Christopher Ryan Ph.D.

Sex at Dawn

Does Civilization Make Us Happy?

What kinds of freedom lead to happiness?

Posted Mar 27, 2011

Science writer John Horgan recently considered a big question—maybe the biggest question of all: Has civilization been a big mistake? I won't proffer my own answer to that question here (it's the topic of an upcoming book), but let's take a look at some of the balderdash that passes for argument when this issue comes up. I don't mean to give Horgan a particularly hard time, as I enjoy his writing, and the nonsense plaguing his piece is anything but unusual. But that's the point, isn't it? When even well-informed, thoughtful writers get lost in the woods, you know you're facing an interesting question.

After describing (and somewhat trivializing) Kirkpatrick Sale's book, After Eden, Horgan asked his students to respond to this question:

Would you rather be alive today or in the Paleolithic era? The Paleolithic lasted from the dawn of the Homo genus two million years ago to the dawn of agriculture, towns and cities, chiefs and kings, armies, ziggurats, moola, shopping malls and other building blocks of civilization 10,000 years ago.

Let's look at some of the responses he got from his students (university, I presume). First, Carlos gives us what we'd expect, "We have things such as supermarkets where we can buy our food, as opposed to having to hunt it and cook it over a manmade fire. I honestly don’t think I could survive more than a day in the Old Stone Age."

Look, Carlos, the fact that you're accustomed to going to the supermarket and never mastered the art of starting a campfire isn't an argument; it's an observation. As is the fact that you wouldn't last long in a prehistoric environment. Who cares? This is akin to a poodle claiming life at the pound is better than the life of a timber wolf because, "I wouldn't last long with a pack of wolves." No, poodle, you wouldn't. But that's irrelevant.

Another student, Tim, hit the jackpot:

Tim provided the answer I was looking for: "In today’s world anyone can try to do anything they want. It is this freedom of choice that is the reason why I would rather live in modern times than in the Paleolithic era."

"Yes!" I wrote in the margin of Tim’s paper. There is no better measure of the vitality of a society than the number of choices it offers its people. Choices about the important things in life—education, career, religious worship, sexual behavior, even the books we read and films we watch and Internet sites we visit—are what make life meaningful. That is why I argued so strenuously in my last post that free will—which I equate with freedom and choice—is not an illusion, as Einstein and other misguided reductionists have claimed. That's also why I love living in 21st-century America, despite all of its flaws.

Not to rain on Tim and John's parade, but are you guys kidding me? "Anyone can try to do anything they want"? Yeah? Tell it to the kids picking through the dumps outside any major city in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Or tell it to the millions of homeless kids in the U.S. today. "You're free kids! Lucky you!"

We don't even have to go for something so dramatic. Today I got an email from a psychiatrist who has spent a lot of time living with what we might call "pre-civilized" people. He made the point that major depression manifests very differently among such people. Someone who is depressed just lies around in his/her hammock for a few months or years. The other members of the group will take care of him/her until things get better. Test your "freedom" to do that sometime, Tim, and let us know how it goes. I think you'll find that freedom ain't what it used to be.

John Horgan goes on to claim that, "Our profoundly ignorant Paleolithic ancestors had little or no choice in where, how or with whom they lived; the very notion of choice would have been foreign to them."

WTF,JH? Of what, precisely, were our ancestors profoundly ignorant? How to set up a wifi network? And who says they had no choice in where, how or with whom they lived? In fact, this claim goes against every anthropological report of hunter-gatherer people I've read, which tend to accentuate the fierce egalitarianism and respect for individual choice characteristic of such societies. In his book, Hierarchy in the Forest, for example, Christopher Boehm explains that, "Before twelve thousand years ago [the advent of agriculture and sedentary villages], humans basically were egalitarian. They lived in what might be called societies of equals, with minimal political centralization and no social classes. Everyone participated in group decisions, and outside the family there were no dominators."

This gets us to the crux of this so-called "freedom" Horgan and his star students see as the central, defining blessing of our age. Horgan cites a report showing (confusingly) that although less than half the world's countries can be considered "free," and that global measures of "freedom" have been in decline for four straight years ... still, freedom's on the rise! Needless to say, that conclusion required a bit of data-massaging (with a happy ending). But aside from the questionable conclusions, how, precisely, does "freedom" lead to "happiness?"

According to a 2009 paper by Italian economist Paolo Verme, "Happiness, freedom, and control," it is specifically the freedom of personal autonomy that makes us happier. Verme writes:

The variable freedom and control is by far the most significant predictor of life satisfaction. It shows the highest coefficient, the highest odds ratio, the highest z-score and one of the lowest standard errors. For a one step increase in the one to ten freedom and control scale, happiness is expected to change about 36 percent of a step on the one to ten happiness scale ...

In other words, the kind of freedom that leads to happiness is the freedom NOT to get up at dawn five days a week, NOT to shave and put on a tie when you don't feel like it, NOT to pretend to respect someone you don't—all so you'll have enough money to keep your head above water for another month. The freedom that makes us happy, in other words, is freedom from civilization.


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Twitter: @ChrisRyanPhD