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C O U R S E 
A Brief History of Humankind
Dr. Yuval Noah Harari, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
C O U R S E   L E C T U R E 
Psychological and Biological Happiness
Notes taken on May 29, 2014 by Edward Tanguay
many theories of happiness base happiness on material factors like health, diet, and wealth
however, many theories of happiness include social, ethical, and spiritual factors as well
in recent decades, psychologists, economists, biologists have taken up the challenge of scientifically studying what makes people happy, and through that, understanding the dynamics of happiness in society throughout history
are people made happy by money? family relationships? by genetics? by their virtues and good deeds?
if we don't have an exact definition of happiness and a way to measure it, then we can't study it scientifically
the definition of happiness
the general definition is: subjective well-being
something that I feel inside myself, a sense of immediate pleasure or a feeling of contentment with the way my life is going.
but if happiness is something that people feel inside them, it is difficult for scientists to measure it externally
presumably this can be done by asking a large number of people to tell them how they feel
a typical well-being questionnaire asks people to answer on a scale from 1 to 5 from disagree to agree, many statements which ask them how they feel about issues, questions such as:
I feel that life is rewarding.
I feel optimistic about the future.
these questionnaires are used to study the relationship between subjective well-being and other kinds of factors like wealth, political situation, or social situation
with these questionnaires, you can conclude that there is a positive, negative, or no correlation between e.g. wealth and subjective well-being
of course, the more people you observe, the more accurate your results are
these tests can be used to determine if any factor has a correlation: people in democracies vs. other political systems, married/divorced, single/married
the most important finding of these tests is that happiness does not depend so much on objective conditions, but rather, happiness depends above all on the correlation between expectations and conditions
i.e. you are happy not because your objective situation is x, but you are happy because your expectations, whatever they are, are getting fulfilled
this means that even dramatic changes in object conditions throughout history did not necessarily change the degree of happiness of the people affected by them
in fact, these studies over the years have revealed that as conditions improve, expectations increase, and that even dramatic improvements in objective conditions can leave us dissatisfied and unhappy
when conditions deteriorate, then the expectations of people are often reduced, they expect less, and so their chance of being happy can even increase
this implies that people in the Middle Ages were not necessarily less happy than people living today
it's true that they had much more difficult living conditions than we have, but their expectations were also very different than ours today
the problem is that when we think about the conditions of the Middle Ages, we think how we must have felt, not how they must have felt
in modern affluent societies around the world, it is customary for people to take a shower and change their clothes everyday
Medieval peasants, on the other hand, went without washing, sometimes for many weeks and months, and hardly ever changed their clothes since they didn't have many clothes
for us just thinking about living like that makes us imagine that we would be unhappy living under those conditions
but Medieval peasants didn't seem to mind it that much, they were used to the smell of a dirty shirt and a dirty body, it's not that they wanted to take a shower everyday and change their clothes everyday and couldn't, so we can't conclude that they lived miserable lives or were unhappy because of these conditions
if your expectations are to have a shower everyday and you don't get one, then your happiness is reduced
however, small children even in affluent societies typically don't like showering, and continue to not like it until it becomes a daily expectation
if happiness is determined by the difference between your present condition and your expectations, then mass media and advertising as a whole may be working to ensure, not necessarily on purpose, that you won't become happier even if there are improvements in your condition
mass media and advertising continually expose us to better and better things, increasing our expectations, and thereby making less likely an increase in our happiness
a medieval teenager only knew the other 50 men in his village
the other males were much older or small kids, so he felt he looked pretty good
a teenager today is far more likely to feel that he doesn't look good enough
exposed everyday to movie stars, athletes, super models
it could be argued that the self image of people today is lower today than in the past
even the discontent we see today in the Third World is caused not merely by poverty and disease, but by their exposure to the standards of the First World
the average Egyptian enjoyed better material conditions under Hosni Mubarak than any previous ruler
much less likely to die of starvation, plague or war
you would have thought that the Egyptians would be much happier than they were under his rule
but they were not happy, and staged a revolution saying they were not satisfied with their living conditions, even though their living conditions had never been better
the reason is that they were comparing themselves not to their ancestors in Egypt but to the rest of the world
the Egyptians don't expect to live like people in the Middle Ages and than are happy because their conditions are better, instead, they expect to live like people they see on television in America, Europe and the rest of the world
the biological approach to happiness
research of biologists: our mental world is governed by biochemical mechanisms shaped by millions of years of evolution
happiness is determined by an internal biological system of nerves, neurons and synapses and and various biochemical substances such as serotonin and dopamine and oxytocin
these and a mix of other chemicals control our joy and sadness
according to biologists, nobody is made happy by winning the lottery, or by buying a house, or by getting a promotion at work, or what they describe as true love
according to biologists, people are made happy by one thing and one thing only: pleasant sensations in the body
a person who has just won the lottery or has just realized that he has met the love of his life, is reacting to a mix of hormones that are now flowing through his bloodstream, and various electric signals flashing between different parts of their brain
unfortunately, our internal biochemical system is programmed by evolution to keep happiness levels relatively constant
happiness and misery play a role in evolution only to the extent that they encourage survival and reproduction
and so evolution has shaped us to be neither too miserable nor too happy, and so our biochemical systems enable us to enjoy momentary rushes of pleasant sensations, but these tend to never last long
sooner or later, the rush of hormones and the electrical signals in the mind change, the pleasant sensations subside and are replaced by less pleasant sensations
sex and orgasm
evolution provides feelings of orgasm to organisms who have sexual intercourse in order to increase the chances that they will spread their genes with fertile members of the opposite sex
if sexual intercourse were not accompanied by pleasant sensations in the body, few males would bother having it
at the same time, evolution is not really interested in making these males happier, it is only interested in making them pass their genes onto the next generation, so it tempts them with these pleasant feelings, but these pleasant feelings quickly subside
over the long run, our biochemical systems will not allow our feelings of happiness or misery to go beyond certain thresholds
an analogy might be an air-conditioning system that keeps the temperature constant no matter what happens externally
events might temporarily change the temperature, but the system will eventually return the temperature to a constant average
air conditioning systems are set at different temperatures, just as the biochemical systems of different people are not the same
some people are biochemically cheerful, some biochemically gloomy
we often think that if some external event happened, we would be happier
yet when we get what we desire, we tend to not be happier than before over the long-term since it does not change our biochemical system
if we accept that happiness is caused by hormones and into by external events, then it turns out that history is not very important to explain human happiness
historical events have very little impact on the human biochemical system
compare a Medieval French peasant to a modern Parisian banker
the peasant lives in unheated mud hut looking upon the local pig sty
the banker goes home to a splendid penthouse with all the latest technological gadgets with a wonderful view
these mens' happiness are determined by their brains, and their brains are happy because of the levels of serotonin, dopamine and other chemicals present in the body
when the peasant completed building his tiny mud hut, his body secrete sarotonin
when the banker makes the last payment on his penthouse, his body also secretes sarotonin
this logic is applicable to not only individuals but to collections of individuals
even the French Revolution did not change the basic structure of brain chemistry of the French brain
despite all the political and social upheavals, it's impact on French happiness was very small
in the long run, common people were on the whole just as happy or not happy as their biological makeup and common everyday activities made them out to be
biologists would not have encouraged you to storm the Bastille because it would not make you happier
according to the biological view, there is only one historical event that was significant in the development of human happiness: the ability to manipulate our biochemistry
if we invest billions of dollars to find out what chemicals exactly make people happy, then we can, on the whole, make human beings far happier than they ever were before
Prozac increases your happiness by raising in an artificial way the serotonin levels in your bloodstream which does manage to lift some people out of their depression
the New Age slogan "Happiness begins within" reflects this approach
social status, plastic surgery, beautiful houses do not matter, true happiness can only come from within yourself, from higher levels of serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin in your blood stream
Aldous Huxley envisioned this world in Brave New World, with psychiatric drugs which replaced the police, elections, and governments
each day every person in the world takes a dose of soma, a synthetic drug that makes people satisfied with their lives without harming their productivity and efficiency
the world state governs the whole globe and is never threatened by wars, revolutions, strikes, or demonstrations because all people in the world are content and satisfied with their current conditions no matter what these conditions are, since the system is built on controlling and manipulating biochemistry inside us and not the conditions outside us, and if you do this right, no matter what is outside, it doesn't really matter
Huxley's world seems monstrous to most people who read it but it is very hard to explain why, after all in his world everyone in the world is happy all the time, so what could be wrong with it?