Dec 4, 2012

Posted by in Essays | 0 Comments


It is a truism that each new generation enjoys a better quality of life than our predecessors. This optimism is centred on the notion that progress underpins society’s on-going development. The consensus seems to be that if we are growing, things must be improving. This view is shared by most people though committed environmentalists do have deep reservations about it and a small coterie of die-hard traditionalists just like things the way they were. Certainly, there’s no shortage of evidence to suggest we enjoy many advantages that our forebears did not – and that we should be grateful for them!


If we take even a cursory glance at life a century ago, most of us would find it enormously difficult to go back to the quality of life they had then. Just to get hearts beating faster let’s mention the generally accepted tenet that ‘the wife shall be subject to the husband’. This was peddled in religious tracts primarily but there was not much argument about it – in public at least! How attitudes have changed. And who could argue that while true gender equality remains a major challenge, the gains that have been made are positive and valuable.


In the past century we have accomplished space travel. What an extraordinary achievement and one that, perhaps better than anything, signals what might yet lie ahead. Even so, the initial excitement that galvanised the world has dissipated and while some momentous achievements are still happening the space program is now characterised by a dearth of vision, agreed objectives and real commitment. It looks as though it will be a few generations yet before meaningful travel into that vast new frontier becomes a viable option.


We can also be enormously grateful for the advances in medicine. Millions of lives are saved each year that would have been lost a century ago. How come, then, that epidemics – and pandemics – such as SARS and Swine Flu still plague us? Transport is another field that has been truly transformed. Air travel has shrunk our globe to an extent inconceivable four or five generations ago. It has also enabled terrorists to symbolise their conflict with the rest of us by the tragedy of 9/11. The motor vehicle has given us freedom that our predecessors could barely have dreamed of yet road accidents contribute death, injury and torment to an extent that would have matched the horrors of a small-scale war. Think that’s an exaggeration? Well, we lose more lives each year in road smashes in Australia than were lost in all our ten years’ involvement in the Vietnam War. Since fatalities began to be recorded in 1925, we have lost more lives in road accidents than the number of soldiers and civilians killed in all four of the great wars in which we participated (World War I, II, Korea and Vietnam). In fact, the road deaths outstrip war fatalities by nearly two-to-one. But most of us compartmentalise the reality and pretend it cannot happen to us.


Nutrition is another area in which we have progressed in leaps and bounds. Sadly, famine has not yet been eradicated but first world countries now have an array of eating options that would bewilder anyone born before the turn of the century. How twisted then that the death, injury and torment toll from obesity is probably far greater than that of road accidents and war! But, hey, our quality of life keeps improving, doesn’t it?


Then there’s telecommunications. Hasn’t that been a hoot? All of a sudden, it seemed, we could all be connected. Except now we all huddle in our own electronic cocoons with ear buds isolating us from having to engage with anyone face-to-face.


Then there’s the paperless office that keeps deforesting our world faster than bushfires. Or the leisure society in which everyone is now working 40, 50 or 60 hours a week.


Ah, the price of progress!


More important than the enhanced quality of life we can now enjoy – with extended longevity and enrichment from the global economy – is our mental well-being. Which leads to the fundamental question: are we any happier?


This is an issue that could be debated at length with little likelihood of reaching unanimous agreement. But it is hard to imagine the world today is markedly happier than it was in previous generations. Maybe if we had eliminated poverty, maybe if we had eradicated famine, maybe if terrorism didn’t stalk our world, maybe if we didn’t have a global epidemic of rage . . . maybe, maybe, maybe.


The real point is that there is nothing to be gained by pretending we are happy. Almost all of us would like the world to be indisputably a better place than it was. But it’s not. We need look no further for anecdotal evidence of that than asking parents if they fear for their children given the state of the world they are about to enter. It is well nigh impossible to find parents who are excited and optimistic about conditions their children will experience in the years ahead. Almost all are fearful and that pessimism goes way beyond a healthy concern that our loved ones will hopefully avoid misfortune.


Yet again, if we are looking for evidence that not all is well with our world, we need go no further than drugs. Oh, sure, there have been marvellous advances in prescription potions that prolong life. We just encounter real strife when they are combined in often deadly or diabolical combinations. Not to mention the scourge of illicit drug use. Frankly, if we were so bloody happy, why do so many of us need drugs (including alcohol) to get through the day?


About now, you might be wondering why you haven’t yet slashed your wrists? Never fear, all is not lost. There are good times on the horizon. It’s important, though, to understand and accept that much about our world needs to be changed if we are to achieve real and lasting happiness. Nor are we pursuing the euphoric excitement that accompanies a lottery win or similar good fortune. No, the goal we are after is contentment: the calm inner peace that transforms our view of the world and our place in it.


There is no magic quick fix but the serenity that accompanies contentment can be achieved painlessly and quickly though it does require some considered reflection. Nor is there a one-size-fits-all recipe for contentment. It is unique to each of us and it devolves from our own set of values and how we live by them.


The answers lie within. In fact, they cannot come externally.


Our challenge to achieve contentment is to seriously assess our lives to determine whether, even in some small way, we have made our planet and our society a somewhat better place. Each and every one of our positive contributions returns a dividend of comfort. The sum of them is contentment and it is the greatest reward there is.

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