We are told by the Steven Pinkers of the world that we should be happy because things have never been better. The world has never been healthier. Never been freer. We’ve never had more material wealth, better technology, or less poverty than the world has right now.
These are undeniably good things, and the evidence for their existence is pretty indisputable. We should be excited and grateful about how awesome everything is. And yet the happiness that is supposed to follow seems elusive, doesn’t it?
Well, the problem with this argument is that it presupposes that happiness is all about externals. Of course, it’s easier to feel good when you’re safe and well, but only a fool would think that’s all it took.
One of the most interesting patterns in the writings of the Stoics is the way they look at rich and successful people. They look at people who have had everything at various points in history—conquerors, heiresses, Senators, emperors, Olympians—and notice how miserable they often are (usually because all they had was not enough…they felt poor because they wanted more). The Stoics also take the time to look at true philosophers who managed to be utterly content and serene despite terrible circumstances like war or poverty or imprisonment.
It’s the latter we should take note of. Because, for the most part, externals are out of our control. Steven Pinker’s models could be utterly wrecked tomorrow by the firing of just a few nuclear missiles, the outbreak of a global pandemic, or some other black swan event. If our happiness is dependent on things going well, then we are at the mercy of Fortune. If we can’t feel happiness now, even with the wind at our back, what chance do we have amidst harsher conditions?
The solution is to look inward. To cultivate an inner citadel of strength and principles that allow us to find contentment and peace no matter how things are going in our career or in our country. If you want to be happy in this modern world, you need to be indifferent to all the wonders of that world—let them be a nice bonus, not the basis for your comfort or gratitude. Because they can go away in an instant…and because they are meaningless compared to what’s going on in your soul anyway.