Hacking Happiness (The Rise of Human Expectations)

How do you define happiness?

The results are all over the place. Nobody seems to agree on one overwhelming reason that leads to more happiness.

Is it the accumulation of wealth?

Close family ties?

What about human biology; does that play a role?

Is it a combination of factors?

Let’s find out.

What Have We Done?

In the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind, author Yuval Noah Harari goes deep into happiness, specifically, what causes it.

The book begins by exploring the rise of Homo sapiens; from tens of thousands of years ago, as a weak, vulnerable species of humans (yes, there were multiple), to our modern-day place as masters of the world.

While our ascension seems truly remarkable – Harari stops to ask – are we really happier today than say, a thousand years ago?

Sapiens A Brief History of Humankind

This remains an open question.

On the surface, quality of life has greatly increased. On the other hand; the suffering and devastation over the past few hundred years is haunting.  Hundreds of million of Homo sapiens have met violent ends. Entire species have vanished from Earth, and the meat and dairy industries account for billions of animal deaths a year.

Today, life in western countries is predicated on consumerism; the belief that everyone should constantly spend their money on goods and services. Because most people are financially irresponsible, consumerism often leads to a debt-ridden life that is highly stressful. Anxieties run high because people spend what they don’t have for items they want, not need.

Society is technology obsessed too. Personal relationships and the nuclear family have slowly eroded as the world has rapidly turned to a digital exchange. It’s quickly becoming a short-sighted, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society. Younger generations have fostered a sense of entitlement; participation and effort are deemed winning qualities, more important than results and accomplishments. Being offended is the new normal.

With the drastic changes of the human conditions, happiness is once again at the forefront.

Can one be truly happy in such a ruthless, competitive world?

Defining Happiness

Researchers have tried to pinpoint the root of happiness for years. Countless studies have been undertaken.

Disagreements remain, but one thing is certain: Happiness varies between people. 

From the book, Harari explains that at its core, happiness is the correlation between objective conditions and subjective reality.

Subjective reality
Happiness is the correlation between objective conditions and subjective reality.

This means that objective conditions such as wealth, family ties, relationships are as important as the lens in which you view your life. Your current reality, including experiences and upbringing, will mold your expectations.

Here’s an example:

You make $1 a day working in a Chinese sweatshop. You get a raise to $10 a day. This raises your happiness.

You make $75,000 a year in the United States. You get laid off. You find a new job, but because the economy is poor, you are only making $60,000 a year. Your happiness most likely decreased.

Who is happier?

Even though the Chinese worker makes exponentially less than the United States worker, his current reality deems his raise a vast improvement, something we would be appalled at in the West ($10/day).

Happiness is thus predicated on one’s current situation. After basic needs are met, it is impossible to quantify what makes someone happy. Multiple external factors come into play, influencing happiness in a positive or negative way.

No two people are alike.

What makes you happy might fall short for another person. What brings you disgust and anxiety might arouse excitement in others.

Thus, it is impossible to imagine what would make someone else happy. We cannot assume we know the plight of others. Because of this, the definition of happiness will always stay subjective.

Studies have also agreed on another aspect of happiness..

Being satisfied with what you have is more important than getting more out of what you want.

Humans have a baseline set of needs. Food, water, and shelter are foremost. After such needs are met, it is a subjective experience from there.

The trick is learning to be satisfied; a hard task for most. Chasing wants is often a dead-end; a wild journey towards dissatisfaction. 

Most people in the West have more than enough to be comfortable in life. So in lies the problem. Because of such comfort, and the resulting disincentive to improve, these people bring unassuming misery into their lives through over-consumption and escapism. Because their lives are boring and over stimulated, there is simply no passion or purpose driving them.

These people chase material wants, instead of working to improve internally. They engage in escapism to run away from their flawed, boring lives. Instead of making the tough changes that will bring improvement, people instead deliberately chose to waste chunks of time escaping to another reality – through drugs, TV, social media, gossip, porn – you name it. These people have built a life they are not proud of. There is shame. Otherwise, what would be the need to escape?

Finding purpose in one’s life is first. From there, chasing wants can often lead to diminishing returns, as you struggle to be satisfied.

The World is Yours: Is that Bad?

Media and advertising have also destroyed individual expectations and changed the game with baseline happiness.

Before TV and the internet, you did not have the means to compare yourself to those outside of your immediate surroundings. Those people in your own town, village, or community became your baseline model for comparison.

Fast forward to today.

We are bombarded with the best looking (and most successful) people in the world. The 7.4 billion people on Earth are now the comparison. Commercials, magazines, TV shows, and social media have made this so. Seemingly everyone you see and hear about is ultra-successful, beautiful, and happy.

Global World
Flickr via Instant Vantage

Naturally, this has a negative effect on ordinary people. Expectations are out of control. We feel inadequate and ashamed because we subconsciously compare ourselves to global icons.

No longer do you compare yourself to people you know personally. Now, it’s globally.

Cristiano Ronaldo is the goal. Or Adriana Lima.

“Models” you come across on Instagram make it seem like every girl in the world should be a 9 or 10. The best looking people are the measuring stick.

This has caused an unprecedented amount of anxiety which has led to a downturn in happiness.

The same is true for intelligence. We feel we are inadequate if we are not turning out the ideas and profits of Warren Buffett or Bill Gates. We get down on ourselves for not being creative “enough” and not thinking of HUGE money-making ideas.

Globalization has created an entirely new obstacle when it comes to human happiness. In order to stay balanced, and appreciate what we do have, we need to focus on ourselves and forget comparisons. Learn consistent improvement and hard work instead. Your progress is all that matters. If you follow the blueprint for mastery, success will come. It is inevitable.

Happiness comes from within first. It won’t be easy and you must stay focused and dedicated. You must find value and purpose in your own life. You must control envy and greedy tendencies. You do this by understanding the pitfalls of consumerism, and the fallacies of the media and government. Using rational thinking, you will come to understand that you, and you alone, must take full responsibility for your decisions. Nobody will hold your hand in life. Certainly, nobody else will give you happiness. You must take it through satisfaction with your plight in life.

There is a wildcard though.

In the book, Harari makes the case that biochemical mechanisms also impact happiness.

Hormones, neurons, and chemical and organic chemicals rule our lives. How much so remains up for debate.

Many people are skeptical and upset by such a conclusion because it means that happiness lies outside of our control.

If biochemical mechanisms dictate happiness, then nothing we do, no action we take, ultimately matters. We would be accepting that we are all born unique, with varying chemical makeup that predispose us to a certain level of baseline happiness. Some people will find happiness easy. Some won’t; they will never feel satisfied, no matter what they do.

Our actions could improve happiness, but the feeling would be short-lived, a sort of high, before we come back down to our baseline and decide we aren’t satisfied. This is a scary thought.

What do you believe?

Is happiness entirely composed of neurons, sensations, and hormones?

Is one person doomed to misery because they have a different biological makeup than someone else?

Or is happiness determined through objective surpluses viewed through a subjective lens?

I believe it’s a mixture of both.

Remember: Being satisfied with what you have is more important than getting more out of what you want.

Some people are so driven and motivated, that nothing is ever enough. One accomplishment is a stepping stone to the next, with no time to stop and bask in the glory of success. Others don’t need an extraordinary life to be happy. Is that a bad thing? It depends.

I don’t advocate a wasted life.

I advocate hard work and consistent efforts as the winning equation to finding passion and purpose. However, I don’t feel it prudent to judge everyone through the same lens – it’s impractical.

My beliefs and visions differ greatly from the next man. We try to put ourselves in the shoes of others, but fall short. It’s impossible. Our subjective reality and experiences will not allow it.


I used to think I knew how and why someone acted the way they did. I thought I could apply my views. Now I am resigned to the fact, that my knowledge is limited and that I need to always stay open minded and accepting of new ideas, no matter how radical and extraordinary they may seem.

Happiness is complex.

It is based on objective conditions. Money matters. So do family and relationships.

But more importantly, our views affect happiness.

What makes me happy might have no effect on you. Some people can live a fulfilled life with very little needs. Others need to always be moving, conquering, growing.

Biological differences also matter. Levels of oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine vary between us. Some of us are predisposed to happiness more than others. We have no control over this, so there is no point in stressing over it.

Being aware is enough.

Maximize your life by being happy with what you have, while striving for fulfillment. Stay balanced and happiness will come.

It’s inevitable.

Note: Be sure to read Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind. You can buy here.

Talk soon,

Screenshot 2015-11-21 at 12.56.17 PM



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