3.6 Quality of Life: Simplicity, Comfort versus Pain, and Meaning in Life
last revised/edited 6/2018
3.6.1 Changes in recent centuries
3.6.2 Technological progress
3.6.3 Responses to physical pain and discomfort
3.6.4 Healthy Developments
3.6.5 Meaning in life
There is a paradox of civilizations having recently made incredible progress: lives are much more comfortable and safer than in the past, yet extremely poor people of the Third World appear sometimes happier than modern Westerners. It appears that, in the past, people did not mind much what we consider primitive and very uncomfortable, and they accepted emotionally and physically extremely painful lives. People may have mostly derived a sense of meaning in life from having a partner and children, having a natural environment they considered their homeland, being part of a clan and extended family and participating in traditional-religious practices.
It appears that modern people have much more problems finding meaning in life and people seem very bothered by conflicts that our ancestors hardly recognized. People are frequently anxious about wanting to be in decision-making, powerful positions but also worrying about any decision.
Meaning in life may be derived from social contacts, art, ethical acts, scientific pursuits, meditative exercises, participating in cultural practices, etc. However, modern civilizations are not conducive towards good social networks and people tend to live unhealthy lives. Perceiving physical discomfort and pains has often been aggravated by the ways people live today. There is some research on good practices and in some countries, particularly in Europe, efforts are made to improve institutions in order to foster physically and emotionally healthy living, and to study data on progress.
A sense of happiness is closely connected with a perception of meaning in life. Psychologists who focus on happiness research recognize again old wisdoms. Examples include people benefit from being generous and grateful, fostering contacts, spending resources more on experiences than material goods, etc. Body language of acting as if happy and benevolent positively influences the person’s mood and frame of mind. People may benefit most from setting a goal of acting simply and saintly: compassionate, giving and forgiving, not judging, not disagreeable when suffering, etc.
3.6.1 Changes in recent centuries
Concerning the perception of quality of life, there have been major shifts in recent centuries.
Evolution led higher animals to learn skills and refine the expression of instincts by observing and imitating their parents rather than trying to be inventive; and young males mainly try to rise in rank by doing more of what their father did, or by doing it better. Physical discomforts, tolerating heat, cold, starvation and untreated illnesses, were rarely considered to interfere with life being desirable and meaningful. When feeling bad about their situation, rather than thinking of principal changes, people thought they could learn from a better past; they sought help from wise ancestors and their legends and myths, or they may have engaged healers and sorcerers who may have used herbs and hypnotic approaches but otherwise relied on superstitions and religious rituals.
Biologically, humans are docile, easily enslaved animals. This characteristic was ruthlessly exploited in all ‘high cultures.’ Until recently, people of low rank compared themselves almost exclusively with individuals of their own sex and class or cast; they rarely rebelled against being exploited; thy did not envision a possibility of moving into a higher class, except in fairytale fantasies of girls waiting for a prince, but the fairytales never describe what happens to her after a prince picks her up. And girls hardly thought that being a boy, being able to do what boys do, would be preferable.
The cultural evolution of 15th-16th century Europe brought the printing press: people started reading about things they hardly thought of in the past, about cultures very different from their own, about the lives of people of another class and of the other sex, about experiences and findings of explorers and scientists, etc. Scientists and artisans started to develop technologies that spread much more rapidly than previously and, more importantly, they created an understanding that improvements can make cultures wealthier without taking anything away from neighbors. Physical quality of life may have improved for many, though exploitation continued to be widespread, and physicians often greatly worsened sick people’s suffering by using extremely painful approaches that were either very risky or worthless.
In recent centuries, people started to perceive their physical misery as interfering with a perception of life being good and meaningful. The relatively very comfortable lives of modern Westerners have become fraught with anxieties and depression. One factor is that people generally have significant difficulties accepting conflicts about their past and present fate and when having to make decisions, most people fear risks and may prefer an inferior position where they can follow conventions and orders. Tradition, religion and close social ties give Third World people incredible resilience, and an ability to survive extreme suffering, still finding meaning in life and being able to enjoy whatever beauty they can find in a moment.
It appears reasonable that the majority of modern people expect well-functioning secular, democratic governance, relatively equal distribution of resources and universal physical health and psychiatric care. Still, people should accept physical stress as part of a healthy lifestyle, and some unavoidable psychological stress may have indirect benefits. Psychosocial problems may be harder to address. Major institutional changes will be needed.
In traditional societies, inventions seemed coincidental and people soon forgot that it was humans who created the technology. Thus, further developments and additional inventions were usually spread over centuries if not millennia.
People of traditional societies hardly thoughts about life being unjust: girls readily accepted their natural suffering, often anticipating painful traditional practices, having to leave their families and move to a hardly known man’s family, painful sex and many childbirths, taking care of sick children who often died, and, as mothers and wives, having no free time to themselves. Girls hoped to be loved but many husbands hardly loved and abused their wives with impunity. More than anything else, the possibility of having their own family with some surviving children gave meaning to women’s hard lives.
High cultures did not stop horrific cruelties, including extremely painful punishments and tortures to extract information from people. In Western cultures major surgeries became common before anesthesia. These were performed with unsterile instruments; they saved some lives but also cause many patients to die from infections. Pouring boiling oil on wounds was disinfecting but the burns themselves usually became infected.
Traditions were often cruel: uncomfortable clothing with tight corsets, genital mutilations, foot binding, tests of courage with initiations, etc. Military training and wars were about honor and nationalism with little consideration of the hardy justifiable suffering of soldiers and civilians. Even in modern times, expressing ‘femininity’ may include significant pain, for instance in gymnastics and ballet training, painful skin treatments and major plastic surgeries. Some modern governments still consider warfare an alternative to lengthy and difficult negotiations that may have imperfect outcomes.
An often-overlooked form of cruelty of Western cultures was the threat by preachers that many infractions would lead to horrific punishments after death, in purgatory if not never-ending tortures in hell. Somehow people learned to lived double lives, wanting to be good Christians but apparently not paralyzed by fears, not even trying to live saintly and often sinning whenever it appeared opportune. This apparently also applied to clergy who often acted more as politicians than serving the spiritual needs of the people.
3.6.2 Technological progress
It is very hard to assess what living standard people should strive for. Environments and traditional ways of living, loved by some, seem painfully strenuous, physically uncomfortable, or otherwise intolerable to others. There are some genetic adaptations, e.g. natural protection from sunburns and tolerating much refined carbohydrates or salt. However most differences are not genetic. People of all ethnicities can adapt to most environments. Although it is possible for people to be quite happy in very different cultural-environmental settings, many people continuously strive for higher material living standards.
Modern cultures often encourage desires for anything representing higher rank and control of the environment. What the highest-ranking individuals have becomes a standard for the average person. In highly industrialized and rapidly developing Third World countries, there has been almost continuous technological progress that made luxuries become new standards.
As poor people learn about well-to-do Westerners, additional factors in peoples’ desire for higher living standards concern discomfort and/or pain, e.g. due to exertion, cold or heat exposure, lack of comfortable furnishing, exposure to pests, boring or inadequate foods and beverages, foot injuries caused by walking barefoot or in bad shoes and inadequate medical treatment. Other concerns are the likelihood of accidents, and victimization in crimes and wars.
Compared to nomadic gatherer-hunter, herder, and village-based societies, “higher” civilizations are highly stratified. People with little access to goods and services started to feel poor and downtrodden, even if, compared to much poorer societies, they have a decent material standard of living. While many changes around them are taking place, the poor of most societies still live mostly segregated; they have much less access to public institutions, suffer more accidents, and are more victimized by criminals as well as by law enforcement officials. Thinking in less traditional ways, they naturally wish to rise in living standard, or at least that their children will do better.
Much anecdotal data indicates that technologies of modern civilizations where much less successful in increasing the quality of life of people than might be expected. Poor people often assume that a moderate increase in their material possessions would make them happy, while people with more wealth often believe to suffer more stress than the poor. In spite of medical knowledge and availability of treatments, many people feel less healthy, and they are still much concerned with physical discomforts and pain. Even with the availability of psychological and psychiatric treatments, people are much worried, anxious and depressed. Negative aspects of modern life tend to reinforce each other in vicious cycles. Many people appear to worry continuously and perceive little or no meaning in life.
3.6.3 Responses to physical pain and discomfort
In spite of great progress in medical research and technology, pain remains a major factor diminishing people’s functioning and quality of life. Cultural factors contribute to the suffering: people lack in lifestyle integrated meditation and contemplation, adequate physical activity and social interactions. Adaptation to chronic physical illnesses and injuries is rarely supported. There are many distractions from the wholehearted pursuit of small things, leading people to feeling much of the time conflicts, etc.
The main functions of pain are to elicit a quick response that avoids major injuries, e.g. from heat, and to indicate when an injured body part has to be protected. In addition, discomfort also functions to avoid overstretching of ligaments and tendons, to prevent or stop overexertion and particularly to restrain activities when severely ill,
Naturally, pain from injuries first decreases very rapidly, then at a slower rate1. Like other continuous or repetitive stimuli, such as smells or noises, lasting pain is gradually tuned out. Living systems normally down-relegate their response to repeated stimuli with no positive function. The central nervous system can distract from and ignore pain stimuli that pain receptors send, learn to compensate for many lost functions, etc. However, psychological factors often interfere with this process, including secondary gain in form of special attention or financial rewards, a conviction that unavailable treatment is required to diminish the pain, or a belief that pain is a by God assigned punishment.
The tuning down and tuning out of stimuli applies also to intermittent pain. As people learn to essentially ignore bad smells at specific places, people also learn to decrease the perception of pain from very spicy food bathing in ice-cold water, hair removal or tattooing. Over time decreasing pain from tooth decay, arthritis, and age related back injuries are other examples.
Focused activity decreases pain, diversions distract from pain, and many factors contribute to a high pain tolerance, for instance a healthy, physically active lifestyle, and/or a sense of meaning in the painful process. Stress (‘fight or flight’) reactions, with a strong focus on survival, can lead to a dissociative state with complete anesthesia. Fear of pain, focusing on pain, depression, and tiredness may intensify the perception of pain; earlier life experiences may increase pain tolerance, possibly by way of activating or ”priming” the endorphin system2. Hypnotic and self-hypnotic techniques are helpful in dealing with discomfort and raising pain tolerance as well as with improving mood, attitude, and lifestyle. In spite of great progress in medical research and technology, pain remains a major factor diminishing people’s functioning and quality of life. Cultural factors contribute to the suffering: people lack in lifestyle integrated meditation and contemplation, social interactions, and adequate physical activity. Adaptation to chronic physical illnesses and injuries is not supported. There are many distractions from the wholehearted pursuit of small things, etc.
3.6.4 Healthy Developments
Healthy children who are attached to their families adapt to heat, cold, dangers, strenuous activities, and occasional minor injuries, when positively challenged to follow and imitate older family members, and when developing pride in doing meaningful work in their family and community. Stressing children’s bodies with exposure to hot, cold, humid and dry weather, activities that include strenuous exercise, etc. is probably not only physically healthy but may be important for the development of the brain. Cooperation and some competitiveness add to a positive focus and meaning. Good parents protect their children from major dangers and pain but allow and encourage them to challenge themselves.
Rapidly developing Third World countries and the USA do rather poorly. Some highly developed countries make efforts to address many issues related to physical and emotional health of families. Collected data and experiences may help guide governments worldwide.
Healthy adults and children who live in the comfort of highly industrialized countries may challenge themselves and learn to endure temporary deprivation, strenuous activities, heat and/or cold by participating in sports and outings in nature. In pathological developments, youngsters and young adults may choose painful self-injurious behaviors, tattooing and piercings, probably in part to temporarily forget painful memories and conflicts and to display their ability to voluntarily tolerate pain. They may also seek opportunities for physical fights, engage in dangerous activities, and/or they may voluntarily join the armed forces. Men are more likely to actively pursue dangerous practices, women risk more by going along with men’s pursuits and in intimate relations.
Mature adults have a relatively relaxed attitude towards unavoidable and unpredictable deprivations and pain. Pain and deprivation usually does not deter people from what they perceive as valuable and meaningful.
3.6.5 Meaning in life, happiness research
Meaning in life is derived from attachments, regular social interactions, humor, beauty in nature and arts, frequent feeling of serenity and peace, ethical thoughts and behaviors, scientific pursuits, specific aspects of the individual’s culture, such as traditional and religious rituals, etc. Meaning in life is very important in people’s quality of life, and it increases health, tolerance of physical discomfort and resilience. Social interactions are largely shaped by cultures. Modern civilizations often interfere with the formation of supportive communities. Creating loving attachments and nurturing relationships outside nuclear families is often difficult. Institutional changes may address this problem by creating small, strong, interacting communities.
Striving for a high material living standard appears associated with low self-esteem but it is also part of modern culture; generally it distracts from other aspects of culture and may interfere with human relationships and meaning in life. Ethics may guide wealthy and middle-class people towards voluntary simplicity and a materially lower but ecologically sound standard of living. People may learn about more modest living through camping experiences or adapting temporarily to the life in a Third World country. They may maintain some of that culture’s practices, and they may reintroduce some practices of previous generations. For good quality of life, people have to deal effectively with conflicts, accepting what cannot be changed and what is unknown; they are then free to enjoy humor and beauty, and they may enjoy healthier interactions, healthier lifestyles, higher tolerance of physical discomfort and deprivations, and enhanced sense of meaning in life.
Happiness research data is valuable. It teaches that people may improve a sense of meaning in life by consciously focusing on gratitude and generosity, thinking about and contacting former friends and acquaintances, remembering good times, anticipating good things that may reasonably be expected, etc. Material wealth is hardly associated with happiness if basic needs are well fulfilled. Forgiving oneself is important. Giving usually leads to more and longer lasting improvements in happiness than receiving, and beautiful and interesting experiences are more beneficial than accumulating material goods. Efforts to express benevolence and happiness in body language improves frame of mind.
A general goal of acting saintly is meaningful: giving and forgiving, living simply and with compassion, tolerating discomfort without being disagreeable, frequently meditating, as much as possible being nonjudgmental, etc.
Lasting conflicts and high anxiety following earlier abuse and trauma may be addressed by looking at how the trauma was accidental; one has become an accidental victim of a deeply disturbed person. Abusers usually had a disturbed life, suffer and are hardly able to form healthy and fulfilling relationships. It may be relieving to know that many others experienced a similar trauma and that humans are naturally very resilient. Psychotherapeutic approaches may be needed. Most previously victimized persons have the capacity to utilize abuse experiences to gain special strengths. Many victims are able to forgive and they may feel that the trauma has been important in their personal development.
1 There are physiological mechanisms that sensitize people to pain and may lead to chronic pain. Psychosomatic problems are probably very important in these developments, and psychiatric treatment is generally helpful.
2 In some people, typically survivors of severe early childhood neglect and abuse, and probably in animals, endorphins lead to pain relief and a sense of calm as a response to skin injuries, cramping pains, pain after major injuries, and other forms of repeated and/or lasting pains. In modern humans, endorphins play probably a very minor role in natural pain relief. Contrary to widespread beliefs, endorphins are not needed to feel good. Neurotransmitters and hormones associated with appetitive and instinctive behaviors and neurotransmitters associated with intense physical exercise and with relaxation are much more important in people’s sense of well-being.
The rapid pain relief by endorphins appears adaptive, particularly since severe pain may interfere with needed tasks and intense, lasting pain leaves an animal disabled. The following is a possible evolutionary explanation for the loss of the endorphin function in modern humans. In many stone age cultures, people mutilated members of their society in very dangerous ways, even cutting bone pieces out of skull, often survived and sometimes done repeatedly on the same individual. Serious soft tissue mutilations were probably common but could rarely be documented by anthropological findings. Scarifications and mutilations, which often lead to lethal infections, are still practiced in old cultures. Until recently, stone tools were commonly used for ritual mutilations, even if metals were known–the use of stone tools indicates that these are extremely ancient traditions. Mutilations had probably multiple functions but also served cultures to distinguish themselves from other tribes (pseudospeciation). While a functioning endorphin system would hardly block the acute injury pain during such crude surgeries, immediately after a fresh injury, between cuts, endorphin would greatly decrease the pain and possibly lead to a relaxed, good feeling; relief of acute pain may occur if there is extreme excitement about the event. The loss of an effective endorphin function may have had an evolutionary advantage by leading to a significant decrease in these often lethal surgeries.