Happiness is apparently not a natural human category (Euba 2019). In other words, we can’t experience happiness for long and it is fragile and fleeting. The reason is that if we were too happy, it would lower our guard and threaten our survival. To understand this intuition it is important to go back to our ancestral origins, the hunters and gatherers in their tribes. Even killing an animal and cooking it on open fire creates only a temporary burst of happiness, which climaxes when it enters the body through eating. But then the day is over and the next day, the food may already be digested. You are hungry again, and you and your tribal members are contemplating the next source of proteins.
Another one of our natural activities is sexual intercourse, which evolution made pleasurable on purpose to ensure that we reproduce. If it were painful, then we would likely not even exist beyond one generation. Sexual activity is of limited duration and ends in the climax or orgasm after 5 to 7 minutes of thrusting on average. By stopping temporarily or slowing down body movements, the length of time until orgasm can be prolonged. Generally female orgasms take longer to build up, which makes sense, because it is the male orgasm that is the basis of reproduction, although pregnancy is favored if the woman orgasms as well. But even the intense physical moment of happiness is circumscribed to a short duration, because if it were an hourlong extended and complicated ceremony it would similarly reduce chances for producing offspring. If we go back to the hunter-gathering world, where there were no comfortable private apartments and no strong protections against wild bears or other animals, it also made sense to shorten the mating phase.
Dopamine, endorphin and oxytocin are our happiness hormones, but despite greater material riches we do not have higher hormone levels and are no happier than our more primitive ancestors, as Yuval Noah Harari (2014, ch.19) pointed out. We could even argue that people in modernity are less happy because greater wealth has produced more independence and individualism, even as much of human history was lived in tribes with community, spirituality and solidarity (where suicide was rare as Emile Durkheim noted). In my own family, I am always astounded how tightly-knit the network feels like when my parents meet an Indian-Chinese and they reminisce about the past. There used to be over 50,000 Chinese in Calcutta, and being such a visible minority fostered enormous community bonds that are lost among those who migrated on to western countries, where corporate jobs, long work hours and living in suburban houses physically separate and individualize people.
The consumer capitalist economy is further promoting the latest consumptive crave that will supposedly bring happiness to our shores when it really creates only more distraction. For Rutger Bregman, consumerism is about buying things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. If we look at basic indicators of social progress, there is no doubt that today is the best time to be around. Medicine continues to make progress; life expectancy is increasing (at least for people who are not down and out like in the American countryside); the length of education increases; permanent internet connectivity means we have full access to the world’s knowledge at our fingertips. Surely there are downsides to the present. Climate change is starting to bite just about now, but for those not living on exposed Pacific islands or flooded coastal regions, life is still okay- for now.
In the long term, climate change is making life unsustainable, and Greta Thunberg’s Friday for Future campaign, where students are taking off their Fridays from school work to demonstrate for action on climate change, is the least that we need to create the awareness and galvanization for social action. The only generation that can enjoy great material comfort in a still habitable planet are perhaps the generations that are currently alive and not yet destroyed by climate change.
But even in a society of technical abundance, there is much that is going wrong as people on the left like Bernie Sanders or Andrew Yang point out. There is a lot of economic injustice, because in the world of automation and monopoly capitalism there are many people who don’t benefit from the bounties of modernity. Millions of Central Americans are stranded on their way to the US, the so-called promised land, even as the US cruelly shuts its borders. The same thing is occurring among Middle Easterners and Africans eager to escape to Europe. A few people own as much wealth as half of humanity. It is this social struggle for what one might call social justice, socialism and egalitarianism that gives some of us the purpose to wake up in the morning. If we fixed slavery, we have to fix race discrimination. Then we have to fix sex discrimination. Then we have to fix capitalism. And once that is fixed, believe me, we’ll find something new to agitate for or against.
But for the purposes of this post, let us set aside for a moment these real distributional struggles at the root of contemporary capitalism and let us imagine the Star Trek future in the present. In the Star Trek world, all material struggles are solved. No one needs to work, because the robots and machines do all of the valuable tasks, and humanity gets to have a permanent early retirement. We can endlessly go to the holodeck, a device where we can enter into a virtual reality world of boundless adventures and experiences like going skiing, fishing, surfing, boxing or any activity the mind is craving for.
Assuming a Star Trek world, would humanity be at peace? If we accept Harari’s line the answer is most likely not. It has to do with how the human mind works, which is captured in the negativity bias and the Hedonic treadmill. In the negativity bias, we are more shocked about material or social losses than we are happy about a gain. So the loss of a job, house or stock value will be very traumatizing and motivate us to prevent such a failure or mistake again, but gaining a new job, winning the lottery or eating good food quickly normalizes and does not contain a long-term boost in our mental well-being.
In the Hedonic treadmill this normalization causes us to want and desire more things. So in effect, capitalism is about exploiting our permanent insecurity and discontent with the status quo. This is certainly the basis for social progress. Just to take a trivial example, Steven Pruitt is a civil servant for the government, but in his off-time he edits tons of Wikipedia articles, making him one of the most influential people on the internet (albeit in the background). The journalist that interviewed Pruitt asked him how he celebrates his accomplishment. “Write another article. Edit another article.” (See Youtube). There is no end to it. As long as he is alive, he will edit Wikipedia articles, and be our secret unsung hero for making knowledge available so widely. Clearly, not all aspects of the Hedonic treadmill lead to more progress, because the pursuit of financial profit and the correspondingly high opportunity cost of leisure (and associated benefits like spending quality time with friends and family, art, music, sports, literature etc.) impoverishes us spiritually and emotionally even as we can afford more and more gadgets and vacations.
In the world of Star Trek, pure enjoyment would have been a poor guide for viewer entertainment. Trashy TV shows like The Real Housewives, where unemployed women who have married rich men play out their intrigues and ostentatiously display their leisure, certainly fill the screens nowadays, but I would consider that to be more of a fringe genre enjoyed by a small number of people. Star Trek, in contrast, has a broader base of followers, because the plot is more imaginative and the main characters are still striving for something. In a world where food and water or even health can be received with a simple voice command, it is not food, water or health that is the objective of the TV series (for the dog-eat-dog genre Hunger Games is a better bet), but the adventures and conquests of the crew, which involves conflicts with the Borg, Q, the Ferengi, Romulans, Klingons, Cardassians. Here we are in the world of material abundance where humans could just take it easy, but no, the excitement of life comes from the struggle, the war, the conflict, the intrigue, the backstabbing, the insinuation, the conquest, the victory followed by new conquests.
The ancient human struggle was related to survival and that consists primarily of acquiring or growing food and fighting wars with neighboring tribes and later states. Capitalism created material abundance and discouraged wars among the big and powerful states, because merchants and industrial capitalists need peace to grow their industries. (Financiers like the Rothschild’s, however, seem to thrive more during wars, although they do quite well in any period, wherever they can sell their loans.) For Albert Hirschman (1977), capitalism neutered human passions for war and destruction and channeled it into production and acquisition of material goods, which is a “harmless” one-dimensional passion. We might quibble about the “harmless” adjective given the environmental unsustainability of capitalism, but he has a valid point about pacifying society from tribal warfare. This could be reversed with the resurgence of nationalism, which suggests that capitalism tempers the human warrior spirit but does not kill it (and as in the Second World War might profit from wars).
It is the permanent discontent that is part of human existence which forms a powerful counter-argument against the fully automated luxury communism depicted in Star Trek, and not material-technical barriers that neoliberals try to convince us of (they would argue that we have substantial labor shortages in the present economy and that an elimination of profit and a social well-being oriented economic system would result in a breakdown of the economy). So if we are bound to be unhappy, is it better that most of us shall remain slaves, i.e. wage slaves or capitalist slaves (because even the capitalists are trapped in the game of having to produce profits or they forfeit their position as capitalist and are replaced by other capitalists)? Because at least slaves are too bogged down in the struggle for survival, beating out competitors for contracts or jobs or good housing for good schools for one’s kids, that they have no time to contemplate even greater or newer forms of discontent.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a cogent opponent of civil society, which is the foundation of private property and the starting point for the commodification of more aspects of life and inequality in society. For him, the savages were indeed noble. But I would argue that the genie of modernity is out of the bottle. Perhaps Albert Einstein’s horror vision of a massive nuclear world war or crop- and civilization-destroying climate change will some day hurl us back to a more “innocent” Rousseauian world. But if we resist this pessimistic vision, we truly have to question whether it makes sense to become self-sufficient farmers or hunters again. We may still have the bodies of hunters given the inherent unhappiness and alienation of modern office workers (I am one of them!) no matter how comfortable the air conditioning feels. I still prefer the alienation of modern city life in exchange for the comforts of civilization. I argue what needs to be done is not a scaling back of civilizational and technological advances, but a more realistic readjustment of human priorities. In other words, let’s create a Star Trek world and then deal with meaning and contentment at the back end.
The quest for meaning and satisfaction has never been easy, but that is what religion and philosophy is all about, which is basically about the ideas that make life interesting and meaningful. In Harari’s (2011: 437) words, “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.” In Christianity (and to some extent in Judaism and Islam), the goal is to trust in a god, and even more importantly do that in a context of a coherent community with common rituals like prayers and religious service.
While community is important not all people have such an easy time believing in the religious myth, so another approach is formulated by Buddhists, who argue that human unhappiness comes from the pursuit of temporary states of excitement, which returns us to the Hedonic treadmill and consumerism. For Buddhists, the solution is the renunciation of this desire for temporary excitement. By purging increased material or spiritual demands, one is less likely to feel discontent. If you are not looking for anything you won’t miss anything. Despite renting only a tiny, unclean yet highly affordable room, I am grateful every day to return to this abode compared to the hundreds of thousands of homeless people who sleep out on the streets. If I had the desire to live in a cleaner or bigger space, I would feel restless and discontent rather than enjoy the blessings of the present moment.
The ancient Greeks essentially formulated the same idea. Aristotle prized the attainment of eudaimonia, which is often translated as happiness, although human flourishing is probably a less misleading translation, because we associate the short-term excitement and emotional arousal as being happy. Who has eudaimonia? The person, who knows what virtue is and can live by it. Virtue is about the practical judgment of doing what is right. Most people in Western civilization raised in the notion of original sin will believe that most people start off as evil (similar to Xunzi and the Legalists in China), but it is also true that most people have some sense of morality, and have to think long and hard before they do something immoral like killing or hurting others. The Stoics also believe in virtue, and insist that we must be indifferent to pain and sorrow, arguing that the human condition consists of pain and sorrow. The Epicureans argued that the goal in life must be the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain, although they are not concerned about extreme pleasures but in moderation, knowing that extended periods of happiness is not a humanly attainable category. The Epicureans insist on not fearing death or gods.
It is true that long-term happiness is not a humanly possible thing. Any material and emotional bumps (like a pay raise or the start of a romantic relationship) flatten out pretty quickly, while devastating shocks (like disease, death in the family, loss of job etc.) are always lurking in the corner. For any social planners seeking to maximize the “pursuit of happiness” (as stated in the US declaration of independence), there is no feasible technocratic fix that is materialist. Once we have reached a world with a universal basic income and greater economic security, we will either have to strive for new endeavors like Star Trek space exploration, attempting to shatter new heights in our pursuit of Hedonic pleasure and accomplishment (the preferred route of politically conservative people), and/or we have to radically change our values and become committed quasi-Buddhists/ quasi-Epicureans/ quasi-Stoics, in which we renounce extreme pleasures and endure the vicissitudes of life (preferred by more utopian/ idealist individuals).