Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel up to think, reevaluate and criticize. Consistency is the playground of dull minds.
In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari gazes widely at the development of specific milestones in our history. I was particularly struck by the idea in the passage above. That the engine of our individual and collective achievements, is fueled by the discord within our minds. Add the energy of the Industrial Revolution with the still unbridled power of the internet, to the ethos of individualism, and suddenly, every human being can, potentially, create something that launches the entire species to another level.
There is a reason why we do not listen to symphonies composed by penguins. Nor do we plan our buildings based on the architecture of termite mounds. Actually, the second statement is not entirely accurate. There is a field of architecture known as biomimetic architecture, where humans look at natural structures to discover more efficient ways of building. We are the only animal on Earth that can appropriate the unconscious building plans of a million-plus termites to make more comfortable buildings for other humans.
No other animal can do what we do; as a result we’re at the top of the food chain, but are we happy?
One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.
Harari asks the reader to consider a fascinating question, would I be happier living my life as I live it today, or would I be happier living as a Medieval peasant?
Before reading Sapiens, I would have said “yes,” immediately. Now, though, I am not so sure. This is because I cannot separate my current expectations on life and self-worth from the mindset of a 1300s serf.
Traveling back to visit my serf ancestor; he would be perplexed by my recently washed body, clean clothing, and accurate wristwatch. In his day no one washed, let alone every day. Queen Elizabeth I ruled from 1558-1603 said, “I take a bath once a month, whether I need to or not.” It took another four hundred years before most of the developed world bathed daily! I would be upset if I no longer had the ability to shower in the morning, my ancestor would not even be able to process that loss.
So, am I happier than my ancestor because I have all this stuff and the conveniences of modern life? This is an impossible question, happiness being subjective; so I look to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Food, water, warmth and rest are at the bottom of his pyramid. If you were dropped in an uncharted portion of the Amazon jungle, you would increase your chances of survival if you focused on food, water, warmth, and rest, then if you tried to foster your creative desire for expressionist painting.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but if you do not have these four necessities you’ll be dead before you can make use of any invention.
I got rid of WIFI in my apartment after studying this hierarchy. By itself, it meets none of my needs as a human. It can connect me to others and feed a feeling of accomplishment, but I have a cellphone plan and a hotspot if I really need that level of connection. When I looked at where I spent my money, WIFI did not make any sense. The service felt like a necessity, but it only felt that way because of the value I attached to it. My serf ancestor would not be able to conceive of WIFI as a luxury, the concept itself would be so foreign as to be meaningless.
To aid in my quest for more fulfilling happiness WIFI is now gone; are daily showers gone as well? No. There are some things in the modern world that I feel are good for my psyche. The challenge is differentiating true needs from evolved luxuries.
On Thursdays I will examine our evolutionary past to see what I really need to be happy. Hopefully, my research and will help you do the same.