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.