’t expect too much from political and social institutions in this respect. That doesn’t mean improvements aren’t worthwhile, because if they aren’t then why do so many immigrants come to Europe or to North America? Many seek a job. Others flee for oppressive regimes.
Immigrants seek a better life for themselves and their families. The hierarchy of needs might help to explain this. 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.
– 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