The best possible time
No matter what anyone says, you are living in the best possible time. Statistically, you can expect to live longer than ever, with less chance of dying from many causes that once took high percentages of the population’s lives every year. When compared to 1970, your chances of dying in a car accident have more than halved, and the chances of you having a heart attack before the age of 65 have fallen by 51%.
The life expectancy back in 1950 was 68 for a child born in the UK, and now you can expect to see the age of 81. Finally, the average American family income back in 1985 was around $53,000 in today’s money, whereas now it is closer to $63,000.
I don’t think I need to go any further back than the 1950s to make this point clear, as everyone knows that the quality of life is exponentially better than it was before the two World Wars.
This is no accident. Life has gotten steadily better since the beginning of civilisation, as technology and cultures have advanced and people have generally led better lives. Before I go any further, I should state that I am not saying we are or should be any happier than those that came before us, as that is a completely different argument.
All I am saying is that you are likely to have a much better quality of life than your parents and grandparents, thanks to the time in which you were born. So, why is the world not a comparatively better place?
Even with all of the advanced technologies that allow us to instantly connect with loved ones halfway across the world, learn almost anything for free and access more information than anyone alive before the 1980s could ever imagine, we are still facing record levels of starvation, a declining amount of economic growth and a planet that is slowly being killed by the way we live our lives.
We are working against our instincts
The simple reason behind this dilemma is that evolution is working against us. When we were still foraging for berries and running away from bears, all we had to do was survive. If you eat, you survive. If you don’t die, you survive. Those were the two rules you had to follow if you wanted your genetic line to continue.
Obviously, early humans didn’t “want” much of anything. Instead, they only did what their instincts told them, and that was to eat and not die.
Fast forward a few hundred thousand years and you find that surviving just is not enough — you need to thrive.
Obviously, we still need to eat, sleep and do our best not to get eaten by things much bigger than us, but our biggest problems are ones that would never have been known to our ancient ancestors.
We need to be able to find a place to live, and just building one out of sticks and leaves won’t cut it anymore. You need a mortgage, a car to get around in, and then you have to make sure that your family has clothes to keep them warm. This may sound primitive in itself, but it serves more than just a purpose of survival.
Your clothes don’t just have to keep you warm; they need to look good so that you can fit in with your friends. Your house needs to be big enough for you to move around in and cook, clean and socialise. You need a car that can get you to and from work so that you can earn the money you need to afford all of these things.
Finding a mate no longer just requires sheer strength and the ability to catch something for lunch, you need to be able to help provide the ideal lifestyle for your family, and you must work together to raise kids that are socially accepted and want to go out and make something of themselves.
We must aim higher
Herein lies the problem — evolution tells you that all you need to do is eat and survive, but society tells you that you need to achieve things and thrive.
I believe this to be a good thing, as it means you are able to make your life and the lives of your loved ones better, while also helping society grow as a whole. Your job helps to bring in money for your employer, which allows them to employ other people and help improve even more people’s lives.
That is a big generalisation, but essentially you need to do well in order to get the life you want. This requires effort, and it is effort to do things that you might not otherwise need to do. Obviously, money is the basic motivation here, but you don’t need to be a greedy monopolist to want to provide a good life for your children. This idea of “I need to do well for my own sake and or the well-being of my family” is the vital component of this story.
That is because it is in direct contradiction with what your very basic primal instincts are telling you — “I need to eat and survive, while expending as little energy as possible”.
Food is no longer scarce (for most people) and you do not have the threat of bigger animals coming into your home and eating your family (again, most of us don’t). Yet still, your instincts tell you to just do as little as possible while keeping a roof above your head and putting food on the table.
Evolution is inhibiting our growth
Evolution is working against the idea of progress. All it tells your body to do is to keep the genetic line going, and to work to keep the species alive. What you actually need to do is help to make the world a better place on both a local and global scale.
The modern generations are criticised for being lazy and spending too much time watching TV and not enough time working to earn a good living. But how can you blame anyone for doing this, when all their body wants them to do is eat and survive?
We need to break through this barrier of our deepest motivation, described by Maslow in A Theory of Human Motivation. The idea that we must first satisfy our basic physiological needs (through eating and sleeping etc) before we can pursue our various aspirations and goals still holds true of course. However, we must realise that, although this is at the bottom of our hierarchy of needs, we cannot succumb to staying at the bottom of the pyramid.
Sure, some people can live a perfectly happy life making a below average salary, living in a tiny house and contributing to society in the small way that they can be bothered, but most people have their eyes set on being able to go on holiday as many times a year as they go to work, while also giving their kids a better start than they got themselves.
This requires effort. And in order to put this effort in, we need to forget about our instincts that tell us to just go back to bed and conserve energy until our next meal. Our next meal is now whenever we want it. We are only likely to die prematurely through very unfortunate — or downright stupid — circumstances.
The danger of getting too comfortable
This brings us back to the ideas from the first paragraphs. This is why we are still in a struggling world. This is why we are fighting to save the planet’s rainforests, as we can’t be bothered to find alternative ways to build, create and power everything around us.
Yes, things are getting better. But the improvements are much smaller than they could be, and they come around much less frequently than they should. The reason for this is that too many people are stuck in the same evolutionary cycles that the very first humans had to go through. We need to change the perception of evolution, even if we cannot change the actual mechanisms that make it work.
When we lived in caves and had to forage for food, our instincts told us that all we had to do was survive. Then, as civilisations were born, we realised that it helps to learn as much as possible, and to build things in order to make our lives better. We got comfortable.
Then, rulers and those with authority started to berate those who were not good enough, and those seen as peasants were regularly left to die or even killed because they were deemed to be worth less than everyone else. This caused us to strive for greatness, as it was only through achieving great things that you could guarantee your survival and progress the society around you.
Finally, we realised that it was wrong to kill people for being different and not as good as everyone else, and we got comfortable yet again. We now know that if we want to get by, we just need to get a job, start a family and live a normal life. But this doesn’t promote growth.
Surviving is no longer enough
We need to convince everyone that they do not simply have to eat, sleep and survive. We need to shout it from the rooftops that instead you need to achieve, grow and thrive. This is the only way that society can reach the goals that it sets itself.
Although we try to teach kids in schools that it is better to be good at things than bad, it seems to end there. We are not encouraged to be better than good, and the best you can do is get 100% in a test or exam. That is the limit of growth for kids at school. Sure, they can then go onto university, but they will just be faced with more tests with more limits.
Children and young adults need to be encouraged to go beyond the classroom, beyond the exams and to find out as much as they possibly can about everything around them. Their interests need to be sparked to show them that there is so much more to be learned that could help to advance civilisation much further than simply getting good grades and landing a decent office job.
There are many people out there that are not simply couch potatoes but are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, we need people to work in the lower ranks to keep society going. And of course, we need those at the top that seem to do very little but keep everything under control.
The problem tends to lie with those in the middle. Younger people that do not see the opportunities that are in front of them every single day. Most people have a rectangle in their pocket that weighs less than a bottle of water that can give them the answer to almost any question they could ever ask.
And yet, most young people don’t know how taxes work. The average university student is just an average university student, learning one skill really well to ensure they survive in the big bad world in a few years’ time. Most have no idea of the opportunities that lie in front of them if they just decide to try harder and learn something new.
Learning can only ever be a good thing, as it is a prerequisite for personal, societal and economic growth. Yet evolution prevents this from being as instinctual as grabbing an extra bar of chocolate and lying down on the couch for a few more hours, watching reruns of old sitcoms.
Fixing the problem
The problem is not laziness, it is the fact that evolution is working against us. We don’t have the power to change evolution, and I don’t think many out there would want to even if they could.
What we do have the power to do is to change our attitude towards survival and realise that it is no longer enough for our species and our communities to continue to grow. We need to inform those that deem themselves to be lazy, or are labelled lazy by those around them, that it is not entirely their own fault.
We need them to realise that they are hardwired to save energy. However, we also need to tell them that although this is the case, our society relies on them spending more energy to grow.
If we truly want to make the world a better place, we have to drill it into everyone’s heads that survival is not enough, and that we need to go a few steps beyond just eating and not dying.