Happiness in the study of History
In chapter 19 of his book, ‘Sapiens’, Harari examines happiness. He asks whether the transformation of human society by the industrial and scientific revolutions over the last 500 years, and the commensurate increases in wealth, have increased human happiness. He says that historians have researched the history of politics, society, gender, diseases, sexuality, and food, just about everything- yet have seldom stopped to ask how these influence happiness.
Harari says that most ideologies, and most political programs, are based on implicit ideas concerning the sources of happiness. For example, nationalists implicitly believe national self-determination and advancement of national self interest is required for happiness. Communists believe that happiness will increase with the removal of class antagonisms. Capitalists believe that the free market, material abundance, self reliance and enterprise are the building blocks of happiness.
But Harari says evidence that nationalism, communism or capitalism are actually sources of happiness is rather flimsy.
There is also a widespread assumption that happiness increases commensurate with the increase in our capabilities- we must be happier than our medieval ancestors were and they must have been happier than hunter gathers.
Only a few critics oppose this assumption. Some of these critics romanticise the life of the hunter gatherer and see each new invention as taking us further from the hunter gatherer’s Garden of Eden.
Harari himself believes that the conditions of human life for the average person generally became harsher after the agricultural revolution than they were for hunter gatherers. And he points out that while the spread of European empires circulated ideas, technology, new crops and avenues of commerce, colonisation hardly led to increased happiness for native Africans, Americans and Australians.
Harari believes that the last few decades have been an unprecedented “golden era” for humanity. But he says that it is too early to know whether this represents a fundamental shift in the course of history, or is just a blip on the historical radar. It may still be the case that we are sowing the seeds of future catastrophe by destroying the ecological equilibrium of the planet with an orgy of reckless consumption. Further we can only congratulate ourselves on the accomplishments of modernity if we ignore the increase in cruelty that modernity has caused to other animals.
Modern Methods of Measuring Happiness
Harari refers to modern studies by psychologists and biologists regarding human happiness. How do these studies work?
First happiness is defined as “subjective well being”. This concept incorporates both immediate pleasure and long term contentment. Surveys then ask respondents to self assess by ranking the things that make them happy or unhappy. Through such methods attempts have been made to measure correlations between wealth and happiness, marriage and happiness and even whether people living in democracies are happier than those living under dictatorship.
Findings from psychological surveys indicate:
- Money does bring happiness, but only up to a point. For those at the bottom, more money does usually bring greater happiness. However once a certain level of wealth is acquired, still more money makes little to no difference;
- Illness decreases happiness in the short term. But it tends to be a source of long term distress only if the illness is constantly deteriorating; otherwise people tend to adjust;
- Family and community have a bigger impact on happiness than money and health. There is a very high correlation between good marriages and subjective well being and bad marriages and misery. This raises the possibility that increases in happiness from improvement in material conditions over the last two centuries may have been offset by greater fragility in family and community.
But Harari says the most important finding is that happiness mostly depends on the extent to which objective conditions match one’s subjective expectations. If you want a bullock cart and you get one, you tend to feel content. If you want a Ferrari and get a second hand Fiat, you tend to feel deprived.
This subjective component makes the task of historians investigating happiness harder. If happiness only depended on material conditions, then the study of happiness might be relatively straightforward. But the fact that happiness depends in part on subjective expectations makes the task trickier. When we think about how happy people were in the past we often think of them in our shoes. Medieval peasants hardly ever washed. We find this abhorrent. But it is more probable that they did not care.
If happiness is determined by expectations then the possibility also arises that mass media and advertising deplete contentment by increasing expectations to unrealistic or insatiable levels. Third World discontent may be fomented not only by poverty, disease and corruption but also by knowledge of First World standards.
Biology and Happiness
Biologists use the same types of survey questionnaires as psychologists. But they correlate answers with biochemical and genetic factors. The results, says Harari, are shocking.
Biologists conclude that well being is not determined by salary, social relations or political rights but by our neurology and the presence in our bodies of various biochemical substances- serotonin, dopamine and oxytocins. People are really only made happy by one thing – pleasant sensations in the body.
Harari says that there is no natural selection in favour of the reproduction of happier human beings. Evolution has moulded our species as a whole to be neither too miserable, nor too happy. At an individual level some people are born with a relatively cheerful biochemical system, others with a gloomier one.
How can the finding of psychologists be squared with those of biologists? There are complex causes and effects at work. It may be that a good marriage contributes to happiness. But those with a more cheerful or easy going (genetic) disposition may therefore have happier marriages and divorce less than those who are disposed towards gloominess.
But most biologists are not fanatics. While they see biochemical factors as primary, most are prepared to acknowledge that psycho-sociological factors also play a role.
If we accept the biologists account, then Harari says it follows that history has a more minor role in producing happiness. History can change external stimuli. But, at least until recently, historical developments could not permanently change our biochemistry. If the biologists are correct, then there may be only one historical development of real significance. This is the increased technological capacity to manipulate our biochemistry. Harari invokes the images from ‘Brave New World’ where everybody takes their daily dose of ‘soma’ with its effect on biochemistry replacing police and the ballot box as the foundations of social order and politics.
Daniel Kahneman- Cognitive and Ethical Components of Happiness
But Harari cites the Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman as contesting the view that manipulation of the biochemical system can be a basis of happiness.
Kahneman sees a paradox in happiness- bringing up a child involves lots of drudgery. Yet most parents declare that their children are a major source of happiness. It follows that happiness cannot be constituted by a simple utilitarian equation- the surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments.
Kahneman maintains that there is an important cognitive and ethical component to happiness. Our values make a difference to whether we see ourselves as a “slave to a baby” or as a “nurturing parent”. A meaningful life can be extremely satisfying in the midst of hardship, whereas a meaningless life can be an ordeal even if one is comfortable.
Harari says that though people through all cultures have the same types of pleasure or pain, the meaning that they ascribe to their experiences may vary widely. This conclusion does not necessarily favour modernity as a harbinger of greater happiness.
He says that medieval people had it rough. But given that most of them uncritically accepted that they would attain everlasting bliss in the afterlife, they may have found life more purposeful than modern secular people, who, though more comfortable, might see human beings as the outcome of blind evolutionary processes, operating without any purpose or goal.
On the other hand, within a modern context, a scientist may see life as meaningful because of increases in the store of scientific knowledge. A soldier may see meaning in the fight for the homeland. The entrepreneur may find meaning in a new business. Each may find happiness through achievement of these diverse goals. Harari says that this may the case whether or not these goals are as delusionary as a belief in an afterlife. Whether delusionary or not, Harari postulates that personal happiness might depend upon an individual’s delusions being well synchronised with collective delusions.
Buddhist View of Happiness
Harari then points to an alternative approach to happiness within Buddhism. This creed maintains that happiness is based on neither biochemistry, nor goals which may be self-delusionary.
Buddhism has assigned the question of happiness more importance than perhaps any other religion. It teaches that people are liberated when they understand the impermanence of their feelings of pleasure or pain and when they cease craving and attachment. This is the purpose of Buddhist meditation. One lives in the present moment and with a developed sense of serenity.
Harari says that the Buddha agreed with modern biology’s findings that happiness is independent of external conditions. But he also believed it was independent of inner feelings. This is because the more significance we give to our inner feelings, and the more we crave certain feelings, the more we suffer.
Harari’s final conclusion is that we do not really know the answer to the puzzle of what creates human happiness and that we are still searching for appropriate research methods. This, he says, is the biggest gap in our understanding of history.
Belief, Experience and Delusion
Harari’s claims that the personal goals of the scientist, soldier or entrepreneur may be as delusionary as a belief in the afterlife overlook an important distinction between experience and belief.
The scientist, soldier and entrepreneur interact with the real world in science, war and business. These interactions are experiential. Certainly the experiences are likely to be affected by subjective beliefs about the value of scientific knowledge, military service and commerce. But the interactions occur in the real sensual world, not just in the mind. The interactions involve more than just mere belief.
Subjective belief can undoubtedly be delusionary. But that we interact with the world and thereby have experiences is not a delusion based merely in belief. The interaction has an objective quality about it. The nature of the interaction may sometimes be difficult, even impossible, to distinguish from beliefs about the nature of interaction. But the interactions occur in a way that goes beyond mere belief.
It seems to be an inevitable part of life for Homo sapiens to create personal goals for ourselves which we then pursue. It seems problematic to suggest that the experiences we have in pursuit of these goals equate to a belief in the afterlife.
The first noble truth of Buddhism is that life involves suffering- pain, disease and death. This is true. Also true is Buddhism’s teaching that experiences such as pleasure and suffering are impermanent.
The second noble truth of Buddhism is that suffering is caused by craving and attachment. This is partly true. Craving and attachment can cause suffering but so can other things. The suffering involved in torture is not merely a result of craving for the torture to stop.
The third noble truth of Buddhism is that suffering can be overcome and happiness attained if we give up on attachment. This is neither true nor noble.
Attachment, suffering and happiness are all important and valuable parts of life. Think of the suffering one feels on bereavement. This suffering might not be something we would choose to experience. We may even long for the feeling to pass. But it is nevertheless a deep and evocative experience. And we probably emerge as better people for having experienced it deeply.
The Buddhist idea that we should seek to rid ourselves of attachments might be a useful tool for some as we approach our own deaths and seek to “let go”. But it does not follow that this is the most engaging way to leads one’s entire life. Why is asceticism and detachment inherently more valuable than attachment, craving and passion? This is far from obvious. It seems bland and somewhat ignoble- certainly less than very brave.
But if the third noble truth of Buddhism is flawed, at least Buddhist rituals offer more to non-believers than the rituals of other religions. Meditation produces pleasant sensations in the body (such a relaxation) and may even cultivate improved emotional states, or positive changes in both the brain and the function of the immune system. Prayer might have similar effects. But meditation does not necessarily require any engagement with belief in a higher being. Basically it only requires a more sensual focus, usually on the rhythm of the breath.
Different Types of Happiness- Experiencing and Remembering Self
Harari mentions how surveys define happiness as “subjective well being” and how this definition includes both immediate pleasure and long term contentment. Harari cites Kahneman. But, somewhat surprisingly, he does not discuss the importance of the distinction between immediate pleasure and long term contentment. Yet this is a distinction that lies at the heart of one of Kahneman’s most important ideas.
Kahneman says that we have two different kinds of “self” which are relevant to happiness- an “experiencing self” and a “remembering self”. He says that we tend to err in our consideration of happiness whenever we overlook this distinction. 
The experiencing self is akin to immediate pleasure. It is the part of us that lives in the present. It is like a “film” that roles in our mind during our everyday experiences.
The remembering self is akin to long term contentment. It is the part of us that edits our everyday experiences. It commits to memory those experiences that we believe to be our most important ones. It decides whether we are satisfied with our life’s achievements. It “keeps score” in our life- deciding on whether we are satisfied or not satisfied. It turns our everyday experiences into stories that form part of our self identity.
Research suggests that for the remembering self, money and goal achievement, as well as being satisfied with people we like, are usually very important. For the experiencing self feelings of happiness, at least in the USA, do vary with income.
Kahneman confirms the studies, mentioned by Harari, that below a certain income (around $60,000 US) people tend to be unhappy and, indeed, get unhappier the poorer they are. Yet above $60,000, the happiness of the experiencing self is a flat line.
We can see how Harari might err by giving insufficient weight to the distinction between the experiencing and remembering selves in his example concerning happiness and medieval people.
Harari acknowledges that most medieval people had it rough- even rougher than hunter gatherers. But he suggests that they may have been happy because they uncritically accepted that they would get to live a blissful everlasting life.
But once Kahneman’s distinction is considered, it seems more probable that the experiencing self of the average medieval serf was probably full of deprivation, pain and suffering. The widespread belief in salvation, including the medieval church’s endorsement of Paul’s teaching that suffering  is a route to salvation, may well have given some meaning to suffering in the remembering self. But just because one can find meaning in suffering, it seems unlikely that the immediate sensation of suffering within the experiencing self is somehow auto-transformed into feelings of happiness.
Cognitive Component of Happiness
What are we to make of Khaneman’s assertion that happiness is not merely a surplus of pleasant over unpleasant moments but has an important cognitive and ethical component?
Happiness, like all experiences or feelings, must have a cognitive component because feelings of happiness are perceived in the brain.
Image making regions of the brain- cortices that process visual, auditory or tactile information- relay information to the association cortex. Here records are made of what went on in the image making regions. These records are our memories. We are capable of relaying information from the association cortex back to the image making cortices in the brain. The same part of the brain that records the initial images is used for recalling information.
So where does happiness reside? In the image making regions, upon which the experiencing self depends? Or in the association cortex which facilitates the remembering self? Or, as seems likely, in both?
Ethical Component of Happiness
And what of the ethical component of happiness that Khaneman refers to?
Khaneman’s insistence upon an ethical component to happiness raises a conundrum. Is happiness primarily a feeling or primarily an idea? Kahneman seems to be saying it is potentially both. Initially it is a feeling of the experiencing self. But later it becomes an idea, a story or memory in the remembering self. Yet things are even more complex than this because ideas about happiness can affect our initial experiences. For example, someone who holds the idea that the only legitimate purpose of sexual relations is procreation within marriage may experience guilt or unpleasant sensations if they attempt sex for sex’s sake with a person to whom they are not married.
The idea that happiness has an ethical component is a very old idea. Plato stated “the just man is happy, and the unjust man is miserable”. Aristotle claimed that happiness arises from a life of virtue and that virtues are acquired by behaving in a virtuous or ethical manner.
The relationship between ethics and happiness is considered in some detail in a 2009 paper by Harvey S James, from the University of Missouri. James confirms a positive correlation between ethical behaviour and happiness, “all other things being equal”. He concludes that “while income, personal characteristics, and social values play a role in affecting happiness, so does the personal ethics of people.”
Nevertheless the ethical questions that James examines are very limited and clear cut. They involve survey respondents considering whether four simple examples of ethically-questionable conduct could ever be justified. The four examples are claiming benefits that one is not entitled to, not paying fares on public transportation, cheating on taxes, and accepting bribes.
Of course ethics itself is divided into different philosophical camps.
Deontologists emphasise duty and good intention. Deontology leads to more or less fixed ethical duties that are applicable no matter what the circumstances. These duties are based on “God’s will” for religious deontologists or, for Kant, upon “categorical imperatives” said to be derived from strict application of reason, from not using others as a mere means to an end and from the maxim that a particular course of action should be a universal law.
Utilitarians, on the other hand, emphasise consequences over intention and duty. The consequences which they seek to maximise are the greatest pleasure for the greatest number.
But there are even divisions within utilitarianism. Bentham was a utilitarian for whom the source of pleasure was of no real importance. It could, for example, include taking one’s dose of soma every day. Mill, on the other hand, was a utilitarian who insisted that some sources of pleasure are intrinsically superior in quality than others. He seemingly ranked intellectual pleasures higher than sensual ones. This is of course a value laden position. Furthermore it hardly seems consistent with what biologists assert about biochemical sources of happiness.
Still others, such as Sam Harris, assert that while there may be a multitude of things that could lead different individuals to feel happy, it is not hard to think of things such as torture, starvation, extreme poverty or slavery, that are likely to be universal sources or pain or misery. This way of thinking leads to the doctrine known “negative utilitarianism”.
Negative utilitarianism aims for the least harm to the greatest number. The most ethical course is for individuals and public policy to minimise harm and to prevent, or remove, sources of pain and misery. The pursuit of happiness or pleasure, on the other hand, is generally best left to each individual to purse in the manner that they prefer.
Existentialists adopt yet another position in relation to ethics suggesting that there can be no hard and fast guides to ethical action and that we basically each choose our own course. It is through these choices that we define ourselves, for better or worse.
There may be a link between cognitive and ethical components of happiness as some scientific studies of the human brain suggest that different regions of the brain are engaged for deontological as opposed to utilitarian (consequentialist) thinking.
In one experiment, subjects were asked to imagine what they would do if enemy soldiers were approaching a group of people who were hiding with a baby that was starting to cry. Should one place ones hand over the mouth of the baby to prevent the sound of the cry, risking death to the baby from smothering? Or should one let the baby cry leading to the likelihood of discovery and death for the whole group including the baby?
For the deontologist it is always wrong to kill and the baby has rights. The consequentialist points out that if the baby is allowed to cry all will likely be captured and killed, including the baby.
The study was not designed to find a “right answer” to the ethical dilemma but to study how the brain reacts. Deontological thinking tends to engage that part of the brain involved in emotional or “gut instinct” responses. Consequentialist thinking tends to engage that part of the brain involved in more complex cost-benefit type calculations. Yet another part of the brain is engaged to resolve conflicts between the first two.
Of course most decisions in life do not involve ethical dilemmas as complex as the crying baby. Many are relatively simple such as those studied by James.
But complex ethical dilemmas do exist. And, as the ethicist Julian Baggini has written, if an easy answer to the controversy between deontological and consequentialist approaches existed, we would have found it by now. Baggini maintains that outside philosophy lecture theatres, in every day life, few of us are pure deontologists or pure consequentialists. This is because we intuitively understand that both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses.
But if it is the case there are situations in which the “best” approach towards resolution of ethical questions is unclear, it must follow that the relationship between living an ethical life and happiness may not always be as entirely straightforward as Plato and Aristotle suggested.
It might be argued that what is most important for happiness is not that the system of ethics one chooses is free of flaws. It is more important that one feels secure in adopting a particular system and better for having lived one’s life by it.
Yet even this approach raises sticky issues. Does a Jihadi extremist derive something that can meaningfully be described as “happiness” from beheading a so-called apostate in accordance with his deeply and genuinely held moral code? How does this source of “happiness” compare to that of a person who, through a random act, not based on any particular belief, intention, or act of bravery, fortuitously ends up saving someone else’s life?
Is the problem with moral codes, or at least with some of them, that they often lead to the notion that being “right” is more important than being happy? And why is it exactly that we seem to require an ethical system in order to be happy?
Other animals display happiness and unhappiness. They also display empathy to other animals, though mostly only within their own species. Dogs, possibly because of their long evolutionary history of domestication by us, seem to display guilt. Yet no other animal except us depends upon a moral code, based in articulated ideas, for happiness.
This means that the notion that we, as animals, require a moral code in order to be happy must be false or alternatively, that our requirement for morality is unique in the animal kingdom. We are seemingly the only animals that need to tell ourselves that we are acting ethically as a component of our well being. At what point in our evolution from other animals did this need to feel ourselves to be moral creatures arise? Harari asserts that it was only possible for Sapiens to move from small tribes of 100 or so people to larger more complex societies because of our unique ability to collectively believe in things that have no objective reality within nature- myths. He includes moral codes such as human rights and justice in this category.
Harari says there is no evolutionary advantage associated with happiness and that we have evolved to be neither too happy nor too unhappy. But Richard Dawkins maintains that there is a survival advantage associated with morality and having a reputation for reciprocity. He says that:
“Natural selection…favours tendencies to remember obligations, bear grudges, police exchange relationships and punish cheats who take, but don’t give when their turn comes.”
But if is true natural selection favours morality, but not happiness, how does this affect the relationship between ethics and happiness?
And does the tension between our desire to be viewed as morally sound creatures and our desire for simpler, more animalistic pleasures, explain why the application of our ethics seems so often flawed and riddled with double standards?
Harari says that we still have a lot to learn about the relationship between history and happiness that we need to find better ways of studying this question. But perhaps it is more likely that the relationship between history and happiness, like the relationship between ethics and happiness, will always be a puzzle.