Why are we so unhappy?

July 31, 2023 08:34
Photo: Reuters

The contemporary individual is likely to lead a much longer life, with substantially greater material abundance, a wider range of places to which they can travel, a more stable and harmonious family life and marriage, and a healthier adulthood, than their counterpart from 100 years ago. An average individual is significantly less likely to be a victim of a violent crime or heinous assault, than their counterpart from a century ago.

By most indicators of objective life quality, the vast majority of humans around the world - with a few notable exceptions in countries that have regressed considerably over the course of the two World Wars and the Cold War - are leading ‘better’ or ‘improved’ lives as compared with in the somewhat distant past.

The empirics of this statement must be probed further -- I’m unconvinced that the evidence is rock-solid; valid questions should be raised concerning how we could feasibly gauge the happiness levels of citizens of the world in 1923 (or, indeed, gauge how happy folks other than ourselves are, given that the human mind is not always luminous (see debates on self-illuminosity and other-illuminosity within the field of philosophy of mind), as well as whether we should take individuals’ reported testimony (or, whatever is left of it) seriously as an authoritative indication of how happy our predecessors and ancestors were, vis-à-vis ourselves today. Yet what is clearly indisputable, is that there is a growing chorus of voices in the modern era that charge that we are no happier than our ancestors were 100 years ago.

Some draw upon this to argue that the halcyon days of humanity are now over. “Humanity has peaked!” They forcefully declare, as if such an announcement were itself an affirmation of the downward trajectory that we are forecast to be going down - there is no going back. Others leverage the ‘Peak Humanity’ theory to press for changes to our macroeconomic priorities: we should care less for overall growth, and instead spend more time working on redistribution qua a core part of development. After all, with greater equality comes greater happiness across the board. Still, some would point to the raft of existential risks and malaise - ranging from climate change to biohazards and pandemics, the rise of AI to geopolitical tensions - in order to justify their gloomy predictions concerning our future.

Yet what we must not neglect, is the possibility that our happiness does not - in fact - reflect the objective state of affairs or an accurate prognosis concerning our future. What if we’re just less happy all round, without such decrease in utility reflecting any further, underlying trend of deterioration and decline? What if the world is in fact indeed getting better by ‘standard’ objective measurements of quality of life, and yet it is also explanatorily conceivable that we are becoming less and less happy? What could possibly explain this?

I have no authoritative answer, but there are a couple of possible ‘stories’ that we can tell about the psychological patterns at hand here. The first is that we live in an era driven by comparisons. Social media platforms compel us - by confronting us obnoxiously - to look at others’ successes, and to admire them for purportedly achieving what we can only dream of doing (in practice, much of this can be attributed to successful publicity and spin, as well as the self-selecting bias governing when and what contents individuals choose to post on, say, LinkedIn). Private communication channels increasingly steer conversations in substitution of more human, face-to-face interactions. Boasting and gloating over particular achievements have now become part and parcel of how friends, even close ones, interact - for such comparisons enable them to convey the largest volume of information using the least amount of time. Contrast someone spending thirty minutes unpacking the challenges involved in overcoming climate change, with the same person claiming that they have just won an ‘ESG award’. In our prioritising quick, swift, and expedient signals in order to eliminate unnecessary noise, we have come to embrace empty signifiers that only make sense - and that only bear significance - within highly constricted and artificially stipulated social settings. A McKinsey title on one’s CV means very little if one is to traverse through communities that couldn’t care less for the seeming credibility or authoritativeness of ‘analysis reports’ and ‘trend forecasting’. Neither, mind you, can help us light a fire in the middle of a wilderness. As Rousseau aptly argued, it is through our comparisons with one another that we come to stake out and construct our social identities. Yet it is also such interactions that give rise to the ever-persistent amour propre, rooted in how we construct our own looking-glass selves.

The second is that the greater societal abundance - on net - has not brought about more abundance for the individual. Take a more ‘recent’ point of comparison - the Gini coefficient amongst OECD countries stood at an average of 0.29 in the mid-1980s. By the late 2000s, the coefficient had increased by almost 10% to 0.316. Inequality has reared its ugly head through market structures that disproportionately favour those who are capital-rich and knowledge-rich, leaving behind those who have been rendered redundant by mechanisation, offshoring of labour, and trade rerouting and creation. Those in the bottom 10%, or 20%, of developed economies could very well be leading subjectively, if not objectively, worse lives than their counterparts would have, 50 or 100 years ago.

The third, and perhaps somewhat self-referentially (in relation to this piece), is that we have become precipitously more cognizant and conscious of our own feelings. Those who live their lives in anxiety and who constantly struggle with recognition, have become more well-versed in and thus comfortable with articulating their angst. Conspicuous and extravagant spending by some, additionally, has compounded the emotional stakes in the matter -- those who cannot spend, those who cannot lead the lavish and extreme lifestyles fetishised by small circles, feel increasingly pressed to vocalise their discontents. And vocalise they most certainly have a right and case to: after all, skyrocketing housing prices, obscene inequalities skewed towards the rich and the powerful, and inefficient oligopolies are problems that require urgent redress by not just the state, but all concerned citizens. The resentment precipitated by such structural problems - as evidenced by demonstrations rocking countries such as the US and France - could well yield dire consequences, if not tackled swiftly.

The working class are unhappy because they have become more ‘woke’, waking up to the very conditions that have historically subjugated their predecessors.

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Assistant Professor, HKU