We’re coming to the end of our deep dive into Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now, on the progress humanity has made over the past 250 years.Throughout this series, we’ve seen how we now meet our basic needs better than ever. And, in the last blog post, we saw how we now have more time to do what we really care about. But are we any happier? It doesn’t look like people are that happy. But how could we have made all this progress only to still be miserable?
Here are the five key facts you need to know about progress and happiness.
Fact #1: Some things do make us happier
Happiness isn’t something that increases indefinitely. We wouldn’t even want to be happy all the time – just think how tiring that would be?! When something good happens in our life, we feel happy for a bit and then things go back to normal. The same goes for when something bad happens. If we felt consistently good or bad after an event, we’d hardly get anything done. Of course, this does happen sometimes. Grief is an emotional condition that persists for an unusually long time. But not every emotion – positive or negative – is like grief. Most emotional episodes are fleeting. They tell us something about the world and we respond to that thing. Then we feel something else.
So we shouldn’t expect to feel happy all the time as a result of all the achievements of modernity. It’s great that we don’t go hungry, that we don’t die of infectious diseases or at war, and that we live in more fair and equal societies. But, we’ve got plenty of stuff to do. If we spent all our time feeling good about these things, we’d be much less focused on our tasks at hand – going to work, doing some exercise, spending time with the people we love, and all that day-to-day life stuff.
And yet, there are some things that make us consistently happier. Research has shown that factors such as employment, good health, a decent level of income, and a good marriage, all make a lasting difference to people’s happiness levels. On average, people in rich countries tend to be happier than people in poor countries. This can largely be put down to six key factors that come with economic development and social progress: wealth, health, social support, generosity, freedom, and trust.
It’s reasonable to conclude that, although we’re not massively happier than we were 250 years ago (which is to be expected), we have nonetheless made some progress when it comes to happiness.
Fact #2: People are not more lonely
The fact that we’re happier today than we were in the past seems both intuitive – in that, we don’t have to worry where our next meal is coming from, or getting killed in battle – but also deeply unintuitive. Are we really that much happier? One factor in particular seems most prominent in this respect: Are we not all lonely? Without entrenched community and familial ties, are we not all striving for belonging, desperately searching for true love to fill the deep hole inside of us?
The social landscape has certainly changed dramatically over the past 250 years. We used to depend on one another – much more than we do now – to meet our needs. With the rise of prosperity, we have witnessed the corrosion of community.
However, Pinker cites evidence showing that, although our social landscape has considerably changed, we still have the same amount of personal connections and support as we always have. Yes, families are smaller, more people are single, and more women work. But, Americans today spend as much time with relatives, have the same median number of friends, and see them about as often, report as much emotional support, and remain as satisfied with the number and quality of their friendship as those in the 1970s.
What about the impact of the internet and social media? Pinker shows that, although users of social media have less face-to-face contact with their friends, they have more contact with them overall. They also report that social media has enriched their relationships, not the opposite.
The upshot is that people have consistently adapted to changing social circumstances in ways that have maintained both the volume and quality of their personal relationships. In general, people prioritise spending time with their children, having contact with their relatives, and having a few sources of intimate support. The fact that people are still desperately lonely may not be a distinct feature of modern life, but of the human condition.
Fact #3: We are paying more attention to mental illness
But modern life doesn’t just make people feel lonely. It also makes them mentally ill – depressed, anxious, addicted. This may be because of individualism or some other feature of modernity: urbanisation, inequality, separation from nature, or 24/7 news, social media, and work demands. We can reasonably ask, therefore, whether all this progress is worth it if it’s making us mentally ill?
Mental illness is certainly on the rise. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean our mental wellbeing is getting worse. Mental health – like happiness – may be something we can pay more attention to when other pressing concerns are not at the forefront of our minds and society. We now have a larger amount of mental health diagnoses and treatments that provide can help people – something that was largely non-existent until the second half of the 20th century. Mentally ill patients are no longer left to rot in a gloomy asylum. In fact, they are expected to receive treatment and continue to live reasonably happy lives, much like everyone else.
There are, of course, problems with this. The “medicalisation” of everyday life and commonplace struggles can result in a loss of personal agency, as well as detract from the social and systemic causes of suffering. But, this partly depends on how we view mental health. If, like physical health, we view mental illnesses as common and often temporary conditions, caused by the mental wear and tear of normal life, then their medicalisation is not necessarily a bad thing. Or, at least, no worse than that of physical illnesses. In fact, evidence suggests that mental illnesses are normal in this respect, with80% of people likely to experience a mental disorder in their lifetime.
Mental illness might not be that different to chronic loneliness. Rather than being a feature of modernity, it’s more likely to be a feature of the human condition. What’s new is that we’re starting to give both more attention. Which is probably a good thing.
Fact #4: Freedom ≠ happiness
One of the most well-known findings in happiness research is that happiness is U-shaped over the lifespan. People are happiest when they are young and old, and unhappiest in middle-age. This is presumably because middle-age is the time of life with the greatest amount of ambition and responsibility: work pressures, family life, ageing parents. All these things are part of a meaningful life, but are still stressful and demanding.
It’s possible that modernity, in general, has a similar impact on people’s happiness to middle-age. People now have more opportunities, and therefore responsibilities, than ever before in history. This could explain why, over the past 30 years, women in the US and Western Europe have become less happy, despite having a greater amount of freedom and opportunities available to them. Today young women increasingly say that their life goals include career, family, marriage, money, recreation, friendship, experience, correcting social inequities, being a leader in their community, and making a contribution to society. That’s a lot of things to do and to worry about.
As global citizens, we may all find ourselves in this situation. We cannot rest content with village life anymore. Instead, we have the weight of the world on our shoulders. The media and 24/7 news feed this anxiety, reporting one crisis after another. But, even if inflamed, the anxiety is still real. There really are a host of new problems to worry about – polarisation, inequality, climate change. We are privileged enough to be able to care about these things. Which, if we do end up doing something positive about them, is a good thing. But this freedom doesn’t exactly make us happy.
Fact #5: Technology = different kinds of happiness
Even if greater freedom doesn’t make us happy, we shouldn’t give up that freedom. The same might not be true for some of the technological advances that have come with modernity. Smartphones, for instance, are amazing things. But are they good for us, really?
We’re in dangerous territory here. With almost every new kind of technology in history, people have worried about its impact on our happiness and society in general. Pinker notes that trains and industrial machinery were seen as noisy disruptors of pastoral village life that put people on edge. Telephones interrupted quiet times in houses. Watches and clocks added to the dehumanising time pressures on factory workers to be productive. And radio and television were organised around the advertising that enabled modern consumer culture and heightened people’s status anxieties.
Well, we’ve lived through trains, telephones, watches, clocks, radios, and televisions, and we don’t seem to have come out the other side too traumatised. But that doesn’t mean these technologies haven’t fundamentally changed our psychological lives.
Humans may well successfully adapt to whatever technologies come their way. But I think it’s equally as feasible to say that humans before telephones and radios were radically different to humans afterwards. You can get a sense of this by travelling to different cultures across the world – those that are very different to your own. The pace of life can be completely different. The way people think is different. How people feel inside their own bodies, and around others, can be profoundly different from culture to culture. That doesn’t mean that some cultures are radically happier or unhappier than others. Perhaps the best way of putting it is that cultures and technologies can create the conditions for fundamentally different kinds of happiness.
The happiness of modernity might be characterised by feelings of achievement, individual enjoyment, purpose, and fulfilment. The happiness of traditional cultures might be much more centred around feelings of connection, attunement, and collective belonging. It may be impossible to compare these different kinds of happiness. Neither is better or worse than the other. But it’s important to recognise that modernity – and the changes in our lives caused by huge technological advances – has traded in one kind of happiness and inner life for another.