“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.
Yuval Noah Harari has taken silent meditation trips and has worked hard to increase his focus and see the world clearly. This helped him while writing Sapiens with taking an objective view of the history of humanity and describing where we were, how we got to where we are, and where we might head in the future. As someone who meditates, it is not surprising to see a criticism of modern life make its way into his book while he reflects on ancient humans.
Harari writes, “one of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.” Humans are incredibly adaptable, and often this is for our own good. Ancient humans adapted to living in set places, rather than roaming across varied landscapes at different times of the year. We can adapt to climate across the globe, adapt to changing family and tribal structures, and we can adapt to daily routines and expectations in life. This superpower, however, can have a downside. Sometimes we adapt to great new technologies and advances, viewing them not as modern marvels, but as common necessities that we cannot do without.
In modern life we are dependent on cars, dependent on smart phones, and dependent on the internet and everything connected to it. Every year we invent something new, improve some existing technology, and create something else that we are excited about, only to see that invention become commonplace. We get used to super fast communication, complain about how long it takes to travel across the country on an airplane, and become frustrated when our high expectations are not met. Increasing quality of life doesn’t seem to increase our life sanctification. Harari might argue that it diminishes it long-term. “We thought we were saving time,” Harari writes, “instead we revved up the treadmill of life to ten times its former speed and made our days more anxious and agitated.” Luxuries become necessities and we become less flexible and patient without them. Harari may have been writing a book about ancient human history, but his views on the modern world, as someone who believes in disconnecting and taking silent meditation retreats, influenced the way he described the progress humans have made.
In Letters From a Stoic Seneca encourages us to avoid living a life that is motivated by material possessions. He encourages us to recognize times when we desire more and more comforts and pleasures in our lives and to remember that we will never be satisfied with our things, and will always desire more.
An unfortunate reality for us humans is that the things we want seem to give us less satisfaction over time. We become accustomed to the heated seats in our new car, the large TV becomes normal, and the new espresso machine gets old and we stop thinking about how happy we are to have freshly brewed coffee each morning. The question becomes, how can we be content with what we have and avoid landing in a place where we are never happy and constantly need to buy more stuff as if attempting to fill a hole in our lives?
Seneca has some advice, “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “is this the condition that I feared?”” What Seneca advises is that we spend time going without any comforts. That we picture what total failure would look like in our lives, and live in that way for a short while to truly experience the loss of our comfort. In today’s world this may look like locking up our GPS watch and smartphone, wearing only our most junky tennis shoes for a few days, sleeping on the floor in the living room (as if we didn’t have a bed) with our oldest pillow and thinnest blanket, and eating just canned beans and rice for a few days.
Living with nothing for a short period of time may help us appreciate the things we take for granted in our lives. It also can help us see that all the comforts we rely on, that we were so excited to get at first and that we forget about over time, are not things that are essential to our survival. By remembering not to rely too heavily on these comforts, by seeing that we could live without them, and by roughing it for a little while, we can develop better relationships with our stuff.