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 '19 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 '19 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 '19 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 '19 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 '19 at 9:22

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 '19 at 22:34

Your question might be a duplicate...the first paragraph of my reply is virtually identical to a reply I posted to another question recently, though I can't remember what it was.

Your question evokes the timeless debate made famous by Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau had a very romanticized view of Nature, while Hobbes thought people living in their natural state had short, brutish lives.

I'm with Rousseau - my connection with Earth is spiritual. But my view can be shattered with a simple thought experiment:

Imagine if you had a chance to go back in time 100,000 years and live on an unspoiled planet. The catch: You can't take any modern technology with you.

Could you live without electricity, music or modern health care? I couldn't.

So, for me, it comes down to a question of balance. Thank God for electricity and modern health science, but do we really have to bathe ourselves in pollution and climate change, driving the polar bear and countless other creatures to extinction?

Your question focuses largely on happiness. That is largely a product of a person's life experience. A person who was born before the discovery of electricity was probably perfectly happy without it. But those of us who are used to electricity couldn't live without it.

Vice versa, a person who lives on a remote tropical island with a small population might be shocked by the urban wilderness of New York City or Seattle's homeless camps.

Nevertheless, it could be argued that things are getting worse. The simple knowledge that our lives are being impacted by climate change and that we could actually wipe ourselves out with biochemical weapons can't make people happier. And if the unthinkable ever happens, I doubt that the survivors are going to be terribly happy.

In the meantime, people can also quibble about the definition of "civilization" and "progress." In fact, I think another important issue of relevance to this discussion is population.

It can be argued that larger cities can support more cultural activities, but they come with a high price tag. And any culture that's exported by NYC and Seattle is dwarfed by the monumental piles of pollution and corruption they dump on the world.

Some "naturalists" have observed that Nature works in cycles. Think about the hydrologic cycle, for example, with snow falling on mountains, then melting into streams that flow into the sea, where evaporation returns the water molecules to the atmosphere.

However, human population growth, change and "progress" appear to be more linear. Human communities often don't renew themselves; they just get bigger and stinkier until they become little more than traps for the poor. The alternative is the classic boom-and-bust towns that turn into ghost towns, often marking ruined environments.


You commented on scientists studying happiness in simple societies. In fact, I believe such studies have been done, though perhaps not in great detail. It has certainly been noted that people in "primitive" societies often lead more leisurely lives than their urban working-stiff counterparts.

I'd like to see a study of this nature:

Imagine traveling around the world, visiting big cities, villages, primitive tribes and everything in between. At each destination, you seek out older people and ask them about the changes they've seen, at the same time asking if their lives are better.

The answers will, of course, be all over the map. However, I'd wager that the great majority long for the past - or at least for a more balanced life. There has to more to life than Google and Amazon.

  • Quote: "A person who was born before the discovery of electricity was probably perfectly happy without it. But those of us who are used to electricity couldn't live without it." Exactly. We don't have the same needs. Maybe we have more needs, and this causes psychological stress. – apadana Nov 24 '19 at 10:10
  • For example, today you can find many PhD students in their 30s around the world who can't be sure about their future job and life. – apadana Nov 24 '19 at 10:13
  • Yes! That's something I forgot to mention. 100,000 years ago, life was uncertain, but things were far more predictable than they are today. Past generations typically respected their elders - who were reservoirs of essential knowledge - whereas today's generation treat money and the Internet as their gods. I think technology and civilization are "progressing" faster than we can adapt. It's painful. – David Blomstrom Nov 25 '19 at 2:57

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