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Were Our Ancestors Happier Than We Are?

Many believe the past was a better place, but this is not really true.

Key points

  • There have been no real "Golden Ages" in human history.
  • Our ancestors may have led simpler lives, but they were not any happier than humans today.

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion. There is the nostalgia of the individual who misses the carefree times of his youth, forgetting the many anxieties and painful challenges he had to endure in the process of becoming an independent adult. And then there is the collective nostalgia we feel for those better times in the past, when things were simpler and more predictable. The 50s are often described as the decade of happiness, blessed with a constant economic growth and social cohesion. But the rosy spectacles of nostalgia distort the awful realities that blighted the daily lives of minorities and homosexuals during that period, or the constant fear of a nuclear holocaust that people felt during the cold war.

It is curious that there have always been "golden ages". Even during golden ages, people yearned for other past and better golden ages. Nostalgia isn’t a new thing. It has always been with us and, in fact, it was particularly prominent as a social sentiment in the times we now feel nostalgic about, ironically. It seems paradoxical that people in the 19th century, which we see as distant and romantic and therefore detached from the mundane ugliness of our present reality, should themselves have felt so nostalgic about their own concept of a long-gone golden era. 19th century Victorians saw the middle ages as the romantic ideal they most wanted to emulate, and even the writers of classical Greece themselves felt nostalgic about a lost “Golden Age”,

In his book Sapiens the author Yuval Noah Harari argues that our very distant hunter-gatherer ancestors, who led a very simple life hunting and gathering stuff, were healthier and better fed than their farming descendants. These stone age hunters had a a reliable source of protein in their diet and lived in small and very cohesive social groups. In contrast, the farmers that came later found themselves in the precarious borderline between subsistence and famine, where they stayed for centuries. They eventually invented cites, politics and the economy, which brought untold miseries to humankind.

There are no golden ages. It is true that some periods in human history have been objectively better than others (the first half of the 20th century won't win any prices in the historical happiness rankings), and in fact the present is in many ways better than any other past era, despite the many and very serious problems we face at the moment. We are overall more prosperous, peaceful and healthier than we were, and therefore a little happier.

I say we are "a little" happier, because as I've been commenting in this blog, we are not really meant to be happy. We inevitably struggle with difficult emotions, and so did our stone age ancestors and their farming descendants, because these emotions are built into our very human essence. So no, our ancestors were not happier than us.

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