“A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying even in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life is a terrible ordeal no matter how comfortable it is,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens. For Harari, human evolution over the two million or so years that homo Sapiens has been a species and our cultural evolution during that same time do not seem to have made modern humans happier than ancient humans. In particular, Harari would argue that humans today may be more likely to feel a sense of meaningless in their lives relative to ancient humans. As the quote above testifies, a comfortable but meaningless life can be worse in some substantial ways than a brutal but meaningful life.
For Harari this is important to think about because as a collective humans have been engaged in vague questions of progress for thousands of years. But the progress humans have made hasn’t really been productive in terms of increasing human happiness. Sure we are better off in terms of wellness and comfort, but that isn’t quite the same thing as actual happiness or having a sense of meaning and purpose in ones life. It is quite possible that a tech worker who spends all day in a home office, watches TV, and only occasionally interacts with close friends is far more comfortable and better entertained than a forager 20,000 years ago, but they may feel like there is no real purpose for their life. They may feel that they don’t have any close connections or individuals who depend on them and whose lives they matter to. A forager from 20,000 years ago may have been stressed by a challenging and deadly environment and may not have had enough to eat, but they probably had a very close group of kin that they could rely on for support and and meaning.
“Humans are the outcome of blind evolutionary processes that operate without goal or purpose,” Harari writes. Progress has not been undertaken with the goal of making people happier. Individual products and advancements are certainly marketed that way, but the end result doesn’t actually seem to be more happiness. Often, the end result is that we end up with more things we don’t really like or need. Things that take our time away from meaningful connections and engagements that make our lives actually worth living. Progress happens simply because we choose to allow it to happen, not because we are all looking around and consciously choosing progress with clear macro explanations for how progress makes lives for our species more meaningful, happier, and more worth living. Cars enabled faster transportation, but we ended up moving out to suburbs and adopted long soul crushing commutes. Social media promised to bring us closer together with friends, but left us isolated and jealous. Television promised to entertain us, but it took us away from real entertainment with actual people in the real world. Not all advances have this false profit characteristic, but many advances appear to make us happier, and for various reasons do the opposite.
To find meaning in the world is not the same as to find comfort and happiness. To find meaning is to engage with the world in pursuits that help improve the world for ourselves and others. It may be through our work, it may be through leisure activities with others, and it may be found through other means. No matter how we find meaning and pursue progress, it is clear that all progress doesn’t bring all humans meaning and happiness.