One of the precepts of Buddhism is that by its nature, life involves suffering. (Another context of the original terminology means unfulfillment.) There’s something to that, but it only tells part of the story. Life sucks, and life is awesome—it all depends on which specific moment of it is being considered.
A satellite falls out of orbit and totals your new car—that sucks! Your greatest rival at the office moves to Outer Mongolia, and you get the big promotion—that’s awesome! So really, life is a random grab bag containing both good and bad. That goes back to the concept of the world as a wheel of fortune, which sounded a lot cooler before the goofy game show ruined the phrase.
The thing is, we’d take the good things in life for granted if not for the bad things. For example, we wouldn’t appreciate light if not for darkness. As the proverb goes, hunger is the best sauce. If I haven’t had a nasty cold in ages, I worry that I might get too complacent about good health. This is a point going back again to Eastern philosophy, as well as the Stoic tradition which developed quite similar concepts independently.
Behavioral science weighs in
John B. Calhoun’s “Mouse Utopia” experiment warns of what could happen when life is too easy. He created a large pen called “Universe 25” and introduced eight mice into it (four male, four female). The big rodent housing project had room for nearly 4,000 mice, with food and water capacity far exceeding that. The mice got clean litter and fresh air, and were protected from predators and disease. With nobody moving their cheese, these mice had it made—or did they?
Much like so many utopian schemes devised by meddlesome social engineers, the mouse pen became a catastrophe. In the beginning, there was a population explosion. However, the rate of increase slowed after nearly a year. The population eventually peaked at 2,200 mice, still well within capacity. After day 600, no more mice were born. Meanwhile, their culture was degenerating. Here’s what happened:
Among the aberrations in behavior were the following: expulsion of young before weaning was complete, wounding of young, increase in homosexual behavior, inability of dominant males to maintain the defense of their territory and females, aggressive behavior of females, passivity of non-dominant males with increased attacks on each other which were not defended against. After day 600, the social breakdown continued and the population declined toward extinction. During this period females ceased to reproduce.
Does any of that sound familiar?
Their male counterparts withdrew completely, never engaging in courtship or fighting. They ate, drank, slept, and groomed themselves—all solitary pursuits. Sleek, healthy coats and an absence of scars characterized these males. They were dubbed “the beautiful ones.” Breeding never resumed and behavior patterns were permanently changed.
Surprisingly, the study doesn’t mention these mice being absorbed in video games and porn. Calhoun described this rodent version of cultural collapse as a “behavioral sink”. He kept repeating the experiment, changing some variables (such as rationing food), but couldn’t find a way to prevent irreversible decline.
Likely overcrowding disturbed their behavioral customs irreversibly; the comparison with densely-populated urban environments often has been made. However, they didn’t reacquire normal behavior after the population dwindled, or even acculturate when some were removed and placed with normal mice. I speculate that boredom could’ve contributed to terminal malaise; even these little creatures with a brain the size of a kidney bean need adventure and challenge in their lives.
What this could be doing to people
On a broader scale, some negative changes eventually occur for domesticated species. When they no longer must hunt for food and defend against predators, natural selection stops working. Without chlorine in the gene pool, evolution goes into reverse gear. Among several effects, researchers have noted that their intelligence declines and sexuality becomes disrupted (like same-sex mounting and mating outside their breed). The most alarming aspect is that modern ease of living might be doing this to the human population, though that—among other aspects of dysgenic degeneration—is a topic worthy of its own consideration.
In the Current Year, many are taken up with idle pursuits. Goofing off occasionally isn’t so bad, unless it’s taken to excess. Still, why are so many emotionally wrapped up in whether their sportsball team wins or loses? Comics, fantasy, and science fiction are fine for entertainment, but why do some people make that a religion? I could say quite a few things about people who pierce up their faces or get tattooed like a Yakuza hit man. We’re in the most libertine time since the decadent phase of the Roman Empire (at least), but meaningless sex is not making us fulfilled. Cheap escapes like marijuana and (considerably worse) hard drugs are quite popular, although their drawbacks are common knowledge.
Are these just weird trends, or is there more to it? Some of this is indeed by design. Still, perhaps cultures where concerns of immediate survival are distant are at risk of people lacking meaning in their lives. The phrase “First World problems” speaks volumes. It’s also no coincidence that the world’s most wealthy and powerful are among the most decadent.
Should we seek the easy life?
Someone I once worked for—who we affectionately called Satan—said the American Dream was putting your feet up on the desk while the money rolls in all on its own. I hate to admit it, but Satan had a point. I’d only add that “something for nothing” mentality isn’t only an American affliction.
Many dream of winning the lottery. (Those who are bad at math consider it an investment strategy.) Yet the question must be asked—for what purpose? If the answer is to be free to watch TV and play video games all day, I’ll suggest that there are better things to do! Sure, work sucks, but the daily grind has an upside. Other than paying our bills, individual efforts help to advance the economy forward.
In ancient Greece, it was believed that an aristocracy that didn’t need to work is advantageous, since they’d be free—“eleutheros”—to pursue intellectual efforts like philosophy. (Today, there are plenty of unemployed philosophy graduates, but is this a great achievement?) Some old-school socialists looked forward to the day when work hours could be reduced, envisioning that the common people would have more time to create and enjoy cultural works. We have the 40-hour work week now, but sportsball seems to be more popular than attending symphonies or painting pictures.
The planet Earth and much of the inhabited universe have been unified under a mysterious, omnipotent, but benevolent “Federation,” and there seem to be no wars, no political or social conflicts, and no wants in this warp-speed utopia unified by Global Democratic Capitalism gone galactic. Indeed, what else does the human race in the Star Trek cosmos have to do but stick its nose into the affairs of other species? They can zip about the galaxy at velocities faster than light and “beam” themselves from one place to another instantaneously, and there never seems to be any question of food, clothing, money, disease, aging, or even of career advancement in this placid paradise.
Starfleet crews apparently have the only exciting jobs left. The shows don’t describe the daily lifestyles of Federation civilians too thoroughly, but it must be dreadfully boring if everyone can get everything they need by pushing a button.
In the final analysis
Ultimately, we shouldn’t desire the life of maximum ease, but the life well lived. The “Golden Mean” rule applies to struggle in our lives. Too much makes life dreary and grim, but too little makes it boring. The point of the Epic of Gilgamesh is that how long you live isn’t what counts, but how well you live your life. The message from the world’s oldest book is still quite relevant, thousands of years later.