Is it silly to worship happiness? These days, happiness is held up as the greatest prize. What’s bad about that? To find out, read this prophetic work, says a top historian.
- Reading Level 3
The terrifying book that tells our future
Is it silly to worship happiness? These days, happiness is held up as the greatest prize. What's bad about that? To find out, read this prophetic work, says a top historian.
The year is 2540 and science has made it possible for everyone to live happily. There is no conflict and no suffering. Everyone has a role to play. Nobody wants anything more than they have.
This is the future imagined by Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World. On the surface it sounds like a perfect society.
But Huxley's fantasy had a darker side. The universal happiness he depicts has been achieved by controlling everything about human life. Humans are produced in factories. Nobody is any more intelligent than they need to be to do their job. There is no art, love or individuality.
Brave New World was published 90 years ago. Now the historian Yuval Noah Harari has written an introduction to a new edition of the book. It comes with a warning: "with each passing year Brave New World is becoming even more relevant." Harari thinks our society could become like the one Huxley imagined.
Modern companies and governments can use technology to predict what we want and bring it to us. "Soon," Harari writes, people in power will "know what each of us is thinking and feeling in every moment. They will know us better than we know ourselves."
The leaders of the society portrayed in Brave New World would say this is good. It allows everybody's desires to be satisfied.
Plenty of people in the real world agree with this. Many governments attempt to measure happiness to gauge the success of their policies, for instance.
The economist Richard Easterlin believes that insights into wellbeing could lead to a transformation of the human condition. He calls this "the happiness revolution".
But the hero of Huxley's novel, a rebel against the peaceful and orderly society he inhabits, has different ideas. "I don't want comfort," he says. "I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin."
Is it silly to worship happiness?
Yes: Truth, love, great art and profound insights: these are the things that really matter, and pursuing them is often painful and hard. A life of senseless contentment is hardly a life at all.
No: Ultimately, everything we do is in pursuit of pleasure and contentment. Happiness for all should be our guiding principle in politics and personal life.
Or... There are many varieties of happiness, and perhaps the most precious of them do not come from fulfilling our basic impulses and desires. We should spend less time trying to optimise happiness and more time thinking about what it really means.