In his 1932 dystopian novel “Brave New World“, English author Aldous Huxley imagines a future where life has been engineered to be pain-free but is ultimately meaningless. Almost a century later, most people have access to more material goods than even Huxley could have imagined, and by most measures life is getting easier and easier. At the same time, societies around the world are suffering from a deep lack of meaning and most people, whether they admit it or not, struggle to build deep and meaningful connections with others. Is it a coincidence, or is our rampant technology-fueled consumerism responsible for our unhappiness?
Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) said “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” which very succinctly sums up the problem most of us face in our daily lives: we are unable to appreciate the big picture, and instead are too busy chasing after the next material good or pleasure to satisfy our desire for excitement. This desire is much stronger today than it was in Huxley’s time, and it’s almost impossible to tell whether it’s caused by modern technology, or whether the technology is just making the problem worse.
Let’s take the issue of materialism. For most of human history, the average person would only own a few possessions, most of which would be used to make their life more comfortable or enjoyable. Nowadays, it is the norm to own many more things than that, and the sheer number of things we own is not in itself the problem; the problem is that we have been brainwashed to think that the things we own will make us happy. Most of the time this is true, but only in the short term. After a few hours, your new shoes will no longer make you happy, and you’ll want to buy some new ones. Your new car will be the same, and so on. This is also true for the big-ticket items like houses and yachts. After a few years of being owned, they will seem as boring as the average car or house does to you now.
The reason this happens is that all of the things we own are very similar, and they have no personality. They are just a means to an end, and so they have no value other than the pleasure they bring in the short term. The same is true for most of the material goods and services that modern technology provides us with. There’s nothing wrong with this, but we are losing touch with the fact that we need relationships with other people in order to have a meaningful life. We are so busy consuming that we cannot see the trees for the forest; we are trapped in the material world and we do not know how to escape.
The importance of meaningful work
The question this raises is whether work can bring us happiness. The answer, of course, is yes, but only if the work makes you feel valued. Let me explain with an analogy.
I have a beautiful labrador retriever, Kelsie. If you aren’t familiar with labradors, they are extremely intelligent dogs. I can give her all the food, water and shelter she wants but if she isn’t using her brain, she isn’t happy. About a year ago I bought her a snuffle mat (a kind of game where you hide food and the dog uses its nose to find it), and was amazed at the effect it had on her behavior and demeanor – as soon as she had to use her brain and nose to forage for her dinner, her life had meaning. The same is true for us humans. Getting everything we want is not enough – we have to work for it, and we have to believe the work we are doing is meaningful – like a dog foraging for its food.
There’s no point in having a job that pays well but is boring or tedious. Unfortunately, jobs that are not meaningful tend to pay well. It is a fact of life that people will pay you more to perform a job that is tedious, boring or dangerous than they would pay you to do a job that is interesting and exciting but not as useful. People are not stupid, and they do not want to pay more than they have to for anything, including your labor.
If you are lucky enough to have a job that is meaningful to you, then congratulations. That is the best thing you can have in your life. If you aren’t, then you should try to find one, and if you can’t, you should try to create one. It’s not easy, but it is possible and it can be done.
Technology is not going away, and neither is consumerism. We are all going to continue living in a world of material abundance and it would be a mistake to turn our backs on it. Instead, the best thing we can do is to start paying attention to what brings us meaning.
This means paying attention to what you’re spending your time on and the things you’re buying. Most of the time, the things we buy are not bringing us joy; they are bringing us frustration, because we already have a lot of stuff and we are running out of places to put it. This is a good time to reevaluate the things in your life and ask yourself whether they are bringing you joy, or if they are just a means to an end. If they are the latter, you should probably get rid of them.
Now is also a good time to start thinking about what you’d like to do for a living. You don’t have to do what you love to do – many people don’t – but you should at least try to have a job that makes you feel valued. If you cannot find one, it is worth considering starting your own business, especially if you can do it remotely.
Technology has brought us many benefits, but it is also making us unhappy and it’s important to be aware of this. We need to spend time thinking about what makes us happy, and we need to take steps to make sure we get it. If we want to be happy people, we have to put in the effort.