In the 300,000-year history of Homo sapiens, we’ve done a tremendous job of protecting ourselves from external forces that cause us suffering. We’ve invented shelter, clothing, fire, agriculture, capitalism, human rights. But in those moments when we are not suffering, are we any more satisfied today than we were 70,000 years ago? Indeed, are we less satisfied? That’s the question I was left with after reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. And it’s a question that resurfaces frequently in my work in global development, a field that has done much to relieve suffering, but little to improve our lives when we are not actively suffering.

Why does life remain difficult even when we tame the external forces that once caused us suffering? I signed up for a three-day conference organized by the School of Life to give it a think. Here’s what I learned during the first half of the first day:

Why is life hard? We discount the importance of what we call “first world problems,” such as:

  • We feel anxious
  • We are often lonely
  • Relationships are difficult
  • Work lacks meaning
  • We’re disenchanted

We’re embarrassed to take these problems seriously when we have so many luxuries in our lives. We have jobs and smart phones and vacations and cars. But what we call “first world problems” today — the problems of people living in expensive cities like San Francisco and London — will be everyone’s problems in 250 years if not sooner. Many first world problems are relatively new. Only in the past couple hundred years did we start to marry for love. Only in the past 100 years did we expect our work to give our lives meaning. And only in the past decade have we faced the onslaught of infinite information, choices, and the curated possibilities of personal identity that cause us anxiety.

We’re not getting any better at dealing with these problems; we may be getting worse. At their root, we fail to recognize our fragility and vulnerability. Technology makes our lives easier, but it won’t make us happier until we develop our emotional intelligence, including kindness. Kindness is the awareness of our own fragility. We must accept the “primal wounds” that developed during our childhood and drive many of our fears, anxieties, and behaviors as adults. Very few of us had an emotionally healthy childhood. And so when we have complaints, we either stay silent or we explode. We don’t know how to sensibly deal with our grievances and fears.

We are fooled by the misconception that to be interesting is to be impressive. And so we try to impress others rather than connect deeply with them. In fact, to be always impressive can be rather boring. Vulnerability and authenticity are what strengthen friendships. We crave not admiration, but to be properly known and fully accepted. Few of us have experienced unconditional love; we worry that we will stop being loved if we don’t continue to impress.

There were about 300 of us sitting in the auditorium of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. One of the session leaders asked each of us to tear out a page from our notebook and write down the thing we’d most like to talk about with someone if we knew they’d listen to us fully and patiently without judgement. Those anonymous scraps of paper were then collected in bowls, brought up to the stage and read out loud. “I’m worried that I will never find love, that I’m incapable of being loved.” “I cheated on my husband and he doesn’t know.” “I’m HIV+.” The exercise transformed the energy of the auditorium. There’s so much about living that we’d like to discuss with others, but we fear their judgement or lack of attention.

Next post: Conversations are Hard.

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