“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. When evaluating global happiness, it is wrong to count the happiness only of the upper classes. Perhaps it is also wrong to consider only the happiness of humans.“ – Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
Americans make happiness a high priority. Psychologists, social scientists, and economists have studied what leads to it for decades. People often ask each other if they’re happy because they view happiness as a sign of normalcy in our culture. Someone who isn’t happy isn’t perceived as stable. If people sense someone isn’t happy, they aim to find out why they aren’t happy so they can make them happy.
If there’s a vehicle to showcase happiness in the 21st century, it’s social media. Look at my face. Look at me on vacation. Look at my car. Look at my house. Look at my relationship. Look at me at this game. Look at my phone. Look at me at this concert. Look at me partying. Behold, here I am. Look at me. I’m happy. Or at least I want you to believe I have things. I go to places. I have friends.
Sadly, the expression of happiness in the face of others–if it even really is happiness–can make others feel inadequate and depressed that they’re not living a similar life. Humility and candor, rather than show and tell, are more inclusive approaches and would do the world more good. It’s no surprise that research indicates people feel better when they unplug from viewing others’ social media–a sad commentary on its impact.
The pursuit of mass acknowledgment of one’s happiness–often a search for validation–could, however, be a sign of unhappiness for many people. Psychologists have found evidence that what we perceive as narcissism on social media, e.g., the posting of photos of a face by a person to whom the face belongs, could be a sign of a lack of self-confidence, although researchers have sadly also found a rise in extrinsic values, i.e., importance placed on physical appearance and material possessions.
Gone are the days where people keep personal experiences to themselves. I don’t recall when it died, but I suspect barely a tear was shed at humility’s funeral. It should come as no surprise that a narcissist occupies the Oval Office as the threads of his self-obsession aren’t far removed from the fabric of American culture. But why is it that Americans are so determined to show people that they’re having a good time and have things? Does it represent the best we have to offer? Why is happiness a higher priority than doing good for others?
I don’t believe people should be happy. This thesis may feel offensive because our culture has conditioned us to obsessively focus on finding happiness. People may have fun and experience happiness in a job, a relationship, or in the company of family and friends, but they should never be filled with happiness because happiness implies contentment.
Who could ever be content in this world except those who only live for themselves and remain oblivious to their surroundings? We should not be content when hundreds of thousands of children under five are dying of preventable malaria every year–a staggering statistic that can’t fully be appreciated unless we watch the children vomiting and gasping for breath. We should not be content when mile-long nets are pulling trillions of fish out of our oceans and decimating marine ecosystems, leaving water deserts in their wake. We should not be content when the natural habitats of wild animals are annihilated to clear land to grow crops to feed farm animals we shouldn’t be eating. We should be grateful for progress and eager to celebrate victories for causes greater than our self-interest, but not happy.
People suggest they need to be happy to be productive. I disagree. As a result of my lack of satisfaction with the state of the world, I’ve been unhappy for decades, and it never stopped me from leading a purpose-driven and impactful life. To the contrary, it fueled me.
The world would be well served if people spent less time focused on making themselves happy and more time helping those in need. Binge-watching mindless television, cheering for people they don’t know to do stuff with balls in stadiums, worshipping self-aggrandizing celebrities, and drinking themselves into oblivion in a cruise ship jacuzzi doesn’t solve the world’s problems. The world would be more humane and just for all of its inhabitants if people more frequently engaged in activities greater than their self-interest. Here are a few options.
People should not be happy when there’s preventable suffering in the world. The happy person may reply, “But others would want me to be happy.” I don’t think so. The young girl kidnapped and trafficked doesn’t want people to be happy. The caged hen trembling with fear doesn’t want people to be happy. The journalist tortured in solitary confinement doesn’t want people to be happy. They want people to help. Corporate billionaires want people to believe they should be happy so they can fill their coffers spending money on vacations and material possessions to make them wealthier. It’s a ruse executed so deftly that Shakespeare would cheer.
The idea that we need vacations, for example, was created by the people who profit from them: the airlines, hotels, entertainment industry, and other corporations that reap financial windfalls. They blitz people with ads until they succumb, but nobody needs a vacation to survive. It’s a want in a world in desperate need–a world where the money people spend on vacation could save hundreds of lives. Imagine those in need–the blind, the sick, the trafficked, the poor, the starving, the abused, and the tortured–are standing in front of you when you’re faced with the choice to help them or use that money for a vacation. Would you choose unnecessary leisure for yourself or would you save them? Indeed, people can take a vacation and serve those in need, but most don’t volunteer, donate, or think critically about how to impact change. They lament the state of the world, but fail to realize they can improve it.
In a purpose-driven life, results matter–not parties, materialism, or self-indulgence. Animals in factory farms, trafficked children, brutally abused and wrongfully convicted people, and birds and marine life choking to death on spilled oil or an algal bloom don’t get vacations. These are problems we can solve if we reset our priorities. This idea only rattles people because self-indulgence is so deeply embedded in our culture.
Every day of a fortunate person’s life, which consists of unlimited food and water, a roof over their head, electricity, access to medical care, freedom, and opportunity, is a vacation. People have been programmed to believe they need more. This belief is as ingrained as the importance of a baby shower, a lavish wedding, birthday celebrations, and Christmas gifts. Homes now serve as storage centers for endless material possessions people don’t need and calendars as countdowns to escape from a life billions of people wish they had.
People shouldn’t allow misguided cultural norms to brainwash them into thinking they need more. People and animals desperately need our help. Ziplining in Costa Rica or jet setting in Europe doesn’t help them. Moreover, such junkets are unlikely to affect people in the ways they hoped because science reveals that happiness is determined more by biological wiring than life experiences. Further, removing clutter from our lives and engaging in altruism, for example, have been shown to have a more significant impact on the human condition than self-pursuits.
People are clamoring for change, but they often don’t recognize they have the power to impact the causes they care about if they put their voices, time, and money ahead of self-indulgence. People are bred to be intolerant of inconvenience and discomfort but let others languish in it. People are obsessed with how they look while 40 million people can’t see. People can’t be satisfied with eating food from the ground and trees while 815 million people are starving. People buy a new car every three years while millions walk miles for clean water to drink and flee unthinkable conditions by sea and land, many drowning in oceans and collapsing in deserts in search of freedom. People may benefit from examining their priorities. We can do much better.
If you lived during the Holocaust, would you want to be happy? Would you aim to find ways to be happy while Nazis gassed people in concentration camps? There’s an animal holocaust happening now. Approximately 25 million pigs, chickens, and turkeys are brutally confined, deprived of everything natural to them, and slaughtered in the United States every day. Imagine the screaming and pain of a single animal. Now multiply that suffering by 25 million every day.
I can never recall being a happy person, I’m not currently a happy person, and I’ll never be a happy person because I equate happiness with contentment. Happiness isn’t my goal in life. My goal is to make the world a more humane place by protecting animals, people, and the planet before my luck runs out. I’m hopeful my suggestions jolt people’s conscience, resonate, and inspire them to maximize their time. The world needs us.
This call to action isn’t directed at the people living selfless lives or the people who balance doing for others and themselves, although there are always opportunities for us to help others more. It’s for the rest–those for whom the pursuit of something other than their self-interest is foreign, even anachronistic. I challenge everyone, as I regularly challenge myself, to think about how you use your days. Our democracy is burning. Suffering abounds. Cries for help are everywhere. The planet is at risk. These are extraordinary times. The status quo won’t suffice. How are you spending your time?