If we step back for a moment from the seeming exigencies of our daily lives, we can notice a very odd thing: despite being wrapped in convenience, comfort, and abundance beyond the dreams of any Emperor or Queen even as recently as a century ago, most people aren’t happy. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that we’re actually less happy today in our plentitude than were our grandparents in their relative hardship.
Why is this? And what, if anything, can we choose to do about it?
Let’s begin with a brief glance at some of the many things for which we should in theory be overwhelmed with gratitude. Despite the irresponsibility of doctors over-prescribing them for decades and farmers over-using them even now, we still have (some) functional antibiotics that turn accidental cuts and wounds into annoyances rather than a potential death-sentence. We have vaccines that have removed the horrors of polio, smallpox, and many other viral threats.
Most people in the developed world have shelter that keeps them relatively insulated from the elements. Few of us ever go to sleep fearing that a predator will stealthily carry off one of our small children in the night. With the notable exception of the USA, which remains forever unable to change its insane gun laws, we are safer than we have ever been at any time before. Although for 99.8% of human history we have never had food security, today we’re so surrounded by cheap calories that globally more humans are obese than under-weight. And while our ancestors had to perform physical activities in order to continue living, today we can spend our lives in a near-total state of indolence, gawping at our shiny screens for hours at a time.
And yet, a great many people are dissatisfied, anxious, and unhappy with their lives.
The great irony of human existence is that what we want is very often the opposite of what we need. The more we chase things that we believe will make us happy, the more unhappy we become.
Fortunately, this observation also yields the solution.
It may seem trite to condense an entire philosophy of life into one glib phrase, but it may also be illuminating: if…