Today, modern human’s live in greater comfort and luxury than ever before. For the first tens of thousands years our existence was heavily characterized by the fight for survival. Days were spent foraging and hunting for enough food to exist until tomorrow or fighting against existential threats such as predators or roving tribes of other humans.
Over time existence got easier. Certain animals and plants were domesticated creating for the first time a food surplus, this in turn freeing up time for man to create and discover new technologies, develop art, and pursue pleasure. (I highly recommend Jared Diamond’s book “Guns Germs and Steel which covers the advent of modern society from our nomadic roots). Throughout the past several millennia the trajectory of human existence has moved further and further away from our early struggles for mere existence and closer towards greater knowledge, pleasure, and comfort.
The struggle we face is no longer for existence but for purpose in existence. Prehistoric man found meaning and purpose in survival. Prehistoric man would have received the dopamine rush that we associate and recognize as happiness and reward from a successful hunt providing food or from warding off an attack by a rival tribe. Where our ancestors would have trekked for many miles over several days to bring down a mammoth and provide food, the extent of our effort today lies in picking up our phone or computer to order delivery online, with the most difficult part of the whole process being which restaurant we will finally order from.
Don’t misunderstand me, I am a huge advocate for technological advancements and very fond of the increased availability of time to enjoy other pursuits we enjoy as a result of said technology. I am grateful that my existence no longer depends on killing a several thousand pound animal with long razor-sharp tusks. Such advancements have allowed humanity to thrive and excel – leading to unprecedented discoveries and awe-inspiring works of art and expression. I would likely have not survived my own birth were it not for technology. That said, there are obvious negative consequences to the sort of modern existence that we experience today.
The greatest consequence of modern humanity’s trajectory is struggling to find meaning or purpose in our existence. It would seem that happiness would thrive in a society with the omnipresent threat of death and disaster has been largely removed. This is not the case. Quite the opposite. Instead we see levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide continue to rise year over year. As technology allows for healthier, longer, safer, lives filled with new and exciting toys, gadgets, experiences, and hobbies, – one would expect that depression would be decreasing and that happiness would increase. Why then do we see the opposite?
The answer appears to be partially explained by the fact that the removal of existential struggle and the over-abundance and easy-accessibility of happiness or pleasure inducing experiences or materials has blunted our ability to actually experience the emotions of joy or happiness. As Dr. Andrew Huberman, a PhD of Biology at Stanford University, says: “pleasure is not a problem. Dopamine is not a problem. Too much pleasure experienced too often without a prior requirement for effort in order to achieve that pleasure/dopamine is terrible for us however, it lowers our baseline level of dopamine and the potency of all experiences.” It isn’t that pleasure is the problem. The problem is that a surprising adverse consequence of the development of modern society and technology is that the availability of pleasure has increased to unprecedented levels and is available without prerequisite levels of effort or labor. Dr. Viktor Frankl said that “when a person cannot find a deep sense of meaning they distract themselves with pleasure.” The more one indulges in a pleasure, the less and less they will actually enjoy it, leading to a never ending cycle of needing more and more – the very basis for addiction that we see all too commonly today.
Numerous religions, particularly Eastern religions, note the inherent coupling of existence and suffering. Bygone generations of humanity derived happiness and pleasure in their overcoming of struggle and suffering. In finding purpose in their overcoming of suffering they were able to discover meaning in existence. Ironically the removal of struggle has not lead to an increase in happiness and pleasure but instead increased it. The human’s of today must be intentional about creating a life of purpose in order to create happiness. This naturally leads to the question about what does purpose look like and how do you pursue it?
Friedrich Nietzsche said: “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In order to create happiness in our lives we must find a why, what do we live, what is our purpose. Dr. Jordan Peterson believes that having a goal, ideally a goal that improves society in some way, can provide meaning to life because it creates a worthy pursuit. That pursuit provides pleasure, pleasure that we must work for, in the accomplishment thereof but that the pursuit itself presumably makes us a better person and that we should derive joy from the effort of becoming a better person. To the point of goals that improve society, remember the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho where it is said that any goal that enriches the individual enriches the world because in pursuing our own goals or dreams we nurture the soul of the world by nurturing the self – the self being just single part of or one specific iteration of the larger whole.
The purpose of this post is not to suggest that we burn our libraries, destroy our technology, and scatter our food stores so that we may return to a subsistence living and once again return to our subsistence levels of existence in order to once again derive happiness and meaning in the very struggle for survival. The purpose is to merely highlight the deleterious effects of what in most ways is a very positive trend – that towards greater technological and scientific advancement, and to urge everyone to discover passions and to create noble goals worthy of pursuit and to struggle mightily in the achievement thereof. To quote Dr. Frankl once more: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”
If this is resonating with any readers I can tell you, I have been there. Much of my twenties were a struggle to find meaning and purpose in my existence. It wasn’t until I realized that sense of purpose in my work helping others, and later in committing myself to creating a better version of myself, a version built with struggle which I had to fully embrace, that I began to experience true happiness and live with real purpose. Nobody can find your purpose for you, you have to do that on your own. You may discover in fact that it is your purpose that finds you. Once that purpose is realized and you commit yourself to living with purpose, in whatever way that looks to you – you will have discovered the creation of happiness.
It is not through the abolishment of struggle that we find happiness. It is in aiming that struggle towards the ideals of a better Self and in embracing the pain of that struggle that we create happiness of our own accord.