How Technology is Destroying Human Happiness
(a work in progress)
Although the people of the contemporary world enjoy unprecedented personal wealth, abundant food, the most effective medical care in human history, and the longest average life-spans ever recorded, they remain surprisingly unhappy. Study after study by researchers from numerous scientific disciplines shows that the lives of contemporary people are filled with chronic stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness at levels that have rarely been reported for any human society.
Seeking relief from their psychological torments, modern people have turned for comfort to drugs, foods, and electronic communications. But their addictive consumption of these products has only compounded the problem. Now, in addition to their psychological suffering, their gross overconsumption of foods, drugs, and electronic communications has produced an epidemic of physical and mental health problems severe enough to become life-threatening.
This book is an attempt to explain the origins and nature of a strange paradox: that the triumphs of modern technology seem to have resulted in an actual reduction in human happiness.
To begin to understand what has happened to us, we must go back to our earliest beginnings and trace the evolution of the human species.
Throughout the millions of years of evolution, the human mind and body—like the prehistoric apes from which we evolved—was adapted to living intimately within the natural environments of tropical Africa. Hunting game and gathering plant foods, wandering constantly in search of new supplies of natural foods, living in caves or in primitive huts and tents, armed with simple tools and weapons of stone, bone, and wood, and protected from the elements by little more than their crude and tiny dwellings, the skins of the animals they hunted, and the small campfires they built to keep themselves warm, prehistoric humans long ago adapted to the lifestyle of nomadic hunting and gathering that characterized all human societies until well after the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago.
Yet it was only a few thousand years later—and more than 100,000 years since the human species attained its modern form—that humanity developed an entirely new way of life based on agriculture and settled down to live in stationery houses and permanent communities. The technology of agriculture eventually led to the abandonment of the nomadic hunting and gathering way of life, the emergence of cities, and ultimately to the rise of the urban civilizations that have flourished all over the world for most of the past 5,000 years. And it was only a few hundred years ago that the invention of precision machinery, modern firearms, the steam engine, electricity, and the internal combustion engine completely transformed the world, and with it, the lives of its human inhabitants.
This book explores the ways in which our modern lifestyle—based on the unnatural world that technology has created—no longer harmonizes with the human natures we inherited from our hunting and gathering ancestors. And it will explain why the clash between our natures and our technology-driven world has created a plague of unhappiness that is arguably both more widespread and more severe than has ever been recorded in human history.
The Assault on Human Nature
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the ancient harmony that once existed between human nature and the natural environment has been swept away, replaced by the profound disconnect that now exists between our inherited natures and the technology-driven world we have created for ourselves. The result of this disconnect is the profound mental and physical unease that now afflicts most of the people living in the world’s most technologically advanced societies.
Technology has changed every aspect of human existence, but the highly adaptable human species has grown so accustomed to living an unnatural life that it no longer recognizes the disconnect between its inner nature and the technological world it inhabits from birth to the end of life.
Human Nature in a Technological World
Living the Unnatural Life In a Technology-Driven Society
Hunters and Gatherers in the Natural World
How the Traditional Human
The Evidence That
Human Behavior is Inherited
The Nature of Human Nature
The Unnatural Life Began With the Invention of Agriculture
The Disconnect Between Human Nature and Modern Life
Neural Adaptation: How the Brain Adjusts to Unnatural Conditions
Social Acceptance: The Power of Other People’s Perceptions
Many behaviors that are found in all human societies are unique to the human species, including fire and cooking, a complex spoken language, religious worship, singing and dancing, and our uniquely human expressions of emotion. These and other universal human behaviors show that we have all inherited a definable human nature that evolved during our species’ long history as hunters and gatherers, but our natures have become disconnected from the unnatural world of modern industrial society. Yet we go through life with little or no awareness of this disconnect, because the human brain naturally adapts to almost any condition as long as it is persistent—and accepts the perceptions of the people around us, even when they fly in the face of reality.
A Rising Tide of Unhappiness
Stress, Anxiety, Loneliness, and Depression is the New Normal
The Loss of Freedom and Autonomy
The Loss of Human Companionship
The Shock of Change
How Chronic Anxiety and Stress Can Kill You
Advanced technologies have bestowed numerous benefits on humankind, but the unnatural lifestyles these technologies have created significant hazards to our psychological well-being. These include the loss of personal freedom and autonomy, the loss of human companionship, a mental life drowning in information overload, the shock of rapid and continuous change, pervasive culture wars, and an environment poisoned by pollutants that affect our minds and bodies. These hazards to mental and emotional health, which have become acute in modern times, have resulted in unprecedented levels of chronic anxiety and stress within the world’s most technologically advanced societies.
Overworked, Undercompensated, and Insecure
The Part-Time Work of Hunters and Gatherers
The Full-Time Work of Farmers and Herders
How the Employment Society Dominates Human Life
Boredom, Alienation, Insecurity, and Anxiety in Contemporary Work
When anthropologists began to study the working life of hunting and gathering societies, they were astonished to find that even in the harshest environment, people spent less than twenty hours per week hunting and foraging for the food they needed. Agricultural people, on the other hand, worked much longer and harder to accumulate the surplus wealth that allowed them to survive periods of famine and to create the complex, large-scale societies that grew into the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, China, and the Americas.
Since the work that preindustrial people did was woven into the fabric of their daily lives, the concept of employment did not exist for most of human history. But with the coming of the industrial revolution, a new type of society arose, built on the premise of employment for wages. In this new contemporary society, the vast majority of people depend for their livelihoods on doing specific jobs for near-strangers, receiving in return neither food nor goods but rather symbolic wealth in the form of money that can be exchanged for food and goods. The result, for the majority of adults, is a working life characterized by boredom, alienation, insecurity, and anxiety.
Artificial Light, Unnatural Schedules, and Chronic Insomnia
Sunrise, Sunset, and the Moon
Sleeping With Fire and Staying Up Late
Lamplight, Candlelight, and Electric Lights
Sleep in the Clockwork Society
The Health Risks of Inadequate Sleep
When the industrial revolution replaced the dim, flickering light of fires, lamps, and candles with the artificial daylight of electric lighting, the human brain no longer took its cues from the rising and setting of the sun. Instead, humanity began to lose its connection to the rhythms of daylight and darkness that govern the behavior of all other forms of terrestrial life. No longer connected to these natural rhythms, human sleep has taken a back seat not only to the demands of work but also to the temptations of social life and electronic entertainment. As a result, sleep disorders have become commonplace and chronic, and the unnatural patterns of sleep in modern life have progressed to the point where they have become a serious risk to human health.
An Unnatural Human Life-Cycle
Growing Up in Captivity
When Childhood Was a Time of Freedom
Starved for Play
Adult Supervision, Structured Routines, and Enforced Isolation
Mandatory Schooling and the Failure to Mature
Off From the Adult World
Childhood in tribal societies was a time of freedom, exploration, daily exposure to adult life and adult role models, and intense interaction with other children. But in modern society children are raised in virtual captivity. They are typically isolated from children older or younger than themselves, and they have little or no contact with the adult world. Compared with the children of previous eras, the lives of children in modern times are both severely confined and highly structured, and they live under the constant supervision of teachers and caregivers. In school, children sit in an assigned seat for hours, prohibited from interacting with their peers. Modern children grow up without adequate opportunities to develop social skills and struggle, often without success, to develop meaningful adult roles and authentic adult personalities later in life.
The Failure to Mature Becomes Commonplace
Almost Endless Adolescence
The Decline of Lasting Sexual Partnerships
Choosing to Remain Childless
Adulthood in contemporary society seems to arrive later and later in life. For the generations who came of age in the 21st century, living with their parents and remaining dependent on their financial support has become commonplace well into their thirties. Marriage—which was once considered a mandatory requirement for achieving adulthood—has become not only optional but has been declining in popularity for decades in the most technologically advanced nations. And even among the shrinking number of people who marry or establish permanent sexual relationships, having children has lost much of its appeal and is no longer regarded as either an inevitable or even necessary outcome of choosing a life partner.
Unnatural Old Age
The Elderly Lose Their Relevance, Prestige, and Self-Esteem
The Obsolete Generation
Retired From Life and Out of the Family
Alone at the End of Life
It was not long ago that men and women who lived to a ripe old de valued as vital sources of experience and wisdom, and they were treated with respect and deference. But in our fast-changing society, the elderly have become marginalized and—due to the rapidly-changing nature of modern society—much of their knowledge and experience has become obsolete and of little or no interest to the younger generations. Increasingly separated geographically and socially from their children and grandchildren, they often live in isolation and loneliness. And at the end of life, they pass out of this world less often in the bosom of loving families and more often in the sterile solitude of a nursing home or hospital room.
The Disappearing Family
Weakened Roles and Broken Relationships
The Ancient Human Family
Clan, Kinfolk, and Extended Families
The Disappearance of Family Life
The Decline of the Family in Modern Society
How Women and the Elderly Lost Their Importance
Family Responsibilities and the Obligations of the StateHomeless Amid Plenty
For nearly all of
human history, the family has been a bedrock of human society, but in modern
times this bedrock has been crumbling. Traditional family roles have fallen by
the wayside, the sharing of work, wealth, and property among family members has become increasingly
obsolete, and a growing number of people live without homes, without families,
and without a meaningful connection to society. In recent decades, the nation-state
has assumed increasing responsibility for the welfare, protection, and support of the
elderly, impoverished, and disabled members of society. Has the human family
finally become obsolete?
Searching for Happiness
As they experience the pain and frustration of their unnatural lives and broken life-cycles, it is inevitable that modern people have come to seek comfort and relief in activities that provided humans with biologically pleasurable rewards. Thus, human nature itself drives people to seek the things which, throughout human prehistory, have been able to ease the pain and sorrows of our ancestors. These include especially the pleasure of eating, the relief of medicine, and the comfort of human communication.
The problem for modern people is that modern food has become singularly abundant and unnaturally pleasing to the human palate, medicine has become a powerful and addictive source of emotional gratification, and human communication has become cheapened and diluted by being squeezed by the arbitrary limitations of electronic media. Thus, in seeking relief from chronic unhappiness, people have been ruining their bodies with excessive food, ruining their minds with excessive drugs, and losing the comfort of spontaneous human interaction by becoming addicted to the artificiality of digital communications.
Ruining Our Bodies by Seeking Comfort in Food
Eating for Pleasure
Overfed Yet Malnourished
The Wages of Obesity
Sugar and Salt, Oil and Fat
The Diet as Cure-All
The foods that now dominate the modern diet are eaten not so much to sustain life as to provide solace in the midst of unhappiness. The human body is programmed to crave sweet and salty food as well as meats rich in fats and oils—all of which were in limited supply as long as people had to hunt and gather wild foods. But the foods produced by industrial agriculture are plentiful and inexpensive, and the foods that sell best are often rich in calories, deficient in vital nutrients, loaded with chemical additives, and marketed relentlessly for profit. The result is an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease without precedent in human history. Understanding that modern dietary habits are not only unnatural but often unhealthy, modern people have embraced a bewildering variety of diets and food taboos. But since unnatural eating is only one part of the puzzle, all of the other problems remain.
Fighting Unhappiness by Drugging the Mind
Treating Normal Emotions With Psychoactive Drugs
Drug Addiction, Legal and Illegal
Drugging Children to Make Them Behave
Drugging Adults to Make Them Accept Their Unhappy Lives
Modern medicine has found cures for infectious diseases, developed effective treatments for wounds and infections that used to be fatal, and greatly extended the average human life span. But in recent decades the pharmaceutical industry—as well as the practice of psychiatry—has been corrupted by the massive profits it has reaped from the prescribing and sale of psychoactive drugs. Excessive overmedication is now commonplace—not only for a vast range of psychological problems, but also for behaviors that result from the unnatural conditions of daily life. To a degree that would have been unfathomable to earlier generations, the use of psychoactive drugs in modern society has become accepted as normal, and—incredibly—a large part of the population—including both children and adults—are not only legal drug users but—in every sense of the word—the victims of medically-induced drug addiction.
Seeking Companionship in Electronic Media
The Human Need for Communication
Communication in Small-Scale Societies
How Agriculture Limited Human Interaction
How the Industrial Revolution Stifled Human Interaction
Electronic Media Fill the Void
Addicted to Digital Devices
Cultural anthropologists have long observed that people in tribal societies talk to each other constantly from morning to night. In fact, the innate human need for constant communication with others is part of our human DNA. But as technology has played an increasingly greater role in society, face-to-face interaction has been increasingly suppressed. The long hours and isolated homesteads of agricultural societies made interaction outside of the immediate family more difficult, and the industrial revolution stifled interaction even within the family. Men went to work, children went to school, and women stayed home. As loneliness and solitude became widespread in modern society, the frustrated human need for companionship and communication was replaced by new devices of electronic communication.
The Quest For a More Natural Life
Restoring Harmony Between Technology and Human Nature
Respecting the Need For Sleep
Liberating the Young
Reinventing the Family
Reducing Dependence on Psychoactive Drugs
Rediscovering the Art of Human Communication
Reconnecting With Nature
Our technology-based world is here to stay. Civilization is not going to devolve back into some form of preindustrial way of life, because that is not what people want. Yet in a world where happiness, satisfaction, and the simple pleasures of life are in short supply, the thirst for change is strong. By carefully exploring, analyzing, and comprehending our human natures—and by understanding the changes in modern culture that have stifled and frustrated our natural human needs—modern society can chart a path to the creation of new cultural traditions. In that way, will we can begin to restore the harmony that has been lost between our inherited human natures and the technological world that humanity has created for the present and the future.