Follow-on thoughts about ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – Part 2: Happiness

By Ande Jacobson

Happiness is a central theme that Yuval Noah Harari explores in detail in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He discusses the multitude of advances that humankind has achieved throughout its history, starting, as he puts it, as “an animal of no significance.” As mentioned in previous discussions of this book, Harari separates humankind’s history into several revolutions (cognitive, agricultural, scientific), and through them all, he questions whether the individual members of our species are happier with each advancement. Even at our earliest stage in history, Homo sapiens has been a biologically successful species, but is biological success enough? Does that alone serve to make the majority of us happy?

Harari’s examination of history leads him to the conclusion that in many ways, each major revolution diminished humankind’s quality of life even though, from a biological perspective, we became more successful over time. In biological terms, success is based on population growth, i.e., how many copies of Homo sapiens DNA are thriving on the planet at any given time.

With each passing revolution, the vast majority of individual Sapiens spent far more time working, enduring a more stressful lifestyle than their ancestors, yet today, happiness is that unquantifiable, ideological standard to which we aspire. In an interesting exercise, Harari cites the opening to the second paragraph from the American Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

He discusses at length how the sentiments in this statement are not based in science or biology, but they are instead posed in ideological terms. He then recasts this statement in purely biological terms as:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.”

He acknowledges that humanists would find this recasting offensive and contrary to their core values, but from a biological perspective, all of our physical characteristics are indeed mutable and constantly changing from person to person, and from generation to generation. In the end, he doesn’t dispute that the ideological goals of achieving equality and happiness are laudable, but he points out that historically, those efforts have largely failed. Equality is a concept completely unknown in historical or biological terms. And happiness is entirely subjective given there is no standard by which it can be objectively measured. Individual happiness is irrelevant in determining history’s course just as it has no influence on evolution. It does; however, have an effect on individual actions, particularly if individuals are consumed by efforts to seek that which provides them pleasure, and by extension the thing they call happiness.

Late in the book, when Harari takes a more detailed look at the subject of happiness as a concept for future fulfillment, he discusses notions of whether money really does buy happiness. From his investigation, he finds that it does, but only up to a point. Likewise, although health in the abstract is important, that too is fungible as to its effect on one’s overall sense of happiness, or in health terms, their well-being. In the end, historical and biological studies bear out that for Sapiens:

“Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health.”

Although the macro-observables are captured in numerous sociological studies referenced in Harari’s notes section, the subjective levels equate to individual expectations more than circumstances. As material access increases, so does an individual’s expectations. According to Harari’s examination of both history and biology, his conclusion is that ultimately, happiness comes down to biochemistry to explain this moving target.

Biological constraints have resulted in Sapiens maintaining a steady-state (barring pathological deviations) that is neither euphoric nor wretched. Although that set point can vary from individual to individual, their circumstances don’t tend to dramatically change their level of happiness, or more directly, their propensity to experience pleasurable sensations. This explains why the biochemical response to stimuli generally peaks, but then subsides quickly no matter the circumstances over the long-term. Harari’s examination indicates that expectations tend to ebb and flow to keep the biochemical levels within a fairly tight tolerance, so rising expectations with greater material or technical access may actually be an evolutionary adaptation.

Looking at the achievement of a tolerable steady-state with regard to happiness can also be examined more philosophically. Harari spends some time discussing another view through the lens of Buddhism. Instead of dwelling on the search for feelings of pleasure, or avoidance of less desirable feelings such as anger or sadness, that school of thought seeks to understand oneself outside of feelings to reach a steady-state of being.

In the end, humankind’s search for happiness at the individual level is not completely understood yet. The problem of course is that we cannot employ modern standards to measure how our ancestors must have felt. They do not translate to earlier times, and also since feelings are themselves transient, both ephemerally and chemically, they cannot be quantitatively determined.

The Buddhists may have it right. If we stop worrying about seeking pleasure, and avoiding its opposite, we might all be better off. Still, there is a lot to be said for building community ties not just for our own personal gains, but for humankind’s as a whole.

References and additional reading:
Book Review: ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – a story of where we came from and where we might be going
Follow-on thoughts about ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind’ – Part 1: Common Myths
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harper, by Yuval Noah Harari
Summary: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Also by Yuval Noah Harari:
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harper, by Yuval Noah Harari

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