Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute
Modern society and finding true happiness
“But are we happier?”
This is the question asked in one of the last chapters of the best-selling book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Author historian Yuval Noah Harari reviews in his not so “brief” story (over 400 pages) the development of early human forms, going back over 2 million years to the first homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago, and their eventual domination of the planet today. Harari, an Oxford Ph.D., organizes his sweeping story around three major revolutions: the cognitive, agricultural, and scientific revolutions.
Since the scientific revolution, he describes the result of the last 500 years as follows:
“The earth has been united into a single ecological and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially, and humankind today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stuff of fairy tales. Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind superhuman powers and practically limitless energy. The social order has been completely transformed, as have politics, daily life, and human psychology.
“But are we happier?”
He suggests that most ideologies and political promises are “based on rather flimsy ideas concerning the real source of human happiness.” Historians research everything from politics and economics to diseases and sexuality, but rarely ask how any of this affects human happiness.
There have been impressive medical gains in terms of child mortality and extension of life span, as well as in the reduction of famines and poverty. Studies have shown, however, that “family and community have more impact on happiness than money and health.” Have our material advances combined with more mobility and individual independence been at the cost of community and family?
Only recently have scientists attempted to measure and study human happiness. Harari notes the most important finding is that “happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health, or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.” He adds, “Prophets, poets, and philosophers realized thousands of years ago that being satisfied with what you already have is far more important than getting more of what you want. Still, it’s nice when modern research – bolstered by lots of numbers and charts – reaches the same conclusions the ancients did.”
Expectations are also important to our perceived happiness, but thanks to the media and advertising we are continually exposed to idealized images of what we should want and how we should look. We are even presented with both legal and illegal chemical means to improve happiness, but likely providing just temporary pleasure.
Nobel laureate in economics Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, points out a paradox in temporary experiences of pleasure or displeasure versus a long-term sense of happiness. For example, the day-to-day experiences of raising children provide many opportunities for drudgery or discouragement. From changing diapers and dealing with tantrums, to the many disappointments in the growing-up years, these are not particularly inspiring. But most parents will reflect back and affirm that their children are their greatest source of happiness. Again, the important distinction between pleasure and happiness points to what Harari concludes, “happiness consists in seeing one’s life in its entirety as meaningful and worthwhile.”
While historian Harari takes a secular and scientific perspective on these issues, he does point to the philosophers, prophets, and religious leaders who have taken a different approach to happiness. We know from other authors that happiness is a much different concept than individual pleasure. For example, Mahatma Gandhi taught, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” It has more to do with one’s integrity and consistency with how one feels. There is also the issue of whether we can even seek happiness as a goal, or is it something that comes to us when we are seeking and working toward something bigger than oneself? As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
In American culture, happiness is often connected to individuality and autonomy. The Declaration of Independence declares “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a basic right. While this American tradition and law promotes individual rights and happiness, most religious expressions describe happiness in terms of duty and responsibility. It’s not so much having our desires met and being successful and prosperous that brings happiness, but being true to one’s responsibility to God and to one’s authentic self.
Buddhism teaches the liberation from suffering by rising above the craving for particular feelings. The Psalms tell us to “worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful song.” (Psalms 100:2) Considered one of the greatest thinkers in Islam, al-Ghazali wrote the book, The Alchemy of Happiness in which he taught that one achieves ultimate happiness by rejecting worldliness and finding complete devotion to God.
Christians often refer to the Sermon on the Mount, when the vision expressed in Jesus’ teaching of the Beatitudes offers the best way to happiness. Jesus calls “blessed” the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, etc. Some modern translations use the word “Happy” to describe these blessings. The 19th century Scottish publisher Robert Young translated the Bible seeking to be faithful to the literal meaning of the original words. His rendering of Jesus’ teaching recorded in Matthew was as follows:
“Happy those hungering and thirsting for righteousness -- because they shall be filled.
Happy the kind -- because they shall find kindness.
Happy the clean in heart -- because they shall see God.
Happy the peacemakers -- because they shall be called Sons of God.”
(Matthew 5:6-9, YTL – Young’s Literal Translation)
So, does our modern society with its prosperity, freedoms, and opportunity for pleasure and entertainment provide us with more happiness? Perhaps the answer is not from the historians, economists, or scientists. We must look deeper into the traditions from the poets, prophets, and priests in our search.