Today, many of us are better off than any generation before us: we’re healthier, wealthier, and, in many ways, it’s easier for us to follow our dreams. So, obviously, we must be the happiest people as well, right?
Well, not quite.
In his book, Happiness, Richard Layard shows how, paradoxically, we’re less content today than we were just a few decades ago. Are today’s seemingly unlimited opportunities a ticket to unhappiness?
In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker sums it up nicely: happiness means being happy with what you have.
And yet, we humans are ambitious, competitive animals: no matter what we achieve, we get used to it quickly and crave more—even people who win the lottery don’t stay elated for very long.
Our thirst for more might be the reason why humans have shaped the planet like no other species has, but in the modern world, it is also an inbuilt obstacle to permanent happiness.
If your ancestors were anything like mine, they probably lived in a little village, and for them, being ambitious likely meant becoming the best baker or blacksmith in town, or having a prettier wife or a bigger house than their neighbor.
Achieving such goals is pretty attainable with just one neighbor for competition, just one other baker or smith in the village, and little contact with other communities boasting comelier ladies and grander mansions.
It was simply easier to be the best, which made it simply easier to be happy with the goods they’d already attained.
In a globalized world, people are no longer just comparing themselves to their neighbors or fellow villagers. Instead, they flick through the polished lives of 800 Facebook friends, and, even worse, see people like Mark Zuckerberg and other supposedly regular guys who made fortunes in their twenties.
As you might have guessed, this creates problems.
First of all, it invites us to focus on the things we don’t have rather than turning our gratitude toward what we do. Pinker says, "A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, but not by much." Following this logic, the comparison of one’s self to Mark Zuckerberg is a bad idea—unless, that is, you’re close to running a company that affects the lives of half the human population.
Another part of the problem is that we humans drastically underestimate the role of chance, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains in Fooled by Randomness. We neglect the fact that, while perhaps naturally gifted, people such as Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates were mainly just in the right place at the right time.
There might be quite a few Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates doppelgangers who basically did what their successful counterparts did but failed due to chance. Of course, nobody ever writes books about them, so counterexamples of Zuckerberg and Gates-style successes are not widely known.
Researchers such as Gerd Gigerenzer in his Gut Feelings or Daniel Kahneman in his famous Thinking, Fast and Slow, have shown how humans are in general bad at dealing with probabilities and estimating chances. We overestimate our chances to succeed as we, in general, tend to overestimate our own abilities.
Overestimating our own abilities and underestimating the role of chance leads to unrealistic expectations. A few decades ago, mentioning "world domination" might have landed you directly in a mental hospital. Today, quite a few people with high hopes dream of things that are far out of their grasp, and they’re never really happy with what they have.
Here’s the good news: the external preconditions to being happier than our ancestors are already there. And with just a little shift in perspective, you can make everything fall into your happy place.
One trick to changing the way you see happiness is getting rid of goals altogether, as Leo Babauta advises. In fact, many researchers of the human mind conclude that our biggest problem might actually be an overabundance of goals. If we continue to dangle bigger and bigger carrots in front of ourselves without ever quite managing to eat and enjoy them, we’re setting ourselves up for nothing but rumbling bellies and hunger of the soul.
Barbara Fredrickson, psychology professor and author of Positivity, has a more universal piece of advice: However you do it, make sure you have a ratio of three positive to one negative emotions, and you’ll end up with a positive attitude: the true path to long-term happiness. One of the most powerful tools to put you on the happier side of the spectrum on a more regular basis is meditation. After all, billions of Buddhists can’t be wrong, right?
Why our ancestors were happier in a pre-Facebook age seems obvious now: they compared themselves to a smaller and less Zuckerbergian pool.
Facebook isn’t going away anytime soon, nor is our wide world of competition, but chances are that you’ve already got everything you need to be happy, and with a few simple adjustments in perspective, you’ll start to see it, too.
While meditation isn’t for everyone, there is plenty of guidance out there in the form of great books that can inspire you on your journey towards happiness. Maybe your prescription for happiness is as simple as that of famous German poet, Goethe:
One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.
—Sebastian Klein is cofounder at Blinkist, a service that feeds curious minds key insights from non-fiction books. As Blinkist's editor-in-chief, he specializes in distilling complex concepts from great books into smart, beautiful language. Connect with him on Twitter.