“Friends giving advice often tell each other, follow your heart. But the heart is a double agent that usually takes its instructions from the dominant myths of the day,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. What we want, what we believe is possible for us, and how we experience the world is often dominated by the larger culture that we are a part of. This means that how we relate to and understand the world is constantly changing both through our own lifetimes and across the lifetimes of individuals of our entire species. What we believe, what we think is good and worthy of our time and energy, and how we go about pursuing our goals and desires changes based on the dominant myths of our time and the resources available to us.
To demonstrate this point, Harari shows how two myths, Romanticism and Consumerism can be found in the idea of follow your heart. Regarding Romanticism, Harari writes, “Romanticism tells us that in order to make the most of our human potential we must have as many different human experiences as we can.” The value of being human, within this framework, is the experience of being alive. Doing the same thing each day, becoming really good at one particular thing, living in the same spot, and having a few consistent experiences each day is not valuable. Uniqueness, openness, and diversity are praised within the individual.
Regarding Consumerism, Harari writes, “Consumerism tells us that in order to be happy we must consume as many products and services as possible. If we feel that something is missing or not quite right, then we probably need to buy a product.” Within this view, things, possessions, and services are of inherent value, as is owning things and consuming services. A lack of possessions is seen as failure, and the goal is to continually obtain more, bigger, and better possessions.
It is easy to see why Harari is able to lump these two myths together. Being unique compliments buying lots of different things. Having many varied possessions, purchasing many varied services, and utilizing possessions to engage in new and diverse activities tie Romantic ideas of the individual pursuing a diverse and exciting lifestyle with the consumerism urge to possess and own things and experiences. “Romanticism, which encourages variety, meshes perfectly with consumerism,” Harari writes.
But there is no reason that our culture needs to favor these two myths over others. It is nice to have a diversity of experiences. It can be helpful to see and view the world from different perspectives and to understand how others live and the full potential of humanity. It is also nice to be able to purchase comforts, and a helpful byproduct of consumerism is an advancing technological landscape that rewards innovations which improve life satisfaction. But Humans can be satisfied in life with a few possessions. We can be satisfied with a stable and predictable routine. We can find joy in becoming very good at doing the same things each day and mastering those tasks. There is no reason that Romanticism or Consumerism has to be understood as better than Stoicism or Minimalism, or any other myth that we might adopt. Within the United States, few of us truly challenge the ideas of Romanticism or Consumerism. They are the dominant myths of the day, and eschewing them is strange. Even when we do try to give up one myth, it is hard to give up both. Deciding not to purchase many products and services is seen as a way of being unique and self-sufficient, a Romantic framing of non-Consumerist behavior. Minimalism often still rewards carefully curated purchases and possessions. If you are not going to have a lot of things, then you better have the absolute best of the few things you do have, many Minimalists might argue.
How we understand ourselves, the values we pursue, and how we exist in culture is often determined by myths that work well when we all embrace them in a collective manner. That doesn’t mean that one myth is inherently better than another. Additionally, myths can be complimentary to each other, and even contradictory myths can be understood as complimentary and not conflicting. We do not exist in isolation or in a vacuum, and it shows in the ways in which cultural myths influence us. Follow your heart is a message to tap into the dominant myths of the day, and it is a saying that is influenced by those same myths.