Disease, famine, war, and pestilence have plagued humanity since our birth. We call them the Four Horsemen of Death. The hooves of their horses have left a trail of death across human history. It’s impossible to imagine the extent of death and devastation.
And yet, today we are somewhat removed from those concerns. We are healthier, longer-lived, more affluent, and more educated than ever. To the early Homo Sapiens, with her club and her thick skull, we are almost as gods.
That is how far we’ve come.
Why then aren’t we any happier than before? We are affluent, and yet we crave more. We are longer-lived, but the idea of death is paralyzing. We are more educated, but lack meaning. We are more connected than ever, but fail to understand one another more than ever.
In the progress toward happiness, we have achieved the progress, but forfeited happiness.
How did it get to that?
One obvious and irrefutable fact of human existence is that we live in a volatile, unpredictable, violent universe. Earthquakes, famines, draughts, disease, pollution, war, and death are everpresent.
To the early human, these events posed an enormous problem. How to accept that we are at the whim of so many forces beyond our comprehension, let alone control?
Seeing how she had no way of preventing any of it, the early human anthropomorphized it. She made it about herself. She built a nest neatly in the center of it all, deciding that it was all created to highlight her own uniqueness. She gave rise to myth, belief, and religion to provide answers to the unanswerable questions.
Why am I here?
Because Gaia and Uranus made us, said the old Greeks.
Why is there pain and suffering?
Because Adam and Eve cursed the human race when they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, teach the Jews and the Christians.
What happens after death?
We rise to Valhalla where we feast and drink with Odin, awaiting Ragnarok, or so believed the Northerners.
Tales of this sort exist from the earliest stirrings of humanity to the modern day world. With the advent of wide-spread monotheistic religions, the narrative has somewhat changed, but the structural supports have remained the same. In the words of Ernest Becker:
“We cannot endure [our] own littleness unless [we] can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.” — Ernest Becker
What larger level than constructing an elaborate, supernatural force concerned, it seems, with humanity and nothing except humanity?
Like the early myth, modern day religions serve the same role — to provide answers of sense and meaning. In a world that often seems devoid of both this is essential. They provide a code of conduct one can follow throughout life, assured of his own uniqueness and the benevolence of the supernatural force.
Political ideologies, nationalism, and other forms of mass-belief tell the same underlying myth as religion does — that the adherents are unique and uniquely predisposed to succeed. The particular terms of success vary but that is beside the point. What is on point is the urge to build a buffer between us and the stupefying enormity of existence. They urge us to build an illusion that envelops and keeps reality at bay.
For thousands of years we have been satisfied with the answers myths provided. Then, in the early 18th century, came the Enlightenment. Preceded by the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment began to poke at old notions and pseudoscience. It brought tools of skepticism to all areas of human endeavour. It showed that no answer need be taken for granted. We are animals capable of thinking for ourselves, rather than accepting someone else’s narrative.
This movement had, in Europe and nearly all the world, drastically undermined the power of the Church and its equivalents. Priesthood was no longer the only educated caste. People, filled with a wealth of new ideas, began to advocate democracy, freedom of expression, personal liberty, and the weakening of religious authority.
In the short span of about 70 years, the world changed with a vengeance. Reason and rationality took down the glorified edifices of The Infallible Religion. An earthquake rippled through societies worldwide, causing a paradigm shift. Where once we had absolute religious certainty suddenly we had the power of skepticism and doubt.
We began to question everything.
That’s when the protective illusions of myth and belief unraveled. Many of the established meaning-structures came crashing down. Some people celebrated this as the awesome power of the human mind. Some advocated a return to faith, as did the proponents of the Counter-Enlightenment. Regardless, and across the board, the repercussions went deep and wide.
Illusions and buffers were no more. Reality invaded the mind of the average person who, stripped of the protections myths provide, suddenly felt a kind of existential dread. They, once again, asked the questions.
Why am I here?
Why is there pain and suffering?
What happens after death?
This time around there were no ready-made answers. The stories of old were an illusion, but an illusion that protected the mind and provided meaning. Logically (and rather unconsciously), people chose to build worship their own structures of meaning in the form of lust for power, money, intellect, sexual allure, and so on. David Foster Wallace, the author of This is Water, sums up the consequences:
“If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time ande age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.” — David Foster Wallace
The Enlightenment cast doubt on the old structures of meaning, but provided little by way of replacement. Where once there was order, however flawed, suddenly there was nothing. People were free to do as they pleased. This, we discovered, is not as pleasant as it sounds.
One of the functions of the old systems was to limit sheer scope of reality in order to help us function on a daily basis. Once we tore down the old systems, numerous “liberation” movements of the mind and of the body emerged. It became fashionable to be a “freed soul”. We threw away the milk of old restrictions, and went on a consumption binge. So we eat and drink ourselves dumb, drug and distract ourselves to the point of unconsciousness, shop and buy until we sink into an unconscious stupor.
And we call it freedom.
In both cases, restricted and “freed,” we acted the part in order to better fit into the surrounding society. We adjusted to the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. That, at least, provided some sense of belonging and meaning. It gave us an idea of what is rewarding and what is punishing in relation to others around us.
And that is key.
The definition of what is good (reward) and bad (punishment) once again did not come from the individual, but either from the society or her own vague desires. There was no conscious choice of direction — either one is directed by the society or by their whims and instinct. In neither of the cases can it be said that a person has directed their own life because that requires making a conscious choice. Meaning is not given, but chosen through deliberate responsibility and ownership of our actions.
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychologist and an Auschwitz survivor, wrote in his seminal book:
“Ultimately, [we] should not ask what the meaning of…life is, but rather must recognize that it is [we] who [are] asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.”—Viktor Frankl
To take control of consciousness and live a life of meaning, we have to define our own rewards. The rewards must be internal and sustainable, focused on the process, rather than on the mark. It is crucial to retain this privilege of defining the rewards. To consciously choose them and to make them dependent on our own conduct, not on outside forces or ones own unthinking genetics.
“Power returns to the person when rewards are no longer relegated to outside forces.” — Mihaly Csikszentnmihalyi
Of course, knowing how we went from myth to the present state of apathy is not enough to change. Knowing about an idea is not the same as embodying it. It requires making a choice, day in and day out, that inches us toward deciding what is meaningful and what is rewarding. Everything else is a blind attempt to unconsciously find happiness by following someone else’s narrative.
But happiness cannot be found.
It lives in your actions.