Global Resilience Solutions > Category:happiness

The Society of Future Happiness

There are few things we love more than predictions of what the future will hold. And predicting the future is a major industry, despite the obvious fact that most predictions turn out to be wrong. Yet now matter how much fun it is, there’s an insidious side to our love affair with the future and it’s one that’s sapping our mental and emotional resilience constantly.

Futurism (the activity of predicting the future, not the Avant-garde art movement) is a ubiquitous activity of our society. It’s in our newspapers and magazines, our scientists and engineers are trained to spout it, it’s built into the strategies of major corporations from Google Glasses to Google Cars. In science fiction, it arguably has a major industry of its own.

But futurism is also a major narrative force. It tells us how to understand our present, and why we should look forward to the future. It was the cornerstone of the state-sponsored religion of materialism in the former Communist bloc, justifying a repressive political system with reference to the bright future it was supposed to create.

It continues to perform a similar function today, justifying the present with reference to the future happiness of mankind through advancing technology and never-ending economic growth. And that is why it can be so damaging to our resilience, as individuals and as a society.

The Futurism Game

Futurists have one of the world’s best jobs. They get to sell people a vision of the future, and neither they nor their descendants have to give refunds if they’re wrong.

Jules Verne, one of the founding fathers of both science fiction and futurism, managed to get a great deal right, from submarines to the moon landing. The record since then is a little spottier. FE Smith, former cabinet minister and friend of Winston Churchill, prior to his death in 1930, wrote, “The man of 2030 will set off for the weekend, after his work, in a small, swift aeroplane, as reliable and cheap as the motor-car on which we depend today.”

This widespread prediction of personal aircraft and jetpacks replacing the car, stoked by the rapid development of aviation technology between World War I and the 1960s, was the bread and butter of futurism for quite some time. Even if you happen to own a personal ultralight aircraft today, chances are that your local municipal and aviation authorities would have some views on using it to make your daily commute.

Aviation technology has long since settled into a more incremental pace of improvement. While today’s futurism has gone off personal aviation, it works in exactly the same way. It looks at whatever areas of technology are currently advancing and projects from there, whether it’s artificial intelligence, brain-body interface or genetically-engineered humans. The game stays the same.

If projecting the future from the present is hit and miss in the technological arena, it is nearly always a miss in the geopolitical arena. Who in 1900 would have imagined the obscene toll taken by the World Wars, let alone the rapid decline of colonialism, the fall of the British Empire or the decline of great power competition in Europe? Who in 1980 could have imagined the end of the Cold War or the fall of the Soviet Union happening the way they did?


Postponed Happiness

You may remember this post in which we outlined the development of postponed happiness as a major theme in Western life. First, we were taught to think of happiness as something external to ourselves, something that could only be fully enjoyed after death. Then, with the rise of Protestantism, we couldn’t even take solace in good works as an indication of our eternal happiness. Yet, we reasoned, God would bless the elect with prosperity. As capitalism became our new religion, we retained this idea of external, postponed happiness.

We have created a system of eternal movement in which happiness is always relative to material things which we can never have enough of. Happiness will come, we are told, with the next paycheque, the next promotion, the next business deal, the next product… But futurism uses scientific and technological development to reinforce this projection of happiness upon the ever-increasing technology of the future. In futurism, the naïve dreams of the Victorian era live on, from the pill to cure all illness to the industrial production of limitless food.

Even more problematic are the new dreams being sold- genetically-engineered transhumans, brain-computer interface technologies for everyday use, pervasive artificial intelligence. These are justified not by a sane analysis of cost and benefit or by principled application of logic, but simply because it is change.


Out of Control

The cumulative effect of all of this messaging is to justify whatever happens as part of the inevitable march of progress, sanctifying new technologies, new industrialisation, new de-industrialisation with the stamp of future happiness, whatever present problems it may bring.

Let’s look at some of the most recent changes that we have allowed to slip into our society without exercising any form of collective, conscious control over our destinies. We have accepted pervasive surveillance both physical and electronic, by government and industry alike, touching every aspect of our lives, from the apps on our smartphones to the televisions in our living rooms to the onboard systems in our cars.

To quote the Federation President in Star Trek VI, “Let us redefine progress to mean that just because we can do a thing, it does not follow that we must do that thing.”


The Never-Ending March

You may have read recently of Stephen Hawking’s pronouncement that humanity must be careful to ward off extinction level events for the next few centuries, until we have developed the technology to colonise other worlds and so perpetuate our species. This is the underlying theme of so much of modern futurism- man, or his technological creations if the Singularity theory proves correct, must live on forever, jumping from planet to planet until the stars have burnt out, and then presumably finding a way to exist in the universe full of black holes that will follow. That never-ending march of progress, which will so change humanity as to ensure it will have virtually nothing in common with ourselves, is the ultimate justification for never-ending, unchecked technological, scientific and economic growth.

Whether we destroy Earth’s biosphere in the process matters less if we can hop from planet to planet like a virus looking for a new host.

This is exactly the creed of C.S. Lewis’ villain, Weston, in Out of the Silent Planet. Weston, who has come to an inhabited Mars with the intention of taking over and colonising a world which he sees as primitive, argues the right of civilisation to expand without limit across the universe by any means necessary, pushing aside all lower cultures. He admits that those people of the far future for whom he imagines he is acting would be virtually unrecognisable to him in any respect. Ransom, the protagonist, translates Weston’s high-flying self-justification into the natives, but cannot make it sound less than utterly ridiculous.

The reply of the spiritual being who leads the peoples of Mars has the beginnings of a brilliant deconstruction of this brand of progressive materialism. He says that an evil spirit has taught us to abandon all moral values except for one- the love of one’s own kind. And this is exactly the state of modern materialism. All moral values that can stand in the way of the “progress” desired are deconstructed, and yet the reason why we should care about some far-distant future iteration of the human race long after we are dead is never brought up.


The Unfulfilled Promise

The reason why there is not and will never be enough progress to bring us happiness is that the real sources of unhappiness are internal to human beings.

As an example, global agribusiness has long promised that industrial food production would yield more than enough food to feed the world’s population. We currently have the capacity to feed everyone on the planet. Why doesn’t it happen? Quite simply, the global food system is designed around the profit margins of global agribusiness. In that world, food aid in the form of wheat products discourages local farmers from growing the much healthier variety of crops that they previously depended on, leaving countries dependent on a nutritionally deficient global system. Farmers throughout the world are losing access to land and water as corporations take over more and more of it. That corporate land is not used for local food production, but for export to the developed world. Meanwhile, throughout prosperous countries, excess food is discarded in vast quantities, and excess agricultural production is destroyed to keep prices at the desired level.

The source of global hunger is a system designed around unlimited greed, a system that continues to justify itself as the vanguard of the fight against hunger on the basis of what it produces rather than what it delivers to the world as a whole.

And this is exactly what futurism does that is so damaging to our resilience. We are encouraged to invest our hopes, our identity, our money, our lifestyle in a future of unlimited growth, underwriting a system that does nothing to resolve the true sources of human misery. From chemical contamination of our food, water and soil to the growth of economic inequality to the offshoring of production to the countries with the most miserable working conditions to the increasing unemployment resulting from automation, anything can be justified under the all-excusing rubric of progress.


Counterfeit Happiness

In Buddhism they say that any “happiness” that depends on external stimuli and is not stable within a person is the result of dualistic thinking. They call it, “contaminated happiness,” and contaminated happiness contains within it the seeds of misery. So long as we seek happiness from material things, we will never have enough. The seeds of greed, anger, fear, all the human qualities that generate so much of our collective misery, are contained in this approach.

It is only in addressing the inner causes of unhappiness first that the world’s problems will truly begin to resolve. When we can develop technology not as a panacea but as an aid, when we can think through its impact dispassionately, at that point, we will have truly made progress.

How Corporations and Governments are Trying to Manage Our Happiness

There was a time when we all thought that happiness by definition defied measurement. After all, it’s a qualitative, personal, emotional and spiritual state. To be happy in respect of certain circumstances was never the same as happiness overall.

Then came the social sciences in their madcap (or simply mad) attempt to quantify the human experience scientifically. Today we have the World Happiness Report (claiming to quantify the relative happiness of the world’s nations), countries like Bhutan adopting measures of “gross national happiness,” and of course, an endless stream of surveys and other attempts by managers and human resources departments to quantify the happiness of their employees.

Happiness Works, purveyors of the Happiness At Work Survey, put their business case as follows:

“Happiness is worth it. Big savings can be made for happy companies through lower staff absence, talent retention and productivity. Calculate the savings for a happy organization.”

Below on the same page is a calculator to allow the customer business to calculate their potential savings from a happy workforce. Happiness has become a commodity, and it’s big business. People who study happiness are highly paid to come up with ways for corporations to improve the happiness of their employees,

It’s not just companies that are looking for the magic espresso machine that will create a nirvana of satisfied and productive employees. Countries are using national happiness not only as an instrument of domestic policy, but as a means of political propaganda, either for a particular party or for an entire political system. China, where the Communist Party legitimises its rule through the provision of public goods and economic growth, is a great example. After all, if you can demonstrate “scientifically” that your people are happy you can:

1. Show what a great place your country is, especially for the wealthy people you hope to attract.
2. Prove that there can’t be anything really wrong with your system.
3. Show that the ruling party has things under control.
4. Legitimise a whole raft of state programs or policies which claim to increase happiness.

Discussion on this topic was one of the bright points of the recent International Conference on Happiness and Hope. Chen Hee Tam from Singapore reminded us of both that neoliberal state’s use of happiness for these purposes and why what you measure matters. After all, if you measure factors like income, housing and education, you can demonstrate that someone is materially well off. But unless you look into subjective factors, you can’t say that they’re happy.

The lack of subjective data was also an issue for Ilona Suojanen of the University of Edinburgh, who studies the use of happiness as a tool by corporate management. The Human Resources mindset, which treats the employee as an interchangeable resource to be managed through a system, looks for measurable factors that can make the mass of employees happy, and therefore easy to manage. The magic employee benefits package, the perfect number of coffee breaks, the optimal work environment, from rooms filled with gargantuan pillows to, in one case Ilona mentioned, the use of slides as an alternative to stairs- sure, having a nice work environment helps, but frankly some of this stuff reminds me of Dilbert’s Motivational Stone of Quality- pointless expenses that I’d rather have received in a paycheck or a dental plan:


What the quantification of happiness misses, as these presenters argued, is personal engagement, challenge, fulfillment, belonging, the things that make work worth getting up for- not to mention collegial work environment and effective leadership. But that’s the problem with the idea of management writ large, as we have written so many times- management reduces subordinates to utilitarian objects (typical of the Newtonian thinking of the industrial age), while leadership treats them as individual people and seeks to grow them as such, knowing that their growth is the organisation’s growth – an idea more compatible with the complex realities of the post-industrial workplace.


The Root of the Issue

This gets to the root of the happiness problem. If you’re a country or corporation trying to make reasonable provision for the needs of your citizens or employees, sure, you’re contributing to their happiness. Great. But at what point does creating the conditions in which happiness can flourish stop, and the management of human emotion start?

That’s exactly what this is about. Governments and corporations would very much like to make human emotion homogenous and manageable according to a universal rubric. Happiness becomes a commodity provided from above in the form of objective goods, rather than as an individual measure of the quality of experience. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one heck of an intrusion into personal autonomy.

If there’s one thing that cutting edge leadership and corporate culture has discovered, it’s precisely that you do NOT want to anaesthetize people with pseudo-happiness, to make them more pliable and more easily manageable. That’s surprisingly similar to the traditional military paradigm – break them emotionally so they’ll be pliable enough to follow orders.

The true win-win, though, is about providing people with a way to contribute to the maximum, to overcome challenges together, to grow and evolve. No, these folks, like Special Ops personnel, will never be pliable. They’ll be in your face, insubordinate and damned inconvenient. BUT… they’ll be the most productive, happy and reliable people you’ve ever met.


~ Dr. Symeon Rodger
~ Anthony S. Rodger

Want a More Resilient and Happier Life? Build Relationships!!

Time after time, studies into health, longevity and overall happiness come to the same conclusion – people with the most developed support networks in terms of friends and/or family rank at the very top and get the best results.  

And it’s the very same thing in business and career – if you want to prosper, build personal relationships with other human beings and do what you can to contribute to their success.

Yes, these days we call it “networking”, yet it’s a practice as old as the human race.  The irony you and I face is that although we have more technological tools to stay connected with other people, we’re often too overwhelmed to use them.  

My dear departed mom wrote to at least one of her sisters and to her best friend (by snail mail) every week for over half a century, yet most of us seem to have a really hard time staying in touch with the people closest to us even though it’s easier and cheaper than ever.

Social media is helping to bridge the gap, for sure, but as any expert on the subject will tell you, nothing can replace the traditional face-to-face contact.  

Networking 101

In this short video, networking master Michael Hughes gives you some killer tips on how the pros do it.  Keep in mind that this isn’t just for sales people or people in business; the overall dynamics and benefits of networking apply to everyone:

A Man Who Walks the Talk

As it happens, Michael is a friend of mine and I can tell you I’ve learned more about networking from watching him in person than from reading any number of books on the subject.

Just the other day I was at a workshop given by someone else and Michael was there.  It was the first time I’d seen him in several months.  I sat with him in a small group discussion for just ten minutes and in that time he had learned exactly where my business was at, volunteered to spend time with me to work on some of my challenges and had introduced me to someone else who could do the same.

And there you have a perfect illustration of one of the chief functions of networking – helping connect others with the resources they need.  

Let me share one final point with you: even though networking is a key element for building your personal resilience (and your business, if that applies to you), most people, even business people, don’t do it well at all.  You  can be different.  

So if you want a challenge, here’s one for you: make a list of people you know and devote just 30-60 minutes a week for four weeks to contact them for no other reason than to say hello and let them know you care.  

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger