Is Technology Destroying Happiness?

Alongside the rights to life and liberty, crafters of the United States Declaration of Independence added a third: the pursuit of happiness. Historian Yuval Noah Harari writes that happiness itself is not an inalienable right—the pursuit of it is. Semantics matter.

In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari picks up where his last book, Sapiens, left off. Happiness is an important theme as it has become one of the most elusive emotional conditions of our era. While Americans often consider it to be a default setting, Harari points out that initially happiness was introduced as a check on state power.

He writes a society built on the right to make your own decisions in the “private sphere of choice, free from state supervision” was the intention behind Jefferson and crew. Over the last few decades, however, Americans have turned more toward British philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s demand that the sole purpose of the state, financial markets, and science “is to increase global happiness.”

But we’re not happier. In many ways we’re more distraught than ever. This counterintuitive condition makes no sense of the surface. Harari notes that in ancient agriculture societies 15 percent of deaths were caused by violence; during the twentieth century that number dwindled to 5 percent; and now, over the last seventeen years, we’re at 1 percent, which made him realize, “sugar is now more dangerous than gunpowder.”

Technology alone is not to blame, as in many ways our uneasiness with our condition seems an old trait. The human nervous systems is wired to be on constant alert for threats in the environment. Given how few we encounter on a regular basis, this threat detection system has been co-opted by the luxury of security, causing Harari to realize that:

The most common reaction of the human mind to achievement is not satisfaction, but craving for more.

And we’re good at more. Since the fifteenth century an increasing desire for goods has taken root in societies across the planet. America is usually targeted as the primary driver behind unnecessary purchasing, though history professor Frank Trentmann points out a trifecta of “comfort, cleanliness and convenience” that took root centuries earlier in the Netherlands, Italy, and China, the latter which he calls a “proto-consumer culture.”

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