I just finished reading a book that was pretty interesting called “Sapiens:A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. Sometimes I read something, or hear something, that I want to keep handy, close by or pass along to our kids. This is just such a passage. It had nothing to do with homes, but there was a chapter that dealt with what the definition of happiness is. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, the upcoming holidays and gift buying, I thought I would share a little bit….enjoy the ride.
“The most important finding of all 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. If you want a cheap car and you get a cheap car, you are content. If you want a brand new Ferrari and get only a second hand Fiat, you feel deprived. This is why winning the lottery has, over time, the same impact on people’s happiness as a debilitating car accident. When things improve, expectations balloon, and consequently even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied. When things deteriorate, expectations shrink, and consequently even a severe illness might leave you pretty much as happy as you were before.
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.
When we try to guess or imagine how happy other people are now, or how people in the past were, we inevitably imagine ourselves in their shoes. But that won’t work because it pastes our expectations on to the material conditions of others. In modern affluent societies it is customary to take a shower and change your clothes every day. Medieval peasants went without washing for months on end and hardly ever changed their clothes. Yet medieval peasants seem not to have minded. They were used to the feel and the smell of a long unlaundered shirt. It’s not that they wanted a change of clothes but couldn’t get it – they had what they wanted. So, at least as far as clothing goes, they were content.
If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society – mass media and the advertising industry -may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment. If you were an eighteen-year old youth in a small village 5,000 years ago you’d probably think you were good-looking because there were only 50 other men in your village and most of them were either old, scarred and wrinkled, or still little kids. But if you are a teenager today you are a lot more likely to feel inadequate. Even if the other guys at school are an ugly lot, you don’t measure yourself against them but against the movie starts, athletes and supermodels you see all day on television, Facebook and giant billboards.
So maybe Third World discontent is fomented not merely by poverty, disease, corruption and political oppression but also by mere exposure to the First World standards. The average Egyptian was far less likely to die from starvation, plague or violence under Hosni Mubarak than under the Ramses II or Cleopatra. Never had the material condition of most Egyptians been so good. You’d think they would have been dancing in the streets in 2011, thanking Allah for their good fortune. Instead they rose up furiously to overthrow Mubarak. They weren’t comparing themselves to their ancestors under the pharaoh’s, but rather to their contemporaries in America.
We modern people have an arsenal of tranquilizers and pain killers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did. “