Does Progress Make Us Happier?
If progress equates to happiness, why aren’t humans getting happier despite progress?
Often we see pieces of writing that offer solutions — solutions to get more fit, solutions to live a more fulfilled life, solutions to get out of toxic relationships and so on. We all want solutions. More solutions. Better solutions. Faster solutions. Because at the end of the day, we believe that the progress in terms of better, faster, cheaper — will make us all happier. And in our pursuit of happiness, we chase progress.
First, let me be clear that I have no problems with progress and I think aspiration is a cool emotion. We weren’t born just to hang around and doing so all day would make life excruciatingly dull. Also, it would be a huge shame given the powers bestowed upon the human mind.
Yet, for today, I’m not going to show you how to get better, faster, sharper but perhaps compel you to go a little slower, think deeper and reflect longer.
I’ll give you a glimpse of the progress we’ve made in recent years and reflect upon why despite all the progress in this world, aren’t we getting happier?
First, let’s begin with who’s ‘we’?
Who Are We?
When I say we, I mean all of us. Yes, all the 7.8 billion people who inhabit this planet regardless of the countless categories we choose to be defined by. Our race has been around for about 5.7 million years — though the apes, chimps and gorillas beat us to it by millions of years.
I suppose that’s okay. Even if it isn’t, it’s a bit late to fix that. It might have been more annoying if they reminded us of our late arrival, but guess what? They do nothing of that sort because somehow, they don’t seem to know or care. Unlike us, they don’t appear obsessed with progress.
Okay so next, let’s take a look at our progress over the last 100 odd years.
What Progress Have We Made?
Taking a look at key inventions of the 21st century, we have the all singing and dancing social media to begin with. You have to admit, it’s changed how we live. Other key inventions include the mobile operating system, gene editing, 3D printing, bitcoin and blockchain technologies.
Here’s a short explanation to elaborate on their potential to make us happier.
- 3D Printing: Developed in 1980’s, this technology has made leaps of progress especially in the medical field. Thanks to recent innovations, we can now use the technology to print out things such as surgical tools and even custom-made prosthetics.
- Gene Therapy: By using Gene Therapy (CRISPR),we’ll be able to make changes in the DNA of our cells. We can use this to do great stuff such as treating disease and it’s already being used to enhance immune cells so that people can fight cancer. In case you didn’t know, CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced palindromic repeats.
If we go further behind in time, we’ll find a whole host of technologies without which life as we know it, might be unthinkable. Some key 20th century inventions include computers, the internet, the vacuum cleaner and much more.
The most important one of all is believed to be the transistor. Yes, that’s right. It’s believed that without this humble and tiny device invented in 1947, computer servers would have been three stories high! So yes, this indeed is one of the true super powers known to humanity.
Looking at all of the above, I’m sure you’d agree that we’re progressing at breakneck speed.
I’ve only counted all of us on the Earth but who knows, given our aspirations for space travel and a multi-planetary existence a few decades on, I might be counting mates on Mars too! If the idea fascinates you, you can read up my piece on space travel where I explain the initiatives by Elon Musk (SpaceX), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin) and Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic).
But Are We Happier?
Considering all the amazing progress we’ve made, and all the little and big ways in which humans have advanced, it may be natural to assume that collectively, we should be getting increasingly happier.
I mean isn’t one of the key purposes of advancement to help humanity progress and for us to live richer and happier lives. With computers to help us get stuff with the click of a button, social media to keep us connected, gene editing to help support our wellness, air travel to help us get to where we want to go — whichever way to look at this, we have a lot more at our disposal than our ancestors might have imagined.
So naturally, we might be getting happier right. Somehow, the stats don’t seem to agree.
How Is Our Mental Health?
Broadly speaking, about one in ten of us all suffer from mental health concerns. This figure includes conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, eating disorder, schizophrenia and also alcohol and drug use disorder.
Although the number seems rather high, I suppose they’re believable. I mean look at all the amazing stuff we’ve been delivering.
From artificial intelligence to vegan diets, everything is becoming increasingly advanced. Someone’s got to be doing all the hard work and it sure can’t be easy. In fact, I’d be surprised for anyone indulged to emerge unscathed.
At the other end of the excitement might those of us who’ve checked out to avoid the overwhelm. I suppose that too might be stressful as people might wonder where that leaves them as the world around might begin to feel less relatable.
Though numbers are grave, what really concerns me is the trend.
Why Aren’t We Getting Happier?
I’d like to think that as a net effect of the phenomenal leaps made by mankind, we’re trending in the right direction.
But somehow this too doesn’t seem to be the case.
We hear about mental health concerns a lot more and and stats here suggest that in the UK as an example, people reporting mental health issues increased by about 20% from 1993 to 2014. Even before the impact of COVID-19, mental health issues were reported to have increased significantly in young adults. The study on ScienceDaily suggests that the increase in mental health issues was sharpest after 2011.
I know that there are many nuances to stats and one could argue that numbers aren’t actually on the rise and it’s just that we’re more aware and candid enough to speak up. So for one moment, let’s forget the stats and use our judgement.
- Do people around you seem happier than they were before?
- Not withstanding the pandemic, do you personally feel happier today than you were 10 or 20 years ago? Or maybe 30 or 60 or 80 years ago, depending on how old you may be.
If your answers are a yes, then I have one more question for you. Would you attribute all your happiness to the progress you’ve made?
We believe progress makes us happier. But although humans continue to progress, we aren’t exactly getting much happier.
Yet, as people, we like to peg our happiness onto something the represents progress both at a societal level and an individual level. For example, people will often say to me that they’ll be happy when they get a bigger house or a better income.
I believe that while both progress and happiness have a place, they aren’t as correlated as we make it out to be and that they must both be pursued for their own sake.
It’s a small yet important point because understanding this fundamental principle can set you free. You no longer have to depend on progress to be happy. Instead of saying to yourself that you’ll be happy after you achieve that next big goal, you can choose to be happy today as you work towards that goal.
To make progress is one of the most beautiful feelings in this world but your happiness is not necessitous of progress.
I wish you every happiness.
I also with you great progress.