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The History and Mystery of Happiness

The dance of progress, technology and happiness

Objectively speaking, this is the best time to be alive. In the last 20 years, almost 50% of the world has been lifted out of poverty. Life expectancy has increased to 71.4, infant mortality has reduced hundredfold in the last 250 years and obesity now kills more people worldwide than car crashes, terror attacks, and Alzheimer’s combined.

Democracy has suffered obvious setbacks in several countries and is threatened by the rise of authoritarian populism. Yet the world has never been more democratic than it has been in the past decade, with two-thirds of the world’s people living in democracies. As Dr. Steven Pinker tells us, over the last century, we’ve become 96 percent less likely to be killed in a car crash, 88 percent less likely to be mowed down on the sidewalk, 99 percent less likely to die in a plane crash, 95 percent less likely to be killed on the job, 89 percent less likely to be killed by an act of God, such as a drought, flood or wildfire. Today, more than 90 percent of the world’s population under the age of 25 can read and write.

Do these changes in factors like health, safety, income and education make us happier? The World Happiness Report (WHR) seems to think so.

The WHR is a landmark survey of the state of global happiness. The 2018 edition ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels, and 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants. Turns out that about 86% of the countries have become progressively happier in the recent decades.

But does it feel that we are all happier? If things were so great, why would the UK appoint a minister of loneliness? Not to be left behind, UAE appointed a minister of happiness. Honorable Minister Ohood Al Roumi’s job is no laughing matter, she insists.

Ask your friends or your coworkers about happiness and they will very likely point you straight towards the editorial recounting the latest bombings or civil wars.

Good news doesn’t make headlines. Bad news does. It sells. People remember it. Therein lies the conundrum of the availability heuristic: we often misjudge the frequency and magnitude of events that happened recently and we remember things better when there is a vivid narrative attached to it.

To be clear, I am not saying that life is unequivocally great and all that is unpleasant can be reduced to our mind playing tricks with us. That would be far too simplistic and even disrespectful to the daily struggles for survival for almost half the world.

The purpose of this article is to analyze the difficulty of feeling happy in today’s world.

Let us start by defining happiness. Simply put, it is difference between expectation and reality. Using this definition and Yuval Noah Harrari’s analysis, there are three explanations why we may not feel happy. First, Expectations tend to adapt to conditions. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in conditions might leave us as dissatisfied as before. Second, both our expectations and our happiness are determined by our internal biochemical system. And our biochemical system is concerned with survival, not happiness. Third, we humans simply don’t understand happiness. We are like Alice in wonderland asking the Cheshire Cat about the road to take. Paraphrasing the wise cat – if we don’t know where we are going, any road will get us there. Confusion convolutes happiness.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the future has a lot of confusion in store for all of us. We are witnessing the concomitant acceleration of Moore’s Law (technological change), Mother Nature (climate change) and Markets (globalization). This is helping us solve myriad challenges at breakneck speeds but at the same time, it is putting tremendous pressure on existing institutions and structures.

Leaders do not know how to solve problems of the future so they are trying to make us embrace the mythical past where America was great, grass was green, people were pretty, prices were low and everyone lived in peace and harmony.

As Harari eloquently puts it, the past wasn’t great and it is definitely not coming back. In simple words, we can’t aspire to be happy in the 21st century with logic-defying comfort of the past. Nostalgia has room in romantic novels and it makes for relatable political speeches, but it won’t help us address the challenges of tomorrow or shape the present and be happy.

I am not a spiritual savant or a life guru so I will refrain from offering transcendental advice. I am a regular guy who has been a part of several interesting companies, communities and institutions. Embracing multiple identities of a theater person and a technocrat enabled me to nurture ambiguity better. Given below aren’t hacks for happiness but three things that I believe will paint the future of this layered subject.

1. Know Thyself: The ancient Greek aphorism sounds simple but is probably the most complicated ask of our time. Who knows us the best? Parents, siblings, spouses or our browsing history? In a data-fueled world, we are bombarded with information all day long. When do we process this information and ask ourselves what are we, where do we come from and where are going? Harari, the expert historian-cum-futurist – one of the inspirations for this article, embarked upon the quest to know thyself way back in Oxford when he realized that he didn’t even have the focus to concentrate on his breath for a few seconds. He turned to Vipassana Meditation and with hard work and commitment to regular digital detox, found his calling and intellectual voice. Even today, he spends 2 hours every day meditating. He doesn’t even own a smart phone. (I often wonder how he keeps tweeting. Maybe he has a bot) His quest for knowledge – both internal and external – has helped him know his own self slightly better, something we all can learn from.

2. Be Prepared to Reinvent Yourself – Multiple Times: Lynda Gratton and Andrew Scott, authors of “The 100-Year Life” share thought-provoking insights about the future of work and life. They content that most readers of this article will have a realistic shot of living more than 100 years. They also believe that retirement as a concept would vanish and pension funds will fade away. The combination of all these factors imply that people will roughly be working for 80 years. In that period, the world will change multiple times. What students learn in schools will be redundant by the time they graduate. People will commit later in life. Family structures will change. This tectonic change may lead to anxiety which can only be mitigated through resilience of spirit and power of grit – virtues that can be cultivated through communities, not alone.

3. Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously: Nobody knows what is really going to happen in the future. Believing that we have figured out the mystery of life through data, divinity or conviction will make us look foolish as time unfolds. Remember Feynman – “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool

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