Alongside the rights to life and liberty, crafters of the United States Declaration of Independence added a third: the pursuit of happiness. Historian Yuval Noah Harari writes that happiness itself is not an inalienable right—the pursuit of it is. Semantics matter.
In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari picks up where his last book, Sapiens, left off. Happiness is an important theme as it has become one of the most elusive emotional conditions of our era. While Americans often consider it to be a default setting, Harari points out that initially happiness was introduced as a check on state power.
He writes a society built on the right to make your own decisions in the “private sphere of choice, free from state supervision” was the intention behind Jefferson and crew. Over the last few decades, however, Americans have turned more toward British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s demand that the sole purpose of the state, financial markets, and science “is to increase global happiness.”
But we’re not happier. In many ways we’re more distraught than ever. This counterintuitive condition makes no sense of the surface. Harari notes that in ancient agriculture societies 15 percent of deaths were caused by violence; during the twentieth century that number dwindled to 5 percent; and now, over the last seventeen years, we’re at 1 percent, which made him realize, “sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.”
Technology alone is not to blame, as in many ways our uneasiness with our condition seems an old trait. The human nervous systems is wired to be on constant alert for threats in the environment. Given how few we encounter on a regular basis, this threat detection system has been co-opted by the luxury of security, causing Harari to realize that:
The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more.
And we’re good at more. Since the fifteenth century an increasing desire for goods has taken root in societies across the planet. America is usually targeted as the primary driver behind unnecessary purchasing, though history professor Frank Trentmann points out a trifecta of “comfort, cleanliness and convenience” that took root centuries earlier in the Netherlands, Italy, and China, the latter which he calls a “proto-consumer culture.”
Novelty is a key driver in consumption—the average German today, Trentmann writes, owns 10,000 objects. Our current technological boom has exploited our brain’s novelty bias: the constant yearning for new simulation, a kitten video or text message. Harari continues:
Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity.
Despite wealth and security suicide rates in developed nations are much higher than in traditional societies. Our pursuit—or really, our expectation—of happiness causes us to veer from stress to boredom throughout the day. Being busy usurps being productive. Downtime is an opportunity to fill our mind with mostly irrelevant media that does nothing to enhance the quality of our lives.
Harari cites Epicurus, who warned that an immoderate pursuit of pleasure inevitably leads to misery. He then discusses the Buddha, that misquoted and misunderstood Indian sage often associated with happiness. The Buddha actually warned against such a chase, deciding contentment was more worthwhile (and saner). The pursuit of pleasure is the root of suffering. Harari goes on:
Such sensations are just ephemeral and meaningless vibrations. Even when we experience them, we don’t react to them with contentment; rather, we just crave more. Hence no matter how many blissful or exciting sensations I may experience, they will never satisfy me.
Harari knows these demons well, which is why he meditates for two hours every day and spends sixty days each year on a silent Vipassana retreat. This is a stunning departure from the constant stream of information most people endure on a daily basis. An economy built on perpetual growth needs to keep its citizens consistently engaged hunting down the mechanisms of perpetual growth. During a period in which many old concerns, such as daily meals and shelter, are meaningless to many, we’re no less satisfied. Instead we run after immortality and bliss.
Checking state power is not the concern it once was. While these are turbulent times Harari believes government has taken on a largely administrative role. Real influence is at the corporate level. Keeping us busy keeps us buying, though we’ll never get ahead when our peers download the latest upgrade. Now that antibiotics and vaccines have saved so many lives the promise of AI and immortality keep us chasing distant dreams—and being dissatisfied at the results. Harari puts it best when writing:
If you think that religious fanatics with burning eyes and flowing beards are ruthless, just wait and see what elderly retail moguls and aging Hollywood starlets will do when they think the elixir of life is within reach.
Reaching is one of our greatest attributes. Yet it is also our demise. The ecological destruction humans have waged on this planet to simply live a middle class existence is both profound and shunned—we earned those 10,000 things. Not only that, we deserve them. While we should be grateful for the rights to pursue what inspires us, our lack of contentedness with what we’ve acquired keeps us sprinting on the hamster wheel of more.
As Trentmann points out, the Latin consumere meant a “physical exhaustion of matter.” For example, the wasting disease, tuberculosis, was referred to as consumption. While we’ve redefined that word in modern times the original intention seems destined to win out. Once our resources are depleted we’ll fall victim to our drive toward perpetual happiness, an impossible illusion we could never admit to.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.