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?
[Studies show that ] money does indeed bring happiness. But only up to a point, and beyond that point it has little significance.
Illness decreases happiness in the short term, but is a source of long-term distress only if a person’s condition is constantly deteriorating or if the disease involves ongoing and debilitating pain.
Family and community seem to have more impact on our happiness than money and health.
Marriage is particularly important. Repeated studies have found that there is a very close correlation between good marriages and high subjective well-being, and between bad marriages and misery.
This raises the possibility that the immense improvement in material conditions over the last two centuries was offset by the collapse of the family and the community. If so, the average person might well be no happier today than in 1800.
But the most important finding of all is that happiness does not really depend on objective conditions of either wealth, health or even community. Rather, it depends on the correlation between objective conditions and subjective expectations.
The crucial importance of human expectations has far-reaching implications for understanding the history of happiness.
We moderns have an arsenal of tranquillisers and painkillers at our disposal, but our expectations of ease and pleasure, and our intolerance of inconvenience and discomfort, have increased to such an extent that we may well suffer from pain more than our ancestors ever did.
If happiness is determined by expectations, then two pillars of our society – mass media and the advertising industry – may unwittingly be depleting the globe’s reservoirs of contentment.
Even immortality might lead to discontent. Suppose science comes up with cures for all diseases, effective anti-ageing therapies and regenerative treatments that keep people indefinitely young. In all likelihood, the immediate result will be an unprecedented epidemic of anger and anxiety. Those unable to afford the new miracle treatments – the vast majority of people – will be beside themselves with rage. Throughout history, the poor and oppressed comforted themselves with the thought that at least death is even-handed – that the rich and powerful will also die. The poor will not be comfortable with the thought that they have to die, while the rich will remain young and beautiful for ever.