The Slaying Of A Beautiful Hypothesis By An Ugly Fact
For most of human history, life was brutal.
In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes described the natural state of man as follows:
‘’…and the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short’’ *1
We’ve held on to this hypothesis that if we’d only had it all, we’d finally be happy.
Now for the first time in human history…
We do have it all.
All the things our ancestors wished for and more.
We have roofs over our heads, food in our bellies and access to the world’s information at our fingertips, for free.
The average person in the developed world is living an order of magnitude better than the richest kings two centuries ago.
But the ‘ugly fact’ is that our hypothesis seems to be a fallacy.
Depending on which research you look at happiness is either declining, stagnant or has increased slowly. *2
The chart below shows the self-reported life satisfaction between 2005–2018.
While it’s difficult to measure and accurately quantify happiness, let alone at scale for obvious reasons, one would expect a dramatic rise in happiness based on the premise this essay started with.
And yet the correlation between the (extraordinary) increase in real GDP per capita and our happiness is much weaker than you’d expect. *3
Starting in 2012, the United Nations began compiling the “World Happiness Report” which examines how citizens worldwide rank their subjective level of happiness. Some of the world’s happiest countries have high GDP per capita, and most of the least happy are very poor. But the correlation is far from perfect. *4
(Oversimplification but Gross Domestic Product is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a period of time. GDP per capita is when you divide that by the population to indicate how productive each citizen is.)
It appears that happiness isn’t so much an artifact of reality as it is an artifact of our perception.
Perception matters, for perception creates our approximation of reality and as far as we’re concerned… that approximation is equal to reality. (Blissfully unaware of our biases.)
The point of this essay is to remind you that ‘better’ is subjective.
Our users get to decide.
One way to ‘better’ is by making objective reality better..
But as the legendary Rory Sutherland says: ‘‘If objective reality is much better than perception than what the hell are you doing improving objective reality?!’’
Meaning if the situation is good but perception is shit.. fix perception! Don’t waste resources on improving the situation even further.
Sometimes you make better wine by making wine better.
But as we hit the limits of physics and what we can perceive with our senses, I argue that more and more you make better wine by simply fucking putting it in a heavy bottle.
*1 Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (p88 of pdf). Retrieved from:https://www.ttu.ee/public/m/mart-murdvee/EconPsy/6/Hobbes_Thomas_1660_The_Leviathan.pdf
*2 Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser (2019). Happiness and Life Satisfaction. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: https://ourworldindata.org/happiness-and-life-satisfaction [Online Resource]
*3 van Zanden, J., et al. (eds.) (2014), How Was Life?: Global Well-being since 1820, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264214262-en. Retrieved from: https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/economics/how-was-life_9789264214262-en#page67 Table 3.2.
*4 Berkeley Economic Review staff. (2018, October 31). Beyond GDP: Economics and Happiness. Retrieved from: https://econreview.berkeley.edu/beyond-gdp-economics-and-happiness/