From Chauvet to Today — Are We Happier?

A human handprint made about 30,000 years ago, on the wall of the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in southern France.

Yuval Harari’s Sapiens is a brief history of humanity. Near the end of the book he writes:

The last 500 years have witnessed a breathtaking series of revolutions. The earth has been united into a single ecological and historical sphere. The economy has grown exponentially, and humankind today enjoys the kind of wealth that used to be the stuff of fairy tales. Science and the Industrial Revolution have given humankind superhuman powers and practically limitless energy. The social order has been completely transformed, as have politics, daily life and human psychology.

But are we happier?

Did the wealth humankind accumulated over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Did the discovery of inexhaustible energy resources open before us inexhaustible stores of bliss? Going further back, have the seventy or so turbulent millennia since the Cognitive Revolution made the world a better place to live? 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?

I love the question at the end: what is the point of all this progress if we’re not happier?

Unlike the civilizations that lack mind or thought in Sapiens, as conscious individuals we can deliberately choose our pursuits. Are we taking actions that will lead to an end-goal of happiness? Or are we chasing a substitute for it? Progress, success, and profits are shiny proxies for happiness but do not inherently lead to it.

If we’re not conscious about our goals, we’ll confuse means and milestones for ends. We’ll realize, looking back, we got what we pursued at the cost of what we truly wanted. The opposite is also true. By preemptively asking,“What is the point?”, we avoid the pitfalls of focusing on proxies at the cost of a deeper purpose. We anchor our personal decisions and our business pursuits to worthy and wanted end goals.

We’re All Someone’s Crazy Relative

I’ve been reading a lot about beliefs and about how our minds work, and I’ve wanted to write something about it for a long time. I’m fascinated by the difference between disagreement that is healthy and constructive, and disagreement that is toxic and destructive. I’ve been putting it off, subconsciously thinking I had to wait until I knew everything before I wrote anything. I could then write the perfect article, chock full of footnoted links to research. It would answer every question and explore every nuance.

Could I do that without writing a thousand-page textbook? No, there is too much. So I’ll take the Inigo Montoya Approach and sum up. There are some fascinating ideas from evolutionary history and psychology that explain a lot of the animosity surrounding disagreement in today’s conversations about healthcare, politics, and religion. The source material is a blend of Harari’s Sapiens, Haidt’s Righteous Mind, Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, and Mark McRaney’s entertaining and insightful podcast You Are Not So Smart.

To begin, Harari says there are three reasons why homo sapiens have been very successful since first showing up 200,000 years ago: 

  1. Homo sapiens learned to harness fire to cook food, which increased our caloric intake and resulted in significant brain growth.
  2. Larger brains led to the development of language, including the ability to tell stories and produce fiction. 
  3. We began to use language, stories, and fiction to coordinate tasks and operate in groups, creating tribes, communities, and eventually cities. 

Those three evolutionary ideas lead to some fascinating psychological results. 

One, our beliefs aren’t built on pure rationality. Our survival historically depended on maintaining group status, not accuracy. As a result our views have more to do with group dynamics than a dispassionate search for truth. When faced with a new idea, our group-centered minds ask, “How will this affect my group standing?” You’ve seen this in action if you’ve ever seen someone base a political opinion on whether or not it came from their party’s leader, as opposed to the merits of policy itself. We instinctively align ourselves with our group.

Two, our evolutionary wiring causes us to trust people like us. Shared traits (skin color, political ideology, country of origin, socioeconomic standing) lead to increased trust. Dissimilarity decreases instinctive trust. These tendencies come from the deeper preprogrammed parts of our minds. While they can be overwritten with conscious reasoning, conscious rationality is not the default tool we use to evaluate new ideas. Trusting people who are different requires work, and our efficiency-focused brains don’t do that automatically. 

Three, we are unable to independently verify all of the things that we know. Due to a vast information surplus of things we could pay attention to, we filter and accept messages from people we trust. Our brains prioritize efficiency over accuracy. For example, I haven’t produced the necessary observations that show the earth is round or that it moves around the sun. I trust the scientific community when it tells me these are settled issues. Nearly everything you and I “know” is borrowed from someone we trust. 

Four, stories are more powerful than facts. The first narrative we hear from a trusted source (someone like us) is likely the one that we will use to decide whether we accept or reject the other facts that come to our attention. In fact, exposure to factual information that goes against our narratives causes us to dig in to our viewpoint even more. Contradictory evidence strengthens opposing conclusions, which is both fascinating and disappointing if you’ve ever tried to change someone’s mind. 

These four points go a long way in explaining why good people disagree about important issues. Our beliefs are more often based on identity, on maintaining group status, and on who we trust as opposed to a dispassionate factual examination. 

It doesn’t mean our beliefs are pre-determined. These are all tendencies we can overcome, with effort.

It does mean that arriving at The Truth (or some approximation to it) involves acknowledging that we have these tendencies and navigating them. 

It should also give us pause about how we arrive at our own conclusions. Do we believe something because it feels right, in spite of any contradictory evidence? Which sources do we believe? And why do we believe them? Is it just because they’re like us? Are they from the same political party or religion? Do they write for a news organization we trust? Or have we done some conscious and rational examination of the evidence presented, putting in the extra work of looking up alternative viewpoints? 

Finally, it means we should be “slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19) when we run into those who have come to different conclusions than we have. It’s natural to conclude that your crazy relative with different or weird or conspiratorial beliefs has been brainwashed or is evil. It’s completely natural, but also wildly ineffective if you hope to engage in anything approximating intelligent disagreement.

Idiocy and malice are not the sole sources of disagreement. More often than not, we have all arrived at different conclusions as a result of evolutionary tendencies that lead us to adopt the differing narratives we use to make sense of the world. To an extent, we are all someone’s “crazy relative.” Recognizing the psychological processes we all follow to reach conclusions can steer the conversation away from heated animosity and toward examining the underlying and unspoken narratives that cause most differences of belief.

Rioting, Explanation, and Justification

Recent online conversations about rioting and racism have made it clear that many writers and many readers are unaware that explaining a behavior is not the same as justifying it. I’ve seen commentators who believe they are engaged in a single conversation, when in fact two separate conversations are taking place.

For example, one person says that rioting makes sense (explanation). Another jumps in to say rioting is wrong (justification). They speak past each other, misreading and mischaractgerizing, and the comment chains get long. You’ve seen these conversations on Facebook, Twitter, and the comment boards of news sites. Commentators escalate and engaging in the anti-social (used here to mean the opposite of pro-social) behaviors of vilifying and insulting the other side. And all this happens when the two groups’ viewpoints are not mutually exclusive. 

Explanation is a search for root causes. In this case, it is linking the recent actions of local law enforcement in Minnesota and the broader context of the nation’s history with racism to protesting, rioting, and looting. Understanding why something happens can help prevent negative behaviors and promote positive ones. Trying to explain why we behave in a certain way, or giving context in which one behavior leads to another, is explanation. 

Personally, I see many factors that explain the riots. For starters, there’s a global pandemic going on, which has lead to record unemployment. Millions of Americans are wondering when, or even if, they’ll be able to go back to work. The healthy and employed have adopted new habits, staying home as much as possible, wearing masks, and maintaining physical distance from friends and family. We’re five months away a presidential election, along with the accompanying political fights on mainstream and social media. All of these factors had already strained the American public when videos of white men killing black men came to our attention. Millions have taken to the streets in protest. Some have started rioting and looting. So, yes, I can a confluence of stresses crashing together that explains why people are looting.

That explanation should not be confused with justification. Acknowledging racial issues (explanation) does not make rioting any less damaging to the lives and livelihoods of the innocent. As a prominent Atlanta resident said, “We’re burning our own house down.” Like him, I do not think rioting is justified. Anger? Action? Seeking for justice? Protesting? Yes. Violence and looting? No.

These two separate conversations get mashed into one, both in the current conversation about rioting and in many other contexts. As a result, we all too often misread the other side and heatedly escalate the conversation. At some point (typically after insults, dismissiveness, and anger) we give up, having accomplished nothing except to further the animosity and division that hurt our society further.

Remembering there is a difference between explanation and justification can save us the time and emotional effort we expend speaking past each other, and it can help us differentiate between effective and ineffective dialogue.

“Youth” by Samuel Ullman

I receive a brilliant (and short!) email newsletter from James Clear every Thursday. A poem from this week’s email is too good to not share. It captures how I want to think about aging as I near the completion of my fourth decade.

Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind; it is not a matter of rosy cheeks, red lips and supple knees; it is a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions; it is the freshness of the deep springs of life.

Youth means a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity of the appetite, for adventure over the love of ease. This often exists in a man of sixty more than a boy of twenty. Nobody grows old merely by a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.

Years may wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. Worry, fear, self-distrust bows the heart and turns the spirit back to dust.

Whether sixty or sixteen, there is in every human being’s heart the lure of wonder, the unfailing child-like appetite of what’s next, and the joy of the game of living. In the center of your heart and my heart there is a wireless station; so long as it receives messages of beauty, hope, cheer, courage and power from men and from the infinite, so long are you young.

When the aerials are down, and your spirit is covered with snows of cynicism and the ice of pessimism, then you are grown old, even at twenty, but as long as your aerials are up, to catch the waves of optimism, there is hope you may die young at eighty.

Samuel Ullman wrote the poem when he was 78 years old. He passed away five years later at the age of 83.

Data Is The New Soil

How do you change a mind? This is a massive, massive question I’ve been pondering, and the answer seeps into nearly every aspect of human interaction, from marketing and organizational change management to politics and disaster response.

Part of the answer is that changing minds requires telling stories with effective data. This 2012 Ted Talk on data visualization walks through some of the concepts of producing effective data. The first three minutes are key. The rest is brilliant.

Data is the new soil.

Disconnection and Connection

Life is about disconnection and connection.

Disconnecting from our distracted selves.

Disconnecting from toxic relationships.

Disconnecting from ineffective online interactions.

Disconnecting from managers and occupations that aren’t a good fit for us.

Disconnecting from that which is less important, from things that are shallow/trivial/surface/fleeting.

These things distract us and make life empty.

Connecting with our best selves.

Connecting with our loved ones.

Connecting with people who will motivate us and make us better just by being around them.

Connecting with those we “are in charge of” at work and serving them.

Connecting with that which is more important, with things that are religious/spiritual/deep/lasting/meaningful.

These things make life full and rich.

We spend the our limited time and life choosing between disconnection and connection.

What will you chose today?

Communication and Collaboration Lessons from “My Semester with the Snowflakes”

Favorite lessons and excerpts from an article by James Hatch, a 52-year old military veteran who enrolled in Yale to get his undergraduate degree, called “My Semester with the Snowflakes.”

Safe Space

“I come from a place where when I hear that term, I roll my eyes into the back of my vacant skull and laugh from the bottom of my potbelly. This time, I was literally in shock. It hit me that what I thought a “safe space” meant, was not accurate. This young woman, the one who used the phrase, isn’t scared of anything. She is a life-force of goodness and strength. She doesn’t need anyone to provide a comfortable environment for her. What she meant by “safe space” was that she was happy to be in an environment where difficult subjects can be discussed openly, without the risk of disrespect or harsh judgment.” (Emphasis in original)

Psychological safety is required for effective interpersonal dialogue and for effective teamwork. Frequently, people don’t feel safe to share their ideas or their experiences. They’re afraid of retribution: being told their idea is dumb, or having their experiences discounted.

Creating safe space doesn’t mean ensuring people are safe from complexity and difficult topics. Rather, it means creating an environment where people feel safe to discuss difficult topics.

It isn’t a freedom from conflict, but the freedom to engage in productive conflict.

“There HAS to be a place where people can assault ideas openly and discuss them vigorously and respectfully in order to irmpove the state of humanity.”


In my opinion, the real snowflakes are the people who are afraid of that situation. The poor souls who never take the opportunity to discuss ideas in a group of people who will very likely respectfully disagree with them. I challenge any of you hyper-opinionated zealots out there to actually sit down with a group of people who disagree with you and be open to having your mind changed. I’m not talking about submitting your deeply held beliefs to your twitter/facebook/instagram feeds for agreement from those who “follow” you. That unreal “safe space” where the accountability for one’s words is essentially null. I have sure had my mind changed here at Yale. To me there is no dishonor in being wrong and learning. There is dishonor in willful ignorance and there is dishonor in disrespect.

When was the last time you changed your mind about someone or about something? How comfortable are you addressing someone’s sincere and well-thought disagreement with your mindset? When was the last time you disagreed with someone in such a way that convinced them? That they adopted your mindset?

It doesn’t matter how much we know if we have closed our minds off to adapting to new information.

Why Does Hugh Care?

I have been asked why I focus so much on “tone” (a bit of a misnomer on this topic, in my opinion. “Tactics” is a better descriptor). Why does it matter how people interact?

Three reasons. I care because how we choose to communicate reveals what is under the surface. The polarization in our political and religious discourse reveals a deep and powerfuil undercurrents of disrespect, enmity, and prejudice. Too often, what we think of our political, religious, and intellectual opponents is based on false assumptions. We haven’t put in the work to counter the inherent human idea that people who disagree with us must, by necessity, be morons, because, well, we’re awesome.

Second, how we communicate determines the outcomes of our communications. It reveals our intentions. When we interact with the world, are we hoping that we can learn something from the world around us? Are we hoping that we can teach the world something of value? Or are we merely hoping to score internet points with strangers who already agree with us, and crank up the volume inside of the echo chamber?

Third, I care because I am convinced that the solution to the world’s problems and injustices is on the other side of effective collaboration. Hatch talks of building bridges between people who disagree and coming together. Fixing the big problems of our time–poverty, health, inequality, racism, disconnection–requires that groups with different ideologies and viewpoints work together.

It matters because because “we need everyone who gives a damn about this… to contribute and make it succeed.”

Locus Iste and Sacred Spaces

During high school, I developed a deep appreciation of choral music. Part of it was that I felt it connected me to divinity, to those around me, and to the past. Singing the same songs in the same places hundreds of years later seemed to create a bridge through time, connecting my experience with holiness and theirs.

One of my favorite pieces to sing was Locus Iste, a text based on Moses’ experience where he is asked to remove his shoes because of the location’s holiness. The text, originally in Latin, reads:

Locus iste a Deo factus est,
inaestimabile sacramentum,
irreprehensibilis est.

This place was made by God,
a priceless sacrament;
it is without reproach.

A favorite verse of scripture echoes the same feeling. Speaking of a sacred spaces, it says:

How beautiful are [they] to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer; yea, and how blessed are they, for they shall sing to his praise forever.

Locus Iste reminds of reminds of places where I’ve experienced sacredness and holiness, from churches and cathedrals, to mountaintops and rooftops, to a desk where I used to study scripture as a teenager. My favorite version of the song is by Paul Mealor. When you listen to it (only six minutes), what sacred spaces does it remind you of?

Find the song on Apple Music or Spotify, or go for the entire album at these links if you want more Mealor (and it’s good stuff):

Demons, Pain, and Strength

This is one of the best podcasts/interviews I’ve ever heard. 

It’s Tim Ferriss (of Four Hour Workweek fame) interviewing Amanda Palmer on Creativity, Pain, and Art. Topics range from watching a friend die, to delivering her own stillborn child ALONE, to pain and the power it can bring, to the different types of pain. 

Favorite line: “If you don’t deal with your demons, they go into the cellars of your soul and lift weights.”

Some profanities and some ideas I don’t agree with, but I really, really liked this. 

Podcast notes here.