In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari asks a simple question that I had never paused to ask prior to reading his book. Are we happier than humans of the past? Are we happier than the humans who fought and lived through WWII or WWI? Are we happier than the humans alive when Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492? Are we happier than the ancient Romans? Are we happier than humans living 20,000 years ago? Are we happier than the first homo Sapiens?
“Historians seldom ask such questions,” Harari writes, “…yet these are the most important questions one can ask of history.” These questions are important, Harari argues, because most of the organization and progress of our lives is in one way or another geared around increasing human happiness. If history is not exploring the happiness of humans, than each step in human cultural evolution is a step that may not serve humans for the best. It also means that our ideas and views of how the world should be organized to help expand human happiness and flourishing may be based on incorrect judgements of happiness.
Happiness is difficult to measure and quantify. We are not actually all that good at thinking about our own happiness. Daniel Kahneman suggests that we have an experiencing self, which is our active conscious self, and a remembering self, which pauses to think back on our lives. Those two selves experience happiness differently. Getting beyond just ourselves and measuring the happiness of others is even more difficult, especially when those others lived 30,000 years ago.
So instead of measuring happiness we measure progress. We measure electrical devices, time spent in leisure activities, energy used to heat or cool homes, rates of sex, rates of violence, and other proxies for human happiness or unhappiness. These measures are probably a good way to estimate happiness, but we can see that they don’t tell the whole story. It is also possible for societies and collectives to become focused on a single measure, and drive toward that measure as if it were a goal that should be achieved to produce more happiness. Sometimes efforts to increase GDP, access to electricity, and other noble sounding efforts produce more of one thing at the expense of other things that contribute to human happiness. In the end, pursuing progress may not be an avenue for pursuing happiness
When we think about human progress, about our lives and where we want to head, and about what we think is best for society we should consider happiness. We should consider whether we are happier than humans in the past and think about whether the things we strive for are the things that are most likely to bring happiness to ourselves and others. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t have progress in our lives, that cultural evolution is bad, or that happiness is all that matters, but we shouldn’t assume we will always progress in ways that will make us happier just progress it increases our technological capabilities or brings us more resources.