The History of Happiness

December 16, 2014

Harari, Y 2011, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harvill Secker, London.

Reviewed by Michael Heald

Book cover

A striking difference between Yuval Noah Harari’s approach in Sapiens and that of most other historians to date, is that Harari directly addresses the issue of progress by daring to grapple with the fundamental question of what constitutes happiness. This is how he puts the situation:

Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists. They have much to tell about the weaving and unravelling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies. Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals. This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history. We had better start filling it (p. 396).

In this book, Harari begins the task, and makes a highly significant contribution. This is not to say that he neglects the more conventional role of the historian: to give us the story so far, as he sees it. And Sapiens tells the story of humanity in a lucid, bold and exhilarating manner. Of course, a single book dealing with such a massive span of time necessitates much condensation, and a brief review of such a volume can only exacerbate the situation.

I will therefore select some key transitions in human history to which Harari directs particular attention.To get the story up and running, let’s start with humans standing upright. This led, as Harari explains, to a narrowing of women’s hips, such that babies had to be born prematurely, or else the head would become too large. Characteristically, Harari links this moment of physical change to a profound cultural consequence:

…since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln – any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace- loving (p. 10).

This kind of broad and lucid historical perspective is one of the greatest qualities of Harari’s writing:  with its assistance, we look around us at the kaleidoscope of human cultures and behaviors, both harmful and beneficent and everything in between, and see this present maelstrom beginning as a four-legged creature gets to its feet and raises itself upright!

The most momentous transition for sapiens is what Harari refers to as the ‘Cognitive Revolution’, the advent of the kind of intelligence which has enabled us to emerge from millennia of being “an animal of no significance” (p. 3) to dominate the planet. Whilst the reasons for this physiological change remain disputed, Harari characterises the primary and pivotal ability which it conferred as the use of a language which can give expression to “things which do not exist” (p. 24). Thus, says Harari, many “animals and human species could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo Sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe’ ” (p. 24).

Before following Harari’s argument here, I’ll pause to note the debate which may arise concerning the ontology involved in the statement ‘things which do not exist’. I did have concerns that Harari might be guilty of an unconscious reductionism, or a naively materialist ontology. Such a concern recurred later in the book, when Harari, in the process of observing that our present liberal democratic polity rests on a belief that “every individual has a sacred inner nature” which is a “reincarnation of the traditional Christian belief in a free and eternal soul that resides in each individual”, comments that scientists “studying the inner workings of the human organism have found no soul there” (p. 236). Alarm bells are initially set ringing that Harari is making the all too common error which philosophically illiterate scientists, including so-called social scientists, make of forgetting that science can only become aware of material phenomena. Forgetting, that is, that science is an interaction with reality which has adopted the philosophical standpoint of empiricism, and is restricted, as such, to the outward-directed senses and rationality. Such a lack of awareness of the foundations of scientific enquiry leads, in our time, to highly unsound yet hugely influential notions born of extrapolating, with consummate incommensurability, from quantitative to qualitative domains, such as ‘selfish genes’, ‘survival machines’ (aka people) and ‘artificial intelligence’. Such wildly invalid extrapolation may appear to be, at this late stage, a horse that has well and truly bolted. But it is a beast that must be chased down and re-stabled, if we are not all to be doomed to a soulless technocratic future, our scientists having declared the soul to have no reality, having failed to find it at the end of a microscope or telescope.

But I digress. Harari’s later discussions, particularly about the nature of happiness, and the quality of experience of non-humans, reassured me that he is not making such errors, and in the two instances I have mentioned, is only drawing distinctions in order to make specific points.

What, then, is so game-changing about the ability to conceive of and communicate about abstract entities, about things which “don’t [physically] exist”? It is that such entities provide a means of uniting very large groups of humans, by providing a common locus of trust and loyalty, allowing us to “cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers” (p. 25). Prior to the emergence of abstract entities, such as gods, nations, kings, and so on, human groups could not maintain coherence beyond around 150 individuals. Now, however, millions can be mobilised in concert on the basis of, say, loyalty to the idea of a nation, or a religion. “Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation”, or “two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital…” (p. 27). It is this ability to create unity with “common myths” (p. 27), says Harari, which finally catapulted our species to world domination.

The crucial role of imagination, myth and narrative which Harari identifies is central to his view of human history, and also central to his vision of intellectual activity. The fundamentally imagined (though not ‘imaginary’ in the pejorative sense) nature of our culture and community, of our social reality, he says, is routinely denied by those in power, and simply not acknowledged or investigated by academic disciplines whose aim is to train students for competence in the ideologies, processes and technologies which are part of the established order’s functionality. The humanities, on the other hand, set out to reveal the imagined foundations of our world. Their mission is to lift the veil: “The humanities and social sciences devote most of their energies to explaining exactly how the imagined order is woven into the tapestry of life” (p. 113).

The critical importance of the realisation that our communities and cultures are imagined, and the crucial role of the humanities in constantly revealing this fact (especially in the face of belittlement  by those who have failed to grasp the creative origins of their social world, persisting in the delusion that it is somehow natural and inevitable) is that it opens the possibility of dealing realistically and effectively with cultural difference, because the nature and roots of the difference are understood. Human cultures are different because their people have placed their trust in particular creative interpretations of lived experience, and given their allegiance to the symbols of those interpretations, be they gods, nations, values, or political systems. There is no absolute right and wrong, and certainly no simple good and evil (though our leaders persist with such simplistic language and approaches), because we’re making it all up as we go along. Not out of thin air – there is such a thing as experience – but definitely in a partly subjective, and inter-subjective way. This insight may not provide us with easy answers to the world’s conflicts, but at least we will have understood what we are dealing with.

Harari also reflects that, given the creative nature of our cultures, most of them will contain what look to the concept-dependent rational mind like contradictions. If you really want to understand your differently-cultured neighbor, he advises, find the central contradiction she has to deal with within her own culture. In the case of our contemporary Western culture, Harari identifies its core contradiction and tension as being that between liberty and equality:

…the modern world fails to square liberty with equality. But this is no defect. Such contradictions are an inseparable part of every human culture. In fact, they are culture’s engines, responsible for the creativity and dynamism of our species. Just as when two clashing musical notes played together force a piece of music forward, so discord in our thoughts, ideas and values compel us to think, re- evaluate and criticise. Consistency is the playground of dull minds. If tensions, conflicts and irresolvable dilemmas are the spice of every culture, a human being who belongs to any particular culture must hold contradictory beliefs and be riven by incompatible values. It’s such an essential feature of any culture that it even has a name: cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is often considered a failure of the human psyche. In fact, it is a vital asset. Had people been unable to hold contradictory beliefs and values, it would probably have been impossible to establish and maintain any human culture. If, say, a Christian really wants to understand the Muslims who attend that mosque down the street, he shouldn’t look for a pristine set of values that every Muslim holds dear. Rather, he should enquire into the catch- 22s of Muslim culture, those places where rules are at war and standards scuffle. It’s at the very spot where the Muslims teeter between two imperatives that you’ll understand them best (pp. 165-6).

Harari’s discussion of economics exemplifies the humanities’ project of revealing the imaginative-emotional foundations of human cooperative action. Money, the symbol of an imagined value, is analysed by Harari as one of the most powerful uniting fictions in human history, “the most universal and most efficient system of mutual trust ever devised” (p. 180). He points out, for example, that “Osama Bin Laden, for all his hatred of American culture, American religion and American politics, was very fond of American dollars” (p. 172). Whilst acknowledging the activities which money has facilitated, he also points out that trusting in money does not necessarily involve trust in other people: “although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities or sacred values, but in money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it” (p. 187). We are seeing the danger of these ‘impersonal systems’, such as the ‘market’, today as the very life support systems of the natural world are degraded by our economic activity, and as moral principles and responsibility are abandoned in deference to ‘market forces’: “some religions, such as Christianity and Nazism, have killed millions out of burning hatred. Capitalism has killed millions out of cold indifference coupled with greed” (p. 331).

Within the history of money, Harari relates with great clarity the transition from a fairly static economy to one which must always keep growing, like, in Harari’s dramatic analogy, “a shark that must swim or suffocate” (p. 347). The growth economy emerges as a potent cocktail of faiths, two primary ones being faith in humans as superior beings capable of making improvements to creation, and faith that such improvements will continue into the future. The former is an article of faith to which most are now so habituated that they cannot conceive of an alternative, and regard it as mere ‘reality’. Yet for most of human history such a notion would have been regarded as both ludicrous and blasphemous. That contemporary ‘humanism’ is not an escape from religious faith but the adoption of an alternative form of it is something which Harari is very emphatic about, and he names the various ‘sects’ of humanism (he identifies three of these: liberal, socialist and evolutionary, the latter exemplified by Nazism) explicitly as “religions that worship humanity” (p. 233). It is not that humanists have renounced belief in miraculous beings, to paraphrase Harari in my own terms, but rather that they have now decided that we are such beings ourselves:

Humanism is a belief that Homo sapiens has a unique and sacred nature, which is fundamentally different from the nature of all other animals and of all other phenomena. Humanists believe that the unique nature of Homo sapiens is the most important thing in the world, and it determines the meaning of everything that happens in the universe. The supreme good is the good of Homo sapiens. The rest of the world and all other beings exist solely for the benefit of this species (p. 230).

One perhaps uncomfortable consequence of accepting Harari’s argument here would be, of course, that we would be obliged to recognise those today who exalt democratic decisions, technology, mechanicist beatitudes such as efficiency and productivity, and ‘development’ as being as much devotees at the altar as those zealots from the past in their strange costumes who we love to patronise as deluded.

At any rate, however, we characterise the shift to a belief in humanity as improvers upon creation, its role in the dynamics of a growth economy is clear. And such an economy also utilises the corollary belief, that the future will be better than the present: “what enables banks – and the entire economy – to survive and flourish is our trust in the future. This trust is the sole backing for most of the money in the world” (p. 307). Harari gives a simple explanation of how economic growth occurs, with money being leant on the expectation, or trust, that a particular business venture will succeed. But the fascinating thing about this process is that, as I have indicated, the belief in the future which it depends on is a very recent occurrence in human history. Previously, “people seldom wanted to extend much credit because they didn’t trust that the future would be better than the present” (p. 308). Harari’s narration of such shifts in our belief systems, and their practical consequences, is the real achievement of his work, because it lays bare the psychological, and indeed metaphysical, roots of social processes which might otherwise have the appearance of ‘normality’, or natural inevitability. The statement that “the modern economy grows thanks to our trust in the future and to the willingness of capitalists to reinvest their profits in production” (p. 334) would not be out of place in a purely instrumentalist economics textbook. To say that this all depends on our having just yesterday deified ourselves takes the analysis to a rather different level, the level on which, as Harari says, the humanities seek to operate.

Harari identifies another seismic philosophical-ethical shift in human attitude, which is closely associated with the belief in ourselves as improvers, and a key enabler of its practical implementation on the political level, is the reversal of traditional views of the pursuit of individual wealth. Harari lucidly links the political and philosophical domains in his discussion. He describes how the new belief in progress leads to a new economy of growth:

The belief in the growing global pie eventually turned revolutionary. In 1776 the Scottish economist Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, probably the most important economics manifesto of all time. In the eighth chapter of its first volume, Smith made the following novel argument: when a landlord, a weaver or a shoemaker has greater profits than he needs to maintain his own family, he uses the surplus to employ more assistants, in order to further increase his profits. The more profits he has, the more assistants he can employ. It follows that an increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity. This may not strike you as very original, because we all live in a capitalist world that takes Smith’s argument for granted. We hear variations on this theme every day in the news. Yet Smith’s claim that the selfish human urge to increase private profits is the basis for collective wealth is one of the most revolutionary ideas in human history – revolutionary not just from an economic perspective, but even more so from a moral and political perspective. What Smith says is, in fact, that greed is good, and that by becoming richer I benefit everybody, not just myself. Egoism is altruism (p. 311).

In the past, then, to amass personal wealth was to take away from a finite pie, leaving less for everyone else, a situation susceptible of a clear ethical judgment, and the basis, as Harari points out, for the biblical assertion that it is “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19, p. 24, cited in Harari 2011, p. 308). However, once the entrepreneur is seen as a contributor to, rather than a detractor from the common stock of wealth, the old ethics is turned on its head. Greed becomes good, and the primary form of responsibility governing the most transformative (for better or worse) activities of humans on the planet becomes the responsibility towards that blessed band of humans known as ‘shareholders’. In this way, sapiens has created a new form of itself on the earth of unparalleled power, the limited liability corporation, with a newly defined motivation, to grow as wealthy as possible, with an ethical principle governing this activity which is – to make as much money as possible…

In dealing with the rise of science, Harari again identifies what he sees as the key philosophical-attitudinal shift involved. The ‘Scientific Revolution’, as Harari calls it, “has not been a revolution of knowledge. It has been above all a revolution of ignorance. The great discovery that launched the Scientific Revolution was the discovery that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions” (p. 251). The shift, then, as Harari sees it, is away from a kind of certainty or complacency, to a humility about our knowledge. Thus, “modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions” (p. 252), whereas “premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known” (p. 251). I do have some misgivings about this contrast. It could be argued, for example, that the premodern traditions actually had mystery at their core – that they were built around profound unknowings, and therefore were expressive of a deep human humility. It can be acknowledged that in their dogmatic, institutional forms, such traditions did wield a coercive arrogance. Yet the very aspiration which science has, to discover the ‘secrets’ of nature, could be seen as an arrogance which the older traditions never indulged, and invert Harari’s dichotomy.

It is a much-vaunted quality of scientific inquiry, of course, that its hypotheses must be susceptible of being disproven, and that this confers upon science humility and even, in the eyes of those I have alluded to earlier who have not recognised the philosophical choices science has made which shape its observation and thought, neutrality. The far more significant point, however, is that the revisions which science makes to its view of reality are always taking place within its pre-established world-view, that of empiricism. Thus science, in itself, actually lacks the capacity to revise its theories in any way which escapes the parameters it has already decided upon. And so the apparent humility implied by disprovability is in fact eclipsed by a far more significant philosophical complacency and orthodoxy, and at times, of course, arrogance.

Now, Harari is not claiming in a simple or blanket way that science is humble. The image which opens his chapter about the Scientific Revolution, for example, is that of the first atomic explosion at Alamogordo (p. 245), which alone would suggest that we are not in the presence of a historian unaware of the potential for destructive over-reach intrinsic to scientific pursuits. He also acknowledges the particular philosophical standpoint of science, when he points out that, even though science “has no dogma” as such, “it has a common core of research methods, which are all based on collecting empirical observations – those we can observe with at least one of our senses – and putting them together with mathematical tools” (p. 254). And in keeping with an analysis, which consistently penetrates to the metaphysical level, he recognises the element of faith in all of this, despite science’s claim to be the pre-eminent secular pursuit, his sub-heading for this part of the book being “The Scientific Dogma” (p. 254). Furthermore, Harari’s subsequent discussion goes on to examine the marriage of science, capitalism and empire, which thoroughly dispels any idea that science occupies a place of innocence, or ‘purity’, in any sense, philosophical, political, moral or practical.

One might infer that because human cultures and systems are imagined, as Harari argues, they are easily changed. Not so. Harari shows how, once a particular mind-set and practice is adopted, it tends to enmesh everyone, and create dependency. For example, Harari describes the shift to agriculture as “History’s Biggest Fraud” (p. 77). He enumerates its failings compared to the forager lifestyle, but observes that once it began, despite the dawn to dusk body-damaging drudgery, the animal cruelty, the diseases, the radically restricted diet, the famines, over-crowding, crime and wars, it became as difficult to extricate oneself from it as it is today to extricate oneself from the mainstream growth economy and all of the madness that visits upon us. Harari executes a very nice, and not merely amusing, shift of perspective, in fact, with regard to the cultivation of wheat, which is worth quoting at some length:

Think for a moment about the Agricultural Revolution from the viewpoint of wheat. Ten thousand years ago wheat was just a wild grass, one of many, confined to a small range in the Middle East. Suddenly, within just a few short millennia, it was growing all over the world. According to the basic evolutionary criteria of survival and reproduction, wheat has become one of the most successful plants in the history of the earth. In areas such as the Great Plains of North America, where not a single wheat stalk grew 10,000 years ago, you can today walk for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres without encountering any other plant. Worldwide, wheat covers about 2.25 million square kilometres of the globe’s surface, almost ten times the size of Britain. How did this grass turn from insignificant to ubiquitous? Wheat did it by manipulating Homo sapiens to its advantage. This ape had been living a fairly comfortable life hunting and gathering until about 10,000 years ago, but then began to invest more and more effort in cultivating wheat. Within a couple of millennia, humans in many parts of the world were doing little from dawn to dusk other than taking care of wheat plants. It wasn’t easy. Wheat demanded a lot of them. Wheat didn’t like rocks and pebbles, so Sapiens broke their backs clearing fields. Wheat didn’t like sharing its space, water and nutrients with other plants, so men and women laboured long days weeding under the scorching sun. Wheat got sick, so Sapiens had to keep a watch out for worms and blight. Wheat was attacked by rabbits and locust swarms, so the farmers built fences and stood guard over the fields. Wheat was thirsty, so humans dug irrigation canals or lugged heavy buckets from the well to water it. Sapiens even collected animal faeces to nourish the ground in which wheat grew (p. 80).

In the case of agriculture, then, the new process becomes almost impossible to reverse: “if the adoption of ploughing increased a village’s population from 100 to 110, which ten people would have volunteered to starve so that the others could go back to the good old times? There was no going back. The trap snapped shut” (p. 87). And this tendency of all human innovations to perpetuate themselves leads us to the broader question of ‘progress’ and ‘happiness’, the direct tackling of which, as I said at the outset, distinguishes Harari’s historical enquiry.

When he does turn to this question, Harari poses it with dramatic juxtaposition as follows: “was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter- gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave? If not, what was the point of developing agriculture, cities, writing, coinage, empires, science and industry?” (p. 376). And he notes that, despite its importance, it has so far been neglected:

Historians seldom ask such questions. They do not ask whether the citizens of Uruk and Babylon were happier than their foraging ancestors, whether the rise of Islam made Egyptians more pleased with their lives, or how the collapse of the European empires in Africa have influenced the happiness of countless millions. Yet these are the most important questions one can ask of history (p. 376).

Photographed by Sam Nasim

Photographed by Sam Nasim

Harari spends some time pointing out significant flaws in commonly used measures of happiness, such as increases in material possessions, increases in capabilities (such as those facilitated by technology) or decreases in negative factors, such as violence and war. On the latter point, he raises the important qualification to any contemporary mood of self-congratulation, that the present lull was built largely on the precarious foundation of mutually assured nuclear destruction, and that its sustainability on any grounds remains a huge question. Harari also makes a further qualification, again much over-looked, that:

…we can congratulate ourselves on the unprecedented accomplishments of modern Sapiens only if we completely ignore the fate of all other animals. Much of the vaunted material wealth that shields us from disease and famine was accumulated at the expense of laboratory monkeys, dairy cows and conveyor-belt chickens. Over the last two centuries tens of billions of them have been subjected to a regime of industrial exploitation whose cruelty has no precedent in the annals of planet Earth (p. 379).

There follows one of Harari’s radical challenges to conventional historical perspectives, when he voices the view that “if we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history” (p. 379).

After thus critiquing existing analyses of progress and happiness, which he finds overly materialistic or philosophically blinkered, Harari turns to the repositories of perennial wisdom, and spiritual traditions, for an alternative, and possibly more veridical approach. Now, this move in itself is not new, but Harari makes it with far greater focus than most. This is because he appears to actually have an accurate knowledge of such traditions, especially in their practical aspects. By way of preface, Harari notes that in perennial wisdom traditions, happiness was not a simply subjective matter. He argues that today, most people “are prone to believe that happiness is a subjective feeling and that each individual best knows whether she is happy or miserable. Yet this view is unique to liberalism. Most religions and ideologies throughout history stated that there are objective yardsticks for goodness and beauty, and for how things ought to be” (p. 393). Raising this radical difference in notions of happiness confers seminal significance upon Harari’s book, because it lies at the heart of all human endeavor at any time. And because it manifests the broader question of the nature of reality, it also lies at the heart of many key contemporary debates, such as those between relativism and absolutism, the religious and secular, and democratic and directive conceptions of government.

In the case of happiness, this difference is so important because, if happiness is whatever we feel it to be at the time, it simply does not make any sense to probe our feelings beyond their apparent effect – i.e. is this real happiness or merely a gratification which will soon bring me more unhappiness, or a feeling of satisfaction of a relatively shallow nature which may be blocking other, deeper forms of happiness? If we don’t accept such questions as valid, then we are caught in a situation where we cannot make any judgment, for example, of a population kept permanently content by drugs, as in Huxley’s Brave New World, or by a murderous fanaticism in ‘Islamic State’. Happiness becomes entirely arbitrary and beyond judgment. You have your happiness and I have mine. Yet, if we are not comfortable with such a situation, then we must accept that there is a reality to happiness which is not merely based on what we feel at a given moment – on our unexamined experience. And so, as Harari frames the problem, is happiness merely the product of our having satisfied whatever arbitrary expectations we’ve come to have at any given time in history (safety from a lion or the latest iPhone), which is a kind of serial deludedness, or the product of certain chemicals being released in the brain, which is to be meaninglessly engineered, “or is there a third alternative?” (p. 392)

Harari’s answer, as I said, involves recourse to perennial wisdom traditions, but he does not allude vaguely to woolly notions of inner peace or transcendence. The general approach he cites is the imperative to ‘know thyself’, which, he argues, is diametrically opposed to liberalism’s sanctification of individual subjective experience, because it takes as a given that “the average person is ignorant of his true self, and is therefore likely to be ignorant of true happiness” (p. 393). And the specific case he discusses is that of the meditative techniques which require disciplined observation of one’s mental and bodily states moment by moment: “in meditation, you are supposed to closely observe your mind and body, witness the ceaseless arising and passing of all your feelings, and realise how pointless it is to pursue them” (p. 395). Otherwise, says Harari, you are “like a man standing for decades on the seashore, embracing certain ‘good’ waves and trying to prevent them from disintegrating, while simultaneously pushing back ‘bad’ waves to prevent them from getting near him. Day in, day out, the man stands on the beach, driving himself crazy with this fruitless exercise” (p. 395). By this kind of practice, then, by the personal encountering of the ephemeral and substanceless nature of both pleasant and unpleasant feelings, a more real happiness is discovered, not by ratiocination, but by direct meditative experience.

Photographed by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner

Photographed by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner

Harari observes that modern liberal culture badly misunderstood the meditative approach, and, in fact, inverted it:

…when Western New Age movements encountered Buddhist insights, they translated them into liberal terms, thereby turning them on their head. New Age cults frequently argue: ‘Happiness does not depend on external conditions. It depends only on what we feel inside. People should stop pursuing external achievements such as wealth and status, and connect instead with their inner feelings.’ Or more succinctly, ‘Happiness begins within.’ This is exactly what biologists argue, but more or less the opposite of what Buddha said. Buddha agreed with modern biology and New Age movements that happiness is independent of external conditions. Yet his more important and far more profound insight was that true happiness is also independent of our inner feelings. Indeed, the more significance we give our feelings, the more we crave them, and the more we suffer. Buddha’s recommendation was to stop not only the pursuit of external achievements, but also the pursuit of inner feelings (pp. 395-6).

Given the difficulty, indeed impossibility, of putting meditative experience adequately into words, a great deal more could, and no doubt should, be said about Harari’s descriptions of what’s involved. However, assuming that he has said enough for our purposes here, and given that he takes these meditative insights seriously, thereby inviting us to stand upon their vantage point to survey the whole scene of human history which he has laid out, what do we see? Headlong charges towards illusory satisfactions, with massive collateral damage, possibly fatal, to our own species and all life on earth? Harari is not an intellectual who shies away from such judgment, ‘negative’ though it may appear. Of course, there is nothing ultimately negative about attempting to establish, and deal with, the truth. And if we believe that intellectual work can have an impact on the direction we take, then perhaps the rest might just be a different kind of history.


Michael Heald is a Literature lecturer. His fourth book of poetry, ‘The Moving World’, appeared in 2011 with Fremantle Press.


2 Responses to “The History of Happiness”

  1. […] agricultural or scientific, and by revisiting what constitutes happiness. Throughout his review, The History of Happiness, Michael critically reviews Harari’s discussion of key transitions in human history such as […]

  2. Anderson said

    Nice work! I need to read his book!

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