The spirited CEO, a twice-divorced middle-aged man, had flipped to the 34th slide on the slide-deck, bullet points and infographics and all, his yapping mouth a spraying fire-hose of business updates, when Jamal cleared his throat, got up, walked out the conference room straight to the ground floor of a several-story glass building, never to return to his high paying management consultant job. His cell phone rang for a few days, business clients calling for follow-up meetings, his colleagues and staff workers demanding work-related updates, his boss maniacally inquiring after him; Jamal never answered. For him, this was it. The end. Finito. Theatre was his passion, and he was going to produce the best damn play people in his city had ever seen.
The above account is fictional, but quite a lot of people are living some version of its reality at this very instant — people across age-groups having abandoned their passions for jobs they don’t like, had never quite planned for, and would never pursue for a minute more than they have to in some parallel universe where all limiting conditions are magically removed. You could ask why so many people — in the tens of thousands — relinquish their most cherished passions and motivations in exchange for a lifetime of stressful, dull, self-imposed, toil? Indeed, how is it that in a world already rigged against us with all its rich variety of flesh eating microbes and natural disasters, sickness and disease, some significant percentage of humanity finds itself needlessly immiserated by an entirely man-made problem? The standard response runs something like this: as humans we are in the business of self-perpetuation, which requires us to commit some percentage of our time to productive work the returns of which can sustain ourselves and our families so we can carry on with the business of living. Back in the Paleolithic era, this sort of ‘work’ literally translated into action taken to fend off predators or catch prey. Taking a day off, in this context, meant a willingness to offer yourself up as afternoon lunch to some hungry predator. The advent of agriculture and basic commerce left some room for leisure and some of the more ethereal pleasures of life. Then came the Industrial revolution, machines and technology replaced hard labour — a great force-multiplier for human productivity. One would imagine such advances would have coincided with greater emancipation of man from toil and drudgery, making space for more subliminal pursuits — community, music, arts, literature, world travel, etc. In other words, things which make us happy. But are we in any real sense more free today to do the things we actually want to do?
One could argue technology has shrunk distances making travel easier. And the average person today has a smorgasbord of devices, gadgets, and online apps at his disposal that save precious time from previously time consuming tasks. But, paradoxically, the thing which stands out most about our current condition as a human species is the apparent shortage of time. One glance at the state of the world will reveal vast swathes of humanity chasing feverishly after one thing or the other as though they’ve just been handed an elaborate exam sheet they must clear before the next big exam and the next and the next and so on. An alien species, were it to observe us, or generate a time-lapse video of us from a distance, might well view us as some large collective of fervent psychopaths — frenzied termites building colonies upon colonies without let.
So what’s all this mad rush about? Partially, it has to do with post-industrial revolution economic systems that conferred value on growth and profitability. With capital defined as sole currency, it was only logical the same expectations — capital gains and wealth acquisition — be attached to individual persons. The message was simple: hard work leads to material wealth leads to happiness. Eight hour work days became the corporate norm — a time frame that’s steadily expanding with corporations hungry to up their quarterly profits and employees drunk on the Kool-Aid of job promotions and ‘upward mobility’.
But are people any happier today?
If we were to judge by scale of economy and GDP measures, then the US, China and Japan should be the happiest countries on earth. They aren’t. The US is not even in the top 10; Japan not even in the top 50. It is Denmark, Switzerland, and Iceland (yes, you read that right) which are the happiest countries on earth. This isn’t surprising, because what these countries have in common, ceteris paribus, are strong social and welfare support systems. Many European countries have siesta: time reserved during business hours for people to wind down, relax, spend precious moments of the day with their families, etc. Several studies have suggested what makes people happy are relationships, or a sense of community, and time spent on the pursuit of something which gives their lives meaning. Yet, the space for these key constituents of a happy existence is shrinking rapidly by the steady encroach of a vampiric work culture that demands all the fealty of a religious creed for the promise of post-retirement redemption in the end (sound familiar?).
A lot of this is also cultural and psychological. We now live in a world where a significant number of people suffer from a social validation deficit, i.e. nothing they do is truly valid unless high society deems it so. This drives people to take up careers, pursue paths in life, or something as trivial as put pictures up on social media, just to have their experiences and, by extension, their lives ‘validated’ in some sense by their peers. A guy who loves arts or literature may take up a career as an investment banker, a guy who loves calligraphy or world history may end up in business school learning regression analysis. In short, vast numbers of people are living internally incoherent lives, simply lying to themselves and the world at large on a minute-by-minute basis. And while it is true that one’s choices in life are driven in large part by financial considerations — comfortable living, nice house, decent car, etc. — it is equally true that many of these considerations are themselves, in some significant measure, a product of social demands and the growing ‘peer validation complex’ that many suffer from.
Simply put, modern society is broken. It is broken because we changed too much too fast. Most of it was enabled by so-called scientific progress of the past century; ‘so-called’ not because scientific advance hasn’t done any good. From disease control, to food supply, this world is better in many ways than before. However, it has simultaneously unleashed a different set of challenges we are only now starting to recognise. Perhaps it is true to say that given the state of the world today, the systems of economy that drive it, and the needless psychological despair and sociological patterns that proceed from it, it’s difficult to assert that the advances of the last century have proportionally made us any happier.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2016.
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