The Shamefully Poor State of Human Wellbeing

“For when he saw that almost all things necessarily required for subsistence, and which may render life comfortable, are already prepared to their hand, that men may abundantly attain wealth, honour, praise, may rejoice in the reputation of their children, yet that, notwithstanding, every one has none the less in his heart and home anxieties and a mind enslaved by wearing complaints, he saw that the vessel itself was in fault, and that all good things which were brought into it from without were spoilt by its own imperfections.”—Lucretius, On the Nature of Things

According to the National Center for Health Statistics, 13% of Americans over the age of 12 report taking antidepressants in the last month. The notoriously happy Swedes aren’t faring much better.

michel_de_montaigne

The tender and wise Michel de Montaigne, who was frank enough to address the tentative state of our wellbeing without mincing words.

The first world is rife with suicide and depression.

We speak of improving our parenting skills. Of doing yoga. Of listening to the Eckhart Tolle. Of meditating. Of taking time to relax.

We act, for the most part, as if the inherent and consistent suffering of the human condition is unchanging, and that accepting or working with this condition is the best we can do. We might seek escape in an afterlife – if we simply live a good and humble life in this world. If we do seek freedom from suffering here, it is through pharmacological means (medication, alcohol, addition) – and these “escapes” are only temporary. Bearing our cross and nobly enduring the brutish hedonic treadmill is as good as it gets. Yoga might help… maybe some kale or something.

“Is it not a singular testimony of imperfection that we cannot establish our satisfaction in any one thing, and that even our own fancy and desire should deprive us of the power to choose what is most proper and useful for us? A very good proof of this is the great dispute that has ever been amongst the philosophers, of finding out man’s sovereign good, that continues yet, and will eternally continue, without solution or accord.”—Montaigne, Of a Saying of Caesar

  • When we could not communicate long distances we invented the telephone.
  • When we could not save our children from smallpox or polio, we discovered their respective cures.
  • When we could not reach the moon – we fly up and stepped on it.
  • As humans, we overcome obstacles and heighten our condition. That’s mando, as the kids say. It’s something we should be proud of.

Yet when we endure consistent and unearned sadness and anxiety – the root of the “problem of evil” – we do exactly what nature programmed us to do: Sisyphus-like, we find something that we think will solve our woes, and get back on the hedonic treadmill. “If I can just ____, then I’ll be happy.” “If I can just _____, things will be better.” Of course, it won’t be better, though, and we won’t be happier.

There are certainly arguments against mindless bliss. I’m not here referring to ceasing to solve problems, and simply plugging one’s brain into a pleasure-machine and drooling on oneself. I’m talking about rich, meaningful human life, void of the absolutely unnecessary suffering – life with a higher “hedonic tone”, as David Pearce (easily the most eloquent intellectual in the abolition of suffering – see https://www.hedweb.com/).

Tantalus

The Greek myth of Tantalus, doomed to an eternity of unbearable thirst and hunger, only able to drink salt water, and to grasp endlessly for fruit which is always beyond his grasp.

“The vessel is flawed” is Lucretius’ saying, and it’s one that I find helpful in enduring the treadmill, and in finding meaning it. Not meaning in suffering, but in its overcoming.

The Vessel is Flawed – So What?

Relegating ourselves to an eternity of treadmill isn’t a viable option, and I argue that we should only endure suffering so long as we must, but should eagerly be shooting ourselves towards the following north stars:

  1. Fix the Vessel. Cognitive enhancements that preserve the richness of sentient life, yet allow beings to exist in “gradients of bliss” (a term coined by David Pearce, as far as I know), rather than the dastardly highs and lows that cruel and mute nature has imposed on us. As a student of positive psychology, I’ve long argued that this is a paramount concern of the field of psychology/neuroscience. I don’t pretend that “fixing the vessel” is simple, or without serious danger – I only posit that it is among the most worthy goals of our species.
  2. Build a New One. The creation of vastly more intelligence and blissful entities than ourselves (the best synopsis of my position on creating morally worthy superintelligence is in my 2017 TEDx at Cal Poly). I don’t pretend that this is easy or risk-free, either – but I believe it to be the highest moral cause in the long term.

There needn’t be a minute of sober resignation to suffering if we have aims to overcome it, and to turn the utilitarian tide for good – not just run faster on the treadmill.

The net tonnage of happiness should be undeniably increased, not tempted, humiliatingly – Tantalus-like – eternally.

 

Header image credit: Teakisi