According to Bertrand Russell

Change is one thing, progress is another. Change is scientific, progress is ethical; change is indubitable, whereas progress is a matter of controversy.

Sigmund Freud in his Civilization and Its Discontents claims that we cannot be sure that we are happier than those who lived under harsh conditions several centuries ago, because human mind is very flexible.

Very often I ask myself if we, as people who have access to the internet, education, modern medicine, etc. are really happier than the tribal people who, for example, live a much simpler life in a jungle? And sometimes I watch documentaries about such people, and they don't seem to be more sad or depressed than us.

Human society has changed hugely since 1,000 years ago or since the Neolithic Revolution about 12,000 years ago. But have we made progress since those times?

I think psychologists have started to measure human happiness in different countries. I wish they would measure it in very simple societies as well.

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    I had a conversation with someone in the field of psychology one time, and he made the remark that using traditional western standards of morality 3rd world tribal people where/are more moral than we are. According to the conversation many studies have been done on this already. Lower rates of theft, rape, murder, adultery.
    – Eodnhoj7
    Nov 24, 2019 at 2:49
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    Let's say simpler life makes people "happier", why should that make it better? "Happiness" is one value, it is not the only value. Some may value knowledge or power or something else over psychological comfort. Your question does not seem to be answerable other than based on subjective preferences for what is more valuable, and such questions are off-topic here.
    – Conifold
    Nov 24, 2019 at 8:13
  • @Conifold, well, people seek knowledge or power because these give them some sort of psychological comfort (whether momentary or long-lasting). For example, satisfying curiosity is pleasurable. Or in a society where being educated is valuable people who are not educated may suffer. It seems to me that all such things should be judged by their final total effect on happiness.
    – apadana
    Nov 24, 2019 at 9:05
  • It "seems to you", and it seems to others differently, which is why we do not host such questions here.
    – Conifold
    Nov 24, 2019 at 9:11
  • @Conifold, We can't be totally certain about almost anything, especially in topics like this. That's why I frequently use "it seems". And note that in a primitive society people can't value things like philosophy. What is important to us is shaped to some degree by the culture and society (through peer pressure, etc.). So it is difficult to believe in intrinsic value of things like knowledge.
    – apadana
    Nov 24, 2019 at 9:22

1 Answer 1


I have wondered this too, and with a skeptical lens I have found that most people who answer this use anecdotal evidence to support their conclusions. A vague term that you are using in your question is "measuring human happiness". The most common way that researchers assess happiness is through self-reports, which can be misleading.

An interesting case I heard about was the post-German blitz bombing, where some people in London self-reported that they felt "happier" and had a better connection with their community during the bombing than post war.-- The idea of everyone ignoring their own problems to solve the problem of the community, while the well-being would be measured as considerably worse.

If you find a more definitive answer, I would be interested. cheers

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    Yes, It's an interesting case. Research in "positive psychology" suggest that things like kindness and gratitude have great impact on human happiness, while economic status is not as important as it may seem to be.
    – apadana
    Nov 23, 2019 at 22:34

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