On every aspect we can examine, life is better today than it ever was: We have more food than ever, even too much; we have better health care; we live longer; and we have freedom of speech, at least compared to a hundred years ago or earlier. Technology has given us abundance; we can comfortably travel anywhere we want within hours, and at a ridiculous price; we can communicate with any person on the globe within seconds as if they stood right next to us, and modern medicine is performing miracles (even Covid-19 is nothing compared to plagues that killed tens of millions only a century ago). It seems as though people should have been happier than ever. Surprisingly, today we are more depressed than ever. If we look into this enigma, we will find something fascinating: Not only our lives have changed, but also our goals. We used to want to survive; now we want to enjoy ourselves and be happy. Technology is built to make life easy, but it cannot make us happy. To be happy, we need loving people, not advanced technology.
In fact, the more technology improves makes our lives easier, the more it points us toward asking about the purpose of life. If we do not need to struggle for survival, then why do we need to lift a finger? And if we do not need to lift a finger, then are we really alive? Although still mostly in our subconscious, these questions are increasingly troubling us and spoil the party we should have been having. The sooner we shed light on these questions, the sooner we will be able to resolve them and find true happiness.
As long as all we wanted was to survive, we didn’t know what happiness was. At best, if we secured our survival, we were content. But contentment isn’t happiness. Happiness comes from heart-to-heart connection with other people, when we feel them as though they were a part of us, and they feel the same way toward us. It is not merely mutual responsibility on the physical level, but a merging of minds and hearts among all people, a state we can achieve only if we truly care about each other, love each other as ourselves, or as our sages put it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” very literally.
For this to happen, we first have to acknowledge that our current state of mind is the complete opposite: We are strangers to each other, hostile and distrustful. We’ve moved from wanting to survive to wanting to enjoy, but how can we enjoy life if we cannot trust that people around us don’t want to harm us? It keeps us constantly on edge, vigilant, and stressed. To enjoy life, we first have to be certain that the people around us want our best. In other words, we have to become good to one another, caring. And it must encompass all of us. If one person in society seeks to harm others, it will force all the others to become wary and hostile.
There are two ways we can become good to one another: 1) by realizing that we have no other choice and changing against our will, or 2) by realizing that this is our best option, our preferred way of life, and actively pursue this transformation in our lives.
Currently, we are treading the first path, desperately trying to find routes of enjoyment that do not require caring about others. This is not working. As a result, we are growing increasingly frustrated and seek all kinds of escape from the pain through drugs, violence, extremism, and depression—the most common ailment of our generation. We can keep treading this path until we feel that we have exhausted all the options, which might take decades of unimaginable suffering. Alternatively, we can give the other path a chance right now, and see how it works.
If we try the other path and commit to fostering positive connections, we will find what we are truly looking for: happiness. No one can feel sad while surrounded with loving people. Moreover, when we start nurturing positive connections, everything we do begins to make sense, since we are doing it to help others and connect with them. When we work for others’ sake, we inevitably infuse meaning into our actions. No one who has ever done something for another person asked about the reason or the purpose of the act. The purpose is self-evident and the reward is tremendous.
Moreover, when we, as a society, engage in building positive connections, material existence will not only become effortless, but it will also become enjoyable and meaningful. We will know why we do what we do, how it helps us, and how it helps the world. We will enjoy being good to one another and find that it is far more rewarding than cold and ruinous competition. In the process, we will come to feel each other’s needs, connect in our hearts, and not only in our bodies, and our joy will grow inconceivably more powerful and meaningful.
In the end, we will learn to be good to one another, as this is the only way we can thrive. But how we learn it depends on us.
[Mary Umetsu, left, and family friend Carol Cunningham, right, embrace each other as Cunningham becomes emotional outside Umetsu’s damaged home the day after a string of tornadoes caused several fatalities in Ohatchee, Alabama, U.S., March 26, 2021. REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage]