Some Thoughts on Human Well-Being

Posted by on December 10, 2013 in Featured, Thoughts | 3 comments



Sometimes I try to imagine what I would consider a fair and just world, a world where every person is afforded the most basic of human needs, one where the rights of a person come before ideologies and dogma, one where the basic well-being of a person comes before political banter and rhetoric. Imagine a world where the important things like food, water, shelter, access to medicines, access to education, equality of opportunities, and the right to exist come first, before the endless money-grabbing of corporations and obfuscation of facts by governments for political gain. Imagine, just for a minute, that this is not only possible, but necessary for the survival of humanity.

This world may sound like a utopian dream, but if we stop for a minute to think about what we want as individuals, and what we would like for others, this all becomes quite simple. I propose that we could create this world, but to do this it would take a shift in our consciousness, and some people, namely those who have something to lose, may have trouble relating to what I am proposing.

Firstly, consider this statement: There is, for each of us, a bottom-line, a state where our basic needs are met. This is the lowest acceptable form of well-being. Yet it’s not enough to just supply or allow these basics to be available, since there are so many ways these things become complicated or obscured by the wants of others. There is a way for the well-being of others to not only be available, but to be exceeded, and this is what we need to aim for into the future. There is, in all the possible futures we could create for ourselves, a way for humanity to thrive, and not simply be satisfied with limping on into the future.

The well-being of others is secondary, in most people, to the well-being of ourselves. However this does not mean to say that our well-being does not depend upon the well-being of others, quite the opposite in fact. If we live in a society where each of us is afforded the needs and dignities of a “good life”, then the general populace of that society is bolstered and is more capable to sustain this level of being. Unfortunately for us, we suffer from an incurable “need” for more; More money, more possessions, more objects. This is innate within our species, because once we go beyond the basics, our minds tell us that we need more to save for less abundant times. We crave more because we do encounter times where food and water are scarce, and by setting ourselves up for these leaner times, we effectively create a way to survive them. The problem here arises when times are good all the time, and this is where personal, corporational and governmental greed come into play.

In poorer countries we see again and again the corruption that can arise in governments and religious institutions, where the leaders and spiritual advisers have more, exceedingly more, than the populace, and the people who live in these environments suffer because of their lack of access to the basics in life.

I am sure that most people don’t set out to create misery when gathering wealth. In fact, it is quite apparent that the struggle for more, in those who already have more than they could possibly ever use in a lifetime, is almost an addiction, an illness of in which a lack of perspective on the rest of the world surfaces. What good can come from having gold tapware? What is the actual benefit of owning seventeen cars? It’s not security, it’s just plain greed. This mental state, the greed that masquerades as a need for security, is a plague that infects all cultures at some level, and is something that needs to be addressed at a societal level; Informing those who have the greed infection are not willing hear that it’s a problem, and continue on as though it’s a virtue.

Sam Harris, in his controversial book “The Moral Landscape” says:

“If our well-being depends upon the interaction between events in our brains and events in the world, and there are better and worse ways to secure it, then some cultures will tend to produce lives that are more worth living than others; some political persuasions will be more enlightened than others; and some world views will be mistaken in ways that cause needless human misery.

In this instance Harris is talking of religion, and with particular reference toward Islam. But the same could be said for governments and individuals. The perspective that is missing here is one of empathy at a human level. We stop seeing people as individuals when their numbers amass at a figure as low as twenty people, so how can numbers in the millions be even quantifiable in the mind of someone making decisions about these millions?

What I propose is not socialism in the popular sense, but a redistribution of wealth is needed in order for this to happen. Those top 20 billionaires, the ones that own the media, the mining and the fossil fuels, will die very rich people, and pass their legacy on to their progeny. And so the cycle continues, while the gap between the rich and the poor widens by the day. There is no way these people can possibly use their amassed wealth, but they will never redistribute it either.

Governments have the power to tax the very rich and powerful, but are too scared to do this  because they have actually allowed the corporations to have so much sway on a free-market system that they can actually hold a country or government in an impasse, an unworkable situation where no further progress is possible because of corporations’ refusals to come to the table over emissions trading, free-trade agreements, or any other number of issues that may affect the fiscal workings of the country or countries.

This movement, of discovering and moving toward the base of human well-being cannot come from governments, it cannot come from corporations, and it cannot come from religious institutions, for none of these establishments hold our basic well-being as something to work toward. Governments, corporations and religious institutions simply want our subservience, thereby allowing them to thrive and exist. This movement must come from a groundswell, from a grassroots level within society, which includes each and every one of us.

In 1981, a group of social scientists gathered together to create the World Values Survey. This is described as:

… a global research project that explores people’s values and beliefs, how they change over time and what social and political impact they have. It is carried out by a worldwide network of social scientists who, since 1981, have conducted representative national surveys in almost 100 countries.

Some of the key criteria this survey has identified include:

  • How beliefs play a key economic role in economic development;
  • The levels of gender equality and the effects this has on government;
  • The extent to which various governments are effective within their populace.

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, and I have no idea how seriously the WVS is taken by those in serious study of human well-being,  these criteria are just some of the measures by which we can begin to gauge the success of a society, and the level of well-being within that society. People tend to have a better sense of well-being when they feel they have a certain amount of control over their situations, and societies that value gender equality, democracy, bodily autonomy, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, show a marked improvement in the well-being that the people of this society feel.

I ask you, regardless of your religious, social or political views, what are the most important things to you in your daily life?

Physical safety and security must rank up there somewhere near the top. The well-being of your family and friends would also make a showing. Access to food, water, health, clean air, shelter, all are of paramount importance. When you see someone without this, you feel sorry for them, which just goes to show what a broad foundation our well-being actually inhabits.

We depend upon one another for well-being, and the better the well-being of those around us, the better ours will tend to be.

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One of the things largely overlooked in most visions of a better future is a roadmap of how to get from point A to point B. It's relatively easy to describe a better place for humanity in abstract, but the real challenge is how to drive change from here to there (or even somewhere just a little bit better than here).

Cultures, economies and moods of populations are like an ocean or weather system with a mixture of somewhat predictable and totally unpredictable elements.

Barring revolutionary change, that experience tells us will set us on a path with very unpredicatable results (often worse that the starting point), the only way to affect positive change is by nudging the beast a little at a time. Even in that scenario the results will be unpredictable as we're locked in a feedback system where small changes to one thing can lead to surprises in other places. 

And meanwhile the whole mass of humanity is moving in its own somewhat random path responding changes in its own environment (such as technology, existing societal memes evolving (and new ones being thrown into the pot), the largely unpredictable meanderings of the economy, and our physical environment by way of issues such as climate change, weather, natural disasters and the supply of the resources we rely on).

Every change is like a roll of the dice. A small change is a smaller risk but also likely to have a lesser effect. A large change has a bigger upside and downside risk. Deciding a gambling strategy (do you take lots of little risks or one big one and how much capital you stake on each roll of the dice etc) can be complex even for a gambler at the craps table where the odds are known, but in this scenario it's like gambling when the odds are unknown.

Ultimately, however, regardless of whether we enter the game as a player, it continues, with the dice being thrown and changes happening. If we are not total nihilists, we have a responsibility to try to push things in the right direction, and a collective and coordinated impetus (with coherent and effective memes, if you like) will have more influence that lots of individual ones. But it must be one informed by the understanding that from a given point some paths are more possible than others, and with some sort of map of a plausible progression from A to B.


One reason I've found that such happiness cannot be secured is also one of the reasons why any species has survived for as long as it has: Greed. By securing MORE than what they need an entity ensures adequate supplies in times of drought. Unfortunately much of what is coveted—land, resources, mates, etc.—is finite in number and that is where conflict comes from. In order to survive, someone must lose in order for someone else to win. It is an ugly thought, but one we are stuck with. Sadly evolution never really came up with a way to encourage budgeting or diplomacy.

What can help swing things is change what we value. The resources that exist are plenty for everyone, but we need to ensure they are viewed equitably. For example, energy is seen as a finite resource because we have become so fixated on fossil fuels as the answer: It's cheap and easy to generate energy from such a source. However, we have to be made aware there are plenty of other sources—geothermal, solar, wind, wave, etc.—that may not be as attractive because of the work involved but are as close to limitless as we are going to get. Moreover, such resources do not depend on volatile variables such as location.

We need to value substance over appearance. Hell, more than anything THAT particular challenge needs to be met, and I'm not just talking superficial challenges like looks or talent. Our educational system needs to start pushing questioning, pushing analysis, and not just reinforce the notion that conventional wisdom is the way to go through life because it's easy. By making this change, we can begin to peel ourselves away from the shallow materialistic attitudes that have profited Wall Street and Madison Avenue for far too long.

These are a couple thoughts. I saw you had touched on them earlier, so feel free to ignore this.

Sean Sherman
Sean Sherman

If there were in the world today any large number of people who desired their own happiness more than they desired the unhappiness of others, we could have a paradise in a few years.

-Bertrand Russell


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