Physically, life is easier than ever, for most people, most of the time. But psychologically it sometimes seems much harder than it needs to be. Why is that?
In this post, and in the companion video, we will consider two imaginary characters from the history of the universe, Grok and Bill, and then consider some of what has changed from the time Grok lived (about 50,000 years ago) to the time in which Bill lives (today).
Grok wakes up on the savanna with the orange sun rising over the horizon and sets to work. He’s not the best hunter in the band, but he makes a sharp and sturdy spear. The wildebeest are migrating through the area, and everyone’s getting ready for the big hunt. The best hunters need new spears, and Grok is adding a few finishing touches.
Grok’s 6-year-old son Wug sits down beside him watching, and Grok explains what he’s doing as he goes. Welcome to the school of Grok. Grok takes pride in his work. He makes better spears today than he did a year ago. And he expects to make even better spears in the future.
Grok’s band needs him. The hunts are more successful because his spears work so well. And Grok needs the skilled hunters. In his hands the spears do not work as well. Grok also needs the tribe members who know where to find the fruit and starch that feeds the tribe when the hunting is sparse.
Dozens of things need to be done to keep everyone alive and well, and among the able-bodied adults everyone has something they are the best at. Everyone feels needed. And everyone appreciates how valuable everyone else is to the success of the tribe.
Grok’s tribe has a leader. But if others strongly dislike the direction he’s leading, they don’t follow. When it comes time to make decisions, everyone has a voice. The leader needs everyone else as much as they need him. And it didn’t take much work to get everyone on board for tomorrow’s hunt.
Bill wakes up in a cold sweat. It’s 2:30 am. No lion is chasing him. The bills are paid. He and his family are safe and healthy, and living in a nice suburban neighborhood.
But Bill feels terror. His life is half over. And, if his current levels of stress continue, it’s more than half over. And he hasn’t done anything with his life yet—not really. Bill thinks it’s becoming more and more likely that, when he dies, he will die a failure.
Years ago, Bill set his sights on making several million dollars. Today he is still just barely paying the bills.
Bill’s father created a successful business in his youth and now sips martinis by his pool at his mansion pontificating about how most people don’t know how to work and don’t give a damn about America or God. Bill has other thoughts about politics and religion (and about how his father made his money), but Bill never speaks up. He feels unworthy to speak up. After all, if you don’t make a lot of money you’re either lazy or stupid. Money is voice. And Bill doesn’t have enough of it. Bill hates visiting his parents and sitting around the dinner table listening to his father’s words, and feeling unable to challenge the one-sided rants.
Bill’s 20th high school reunion is approaching, and he’s not sure he wants to go. He had such promise in high school. What will others think when they realize he’s not as successful as they expected him to be?
Bill’s wife can only guess why he’s so preoccupied and moody. For the most part Bill keeps his feelings to himself. And he had better get back to sleep. His alarm goes off in 3 hours, and he needs to drag himself out of bed so he can get to work on time.
Who Has The Better Life?
Grok lived a happy and meaningful life, and Bill is depressed and unfulfilled. Obviously those are one-sided profiles. Not everyone in the modern world is unhappy. And there were many moments of misery on the savanna.
Life probably wasn't better 50,000 years ago than it is now, all things considered. More women died in childbirth. Men died more in battle. Infectious diseases killed more people. There were no hot tubs or video games. And there was no Internet.
And not every tribe was the same. Some were probably fairly happy groups. And some contained violent bullies who were difficult to avoid. Some tribes killed elderly members when they were no longer useful. And, if a person found that their biological needs were out of step with the values of the tribe, they were in for a rough life with nowhere to go to get away from it.
But these two caricatures help pave the way for a question: Is some of our unhappiness due to the features of our modern environment?
The base hardware of the human mind changed a lot over the last million years, but not so much over the last 50,000 years. Technology and culture, on the other hand, have changed dramatically over the last 50,000 years. And that means our minds might be better at meeting the challenges of old-school tribal life than they are at meeting the challenges of the modern world.
In the tribe it was easier to feel a sense of belonging, mutual respect, and mutual need. It was easy to develop a skill and become the best in the “known world” at something others actually cared about. Values were shared and motivations were understood.
Today things are different. In many ways our lives are better. And in many ways our lives are worse. And, if the rate of technological change is accelerating, we should expect more of both.
If given a choice between the primordial savanna and modern life, I know I'd stick with modern life. And I'd make the decision in a heartbeat. But I can't help sometimes dreamily romanticizing some of the things we seem to have lost. And that leads me to a question: can we have our cake and eat it, too? Or put more precisely:
Take-Home Question: Can we enjoy all the benefits of modern life, while restoring some of what modern life has cost us?
In future posts, we will consider whether we can have our cake and eat it, too. We will look at the basic psychological needs of humans, and we will look at the features of the modern world that don't seem to work very well with our psychologies. And we will consider ways we might change things in our favor.
Here are some more specific questions you can ask yourself already at this point in the discussion:
The first question is asking about "Autonomy." The second about "Competence". And the third about "Relatedness".
According to Self-Determination Theory, those are the primary human psychological needs. The suggestion is that the modern world can frustrate those needs at times. And, going forward, we will consider ways to get more autonomy, competence, and relatedness into our lives, while continuing to enjoy all the good parts of modern life.
*This post is a modified version of the introduction to "Stop Setting Goals That Don't Make You Happy."
**If you'd like to be notified when I publish new articles (and get some free lessons in making your life less overwhelming), check out Clear Mind in a Complex World.