Societal evolution and fit with human nature

Ruut Veenhoven
Social Indicators Research (2010) 97: 105-122
Special Issue on ‘Dynamics of happiness across time and space’ Hilke Brockman and Jan Delhey (Eds.) DOI : 10.1007/s11205-009-9556-0

Human society has changed much over the last centuries and this process of 'modernization' has profoundly affected the lives of individuals; currently we live quite different lives from those forefathers lived only five generations ago. There is difference of opinion as to whether we live better now than before and consequently there is also disagreement as to whether we should continue modernizing or rather try to slow the process down.
Quality-of-life in a society can be measured by how long and happy its inhabitants live. Using these indicators I assess whether societal modernization has made life better or worse. Firstly I examine findings of present day survey research. I start with a cross-sectional analysis of 143 nations in the years 2000-2008 and find that people live longer and happier in today's most modern societies. Secondly I examine trends in modern nations over the last decade and find that happiness and longevity have increased in most cases. Thirdly I consider the long-term and review findings from historical anthropology, which show that we lived better in the early hunter-gatherer society than in the later agrarian society.
Together these data suggest that societal evolution has worked out differently for the quality of human life, first negatively, in the change from a hunter-gatherer existence to agriculture, and next positively, in the more recent transformation from an agrarian to an industrial society. We live now longer and happier than ever before.

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