Technology, happiness on demand and the absurd human condition

We live in an amazing world. While we’re not yet hovering through the skies in flying cars like The Jetsons promised, we are starting to build cars that are driving themselves. On top of that, AI is less technological myth and more “hazy future certainty” than it’s ever been, the internet connects all of us in one, giant, interpersonal communications web and, best of all, you don’t have to wait for TV programming anymore if you’re a Netflix subscriber. On-demand programming… yes, that is the best, isn’t it?

Almost everything seems like it’s on demand, delivered from a flat screen with the flick of the wrist, the push of a button — and yet, the U.S., one of the richest, most developed countries in the world, is only the 15th happiest, according to the World Happiness Report. What’s more, that level’s been dropping since 2005.

So why haven’t we developed happiness on demand? We’ve seen more technological growth in the last 10 years than we saw in the 100 years before that, and it seems we’ve only grown less happy. What gives? If technology has the potential to solve almost every other logistical problem inherent to the human condition, shouldn’t we be able to wield it to become happy?

The Orgasmatron and happiness on demand

In early 2014, worldwide news outlets began covering an interesting story about an invention called The Orgasmatron, an implantable piece of tech patented by Dr. Stuart Meloy that can deliver orgasms at the push of a button. Writing for the BBC, Frank Swain explored the story only to find that Meloy wasn’t the first person to think about installing “pleasure buttons” in humans. In the 1950s, Robert Gabriel Heath delivered electrical pulses to the septal region of his patients’ brains to induce a rush of pleasure and subdue violent behaviors.

The idea of this type of technology is intriguing, and the implications vast. Via electrical impulses, one can induce a powerful and immediate pleasure response in the subject — could you also deliver pain? The CIA, apparently, came to ask Heath that very question (the response, apparently, was Heath throwing the suit out of his lab).

Contemporaries of Heath’s were more willing to explore the effects of electrical/emotional manipulation, namely one José Manuel Rodriguez Delgado, who famously implanted a bull’s brain with wired controls and jumped into the ring with it, turning away its charges with the push of a button. Unfortunately (for Delgado), mind control projects were quickly deemed too dangerous to pursue. From Swain’s BBC article:

However, the public mood surrounding brain implants soured with the publication of his book Physical Control of the Mind: Toward a Psychocivilized Society in 1969, in which Delgado (somewhat naively) downplayed the Orwellian prospects of the devices and encouraged people to embrace the technology. If everyone would consent to implantation to mediate their tempers and traumas, the world would be a better place, he claimed.

The development of psychoactive drugs and other medicines also made these brain implants obsolete. Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out that the quest to deliver happiness on demand via technology, literally directly into the brain, is a journey that began at least 60 years ago.

Does technology make us happy?

Technology makes people both happy and unhappy, in the broadest sense of the term. When applied to healthcare, for example, it’s easy to see technology as a harbinger of happiness; pre-Industrial Revolution, two out of every three Europeans died before the age of 30, while today average life expectancy in Europe is 79 for males and 84 for females. Most people are happy to be alive, and medical and pharmaceutical technology means that they can be for longer.

On the other hand, one of the key things that happiness studies find is that people have a hard time being content with what they have, especially in comparison to others. Technology’s constant “newness” is awesome, but the never-ending churn of annual improvements means that a year or two after you buy something (if that), it’s “old” or “outdated” and everybody longs for the newest model.

New evidence suggests people would prefer job satisfaction over a higher salary, as long as basic needs are met .

Think about it this way: Does the thought of indoor guidance systems akin to GPS sound new and exciting? Precision tracking down to the step sounds awesome — but at one point before 1995, so did standard GPS. Nowadays, though, every phone is capable of standard GPS to the point that the technology is taken for granted. The same could be said of cellular/smartphones in general. Indeed, the psychological term “hedonic treadmill” is applied to the human tendency to experience a rise in desires and expectations in tandem with material gain such as innovative new products or a raise in salary, meaning there is no permanent or net gain in happiness.

For a more complicated mix of both, we could look at the world of work. In James Surowiecki’s “Technology and Happiness” published via MIT’s Technology Review, he writes that “the workplace is central to people’s sense of well-being and is more important to them than anything, including family. Studies show that nothing — not even divorce — makes people more unhappy than unemployment.” He goes on to show that, paradoxically, as a result of the Industrial Revolution, mechanization of agriculture allowed people to get off the farm, but it meant that they’d be working high-paying, but often miserable, industrial labor.

New evidence suggests people would prefer job satisfaction over a higher salary, as long as basic needs are met (maybe they should have stayed on the farm?). Nevertheless, with wireless laptops, phones and internet connections, we’re seeing that the gig economy is beginning to thrive, not only because some part-time workers need the side hustle, but also because freelance workers are happier with the freedom and work/life balance they gain by being their own boss.

The pendulum swings back and forth, it seems.

What does make us happy, then?

Everybody’s heard the old adage that “money doesn’t buy happiness,” and it’s true, somewhat — yet, everybody’s also probably heard the tack-on to the adage “…but it helps.” See, we live in a culture dominated by consumerism. From Walmart grocery stores to drive-thru fast food chains, top companies are constantly utilizing and refining data sciences to improve the customer experience, aiming to create happier customers — but in this type of culture, it’s hard to quantify happiness like you can materials.

When taking into account concepts like the hedonic treadmill mentioned above, it’s easy to see that our temporary fixes for happiness don’t last, and that the temporary highs we receive when we’re buying something new are not that different from the temporary euphoria we feel from using drugs, for example, or even falling in love at the beginning of a relationship.

In one of his videos, titled How Much Money is LOVE Worth?, Vsauce’s Michael references a U.K. study where the amount happiness from hearing somebody say “I love you” for the first time is measured against the amount of happiness gamblers feel when they win large sums of money. The study concluded that hearing someone loves you for the first time is the equivalent happiness level of receiving $267,000. Yet, if you asked what people would choose — hearing “I love you” or a quarter of a million dollars — which do you think it would be?

There is no quick fix for happiness … The purest source of happiness is found in others.

The argument can be made that love is really just a chemical reaction that occurs in the brain, like a sort of drug. So do drugs make us happy? Sort of. But another YouTube video by Kurzgesagt exploring addiction brings up an interesting point when exploring heroin use in the Vietnam War. Twenty percent of American G.I.s used heroin in Vietnam, and, of them, 95 percent returned without an addiction problem. He compares this to the traditional experiment where you put a rat in a cage with two water bottles, one water and the other cocaine- or heroin-laced water. Eventually the rats become junkies and die… unless you put them in an environment where they can socialize, eat and mate. Then the rats will barely touch the drug water. Kurzgesagt compares the single rat in the cage to the soldier in a horrific war, and the “rat park” conditions sum up the return home. He says:

Human beings have an innate need to bond and connect. When we are happy and healthy we will bond with the people around us, but when we can’t because we’re traumatized, isolated, or beaten down by life, we will bond with something that gives us some sense of relief. It might be endlessly checking a smartphone, it might be pornography, videogames, reddit, gambling, or it might be cocaine… since the 1950s the average number of close friends an American has been steadily declining. At the same time, the amount of floorspace in their homes has been steadily increasing… to choose floor space over friends. To choose stuff over connections.

The video ends by suggesting that our views on happiness in today’s culture aren’t natural. There is no quick fix for happiness, no drug or technology that will provide it instantly. The purest source of happiness is found in others.

Happiness is found in others

In a TED Talk by Robert Waldinger, the fourth director of the longest running study on happiness, he says that “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier, period.” His study has followed two groups comprising 724 men since 1938. One group were Harvard men, the other was a group of boys from Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Waldinger watched men from both groups ascend and descend the social ladder, and the lessons he learned about happiness didn’t find their genesis in wealth or fame like many of us would believe (especially when we’re younger). What he found, instead, is that isolation is toxic, quantity of friends is nice, but most important is the quality.

“This is wisdom that’s as old as the hills. Why is it so hard to get and so easy to ignore?” he asks. “Well, we’re human. What we’d really like is a quick fix. Something we can get that’ll make our lives good and keep ‘em that way. Relationships are messy and complicated, and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.”

I realized, this is why I came here: to find out how bad life gets, and that when it’s this bad, it’s still f***ng funny. Louis C.K.

The only contention that can maybe be made is that AI and robotics may be able to produce synthetic comrades for us someday, but even that venture may be fraught with complications and unforeseen circumstances. The internet, after all, connects the entire world and allows “relationships” on demand, doesn’t it? True, of the 74 percent of adults who use social media, they’re less likely to be socially isolated — but social network is also linked to envy, lower self-esteem and an overall decrease in life satisfaction.

No matter how bad it gets…

Not everybody likes Louis C.K. His comedy is oftentimes dark and perhaps too edgy for the average laugh-seeker — but he’s an excellent storyteller, and one of my favorites is the story he told The Moth about visiting Russia when he was a 26-year-old writer on the Late Night with Conan O’Brien show. Suffering a bad case of burnout, C.K. explains that his vacation was to get away from the stress and gain perspective. However, having gone alone and not speaking any Russian, the experience was extremely isolating for him. Connecting with anybody else was near impossible, but at one moment in the subway while listening to a violinist play music, he tells the audience about his only interpersonal moment with another Russian.

The video is worth watching, simply because part of the humor in Louis C.K.’s story is in the way he tells it — but the gist is that sitting next to him is a man his age with a broken shoe. Seeing a group of “street-urchin” looking kids with oversized business jackets, sleeves dragging, dirt on their faces, the man calls out to them in Russian, shows them his shoe, and without so much as rummaging for it, one of the kids produces a bottle of glue from the depths of his sleeve. The man uses it to fix his shoe, hands it back and then the little kids huffs it, his eyes rolling back in his head a bit, and moves on.

“And I couldn’t believe what I just saw,” says Louis C.K. “That the misery in this country at that time was so calculable and so predictable, this guy thought, ‘My shoe’s broken. Oh, there’s a child. He’s sure to have some glue in his hand, because the state of our nation is so wretched.’ And he looked at me, and I was startled — he laughed, and I laughed. And he was the only person I had any contact with in the whole Soviet Union. And I realized, this is why I came here: to find out how bad life gets, and that when it’s this bad, it’s still f***ng funny.”

The point of C.K.’s story in this article’s context is this: Happiness is hard, but it’s everywhere. No, there is no quick technological fix for it, and yes, you have to work at it somewhat. Drugs won’t fix it. Money won’t either. Yet, happiness on demand is a real thing. It’s all around you, walking along the street, reading in a coffee shop, sitting on a subway and, even in a foreign country, surrounded by poverty, substance abuse and misery. We find true happiness in connections with others — and sometimes it’s as simple as a shared, fleeting laugh at the absurdity of the human condition.