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Are scientific inventions making us happier

Paul Hawkens once remarked, "At present we are stealing the future, selling it to the present and calling it GDP". Technological advancement has leapfrogged the purely agrarian society of our antecedents. The offshoots of Industrial Revolution provided leverage in simplifying chores and enhancing production-Edison's bulb outperformed oil lamps, Henry Ford and Wright Brothers made cross-national and cross-cultural trips accessible, washing clothes was made easy by a simple finger-touch and family gatherings transpired into social media. We have made a journey from the Paleolithic Age to the 21st century but the inquisition still keeps burning-are we improving humanity or disrupting it? In the process, by adopting standards of living larger than lives are we creating a happy future, a happier human race?

As Dr. M.S Swaminathan, the Father of Green Revolution in India put in his words, "Technology is neutral to people. It depends whether the technology is relevant". Any contribution in this field can have its own pros and cons depending upon the applicability of the same. There is no denying the fact that scientific innovations are in themselves manifestations of the seamless evolution of humans, be it social, economical, political or psychological. They may, prima facie seem to pave a road for progression. To state a few of them, innovations in the field of medicine decreased the infant mortality rate and provided life security against some diseases that were earlier considered to be incurable; techniques of cold storage helped store oodles of grain that would go down the drain otherwise; biotechnology and the fertilizer industry helped in improving the yield per hectare; and meteorological predictions and timely security alerts have saved hundreds of lives from natural hazards.

However, physical science bifurcates the world into two halves. One half is that which aids the swinging motion of the delivery mechanism in their favour or the so-called "haves" while the other half is composed of those who resist it, the "have-nots". The result being that a constant tug of war exists between the two. If we lend a glance to the top 50 inventions of the past 50 years, we shall find only a handful of them finding utility in our daily lives like cellphones, remote control, air conditioner, laptop, robots, automobiles, so on and so forth. But the prime query is, for whom and to what extent? Answering to the first question, it is a luxury of those who can afford it but for the others it leaves a sense of desirability, a sense of sorrow. We shall later come to the problem of "to what extent". The higher order scientific advancements in medicine, defence, space, etc have an extremely low level of direct infiltration within the lower echelons of society.

The next question which arises is, is there a mechanism to evaluate our current index of happiness with those of our ancestors? To begin with, happiness cannot be absolute; it is a relative human emotion. Its qualitative as well as quantitative assessment is more often done on a comparative basis. The work of Nobel laureate, Daniel Kanheman in his "Prospect Theroy" using heuristics and biases is particularly helpful in this field. While evaluating the indices of life satisfaction of co-equal (coming from same sections of society) students living in Midwest and in California he found the former yielding an upper hand to the latter simply because they regarded their California peers to be better equipped. Kanheman terms this as "focusing illusion".

This behavior earmarks not just students but each and everyone of us. So now comes the question, to what extent? Happiness is momentary for most of us which lends it the mystique trait. We tend to aggravate our sorrows by focusing on "our" deprivations, fear, dissatisfaction and past experiences. Consequently, the "illusion" inserts its democles sword straight into our faces making us feel deprived. Abraham Maslow in his 'Need Hierarchy' very rightly states that people in whom a certain need has always been satisfied are capable of tolerating its deprivation in future. This clearly explains our outlook towards modern gadgets. When we buy a new one, we feel happy about it but the question is for how long? Do we really feel happy looking at it again and again? The answer is an emphatic no. In fact we become dependants, submissive to the role they play in our lives. Their existence enriches us with satisfaction but their deprivation incites us with a greater extent of sorrow.

Taking the lead from a small nation like Bhutan we can set paradigms for other nations to follow. The recent marriage of The King of Bhutan with a commoner, Jetsun Pema was marked with jubilance and embellishments all over the country. The only causative factor of the people to rejoice was their underlying happiness in the euphoria that surrounded them which had nothing to do with science. Happiness in longevity lies in turning off the spotlight from oneself. On the same lines, such a small nation as Bhutan has taken strident steps in improvising the Gross National Happiness index of its citizens and not just the Gross Domestic Product. This calls for a more holistic approach and is an extremely commendable step in the political realm since it connects the dots and determines the relevancy and extent of applied science.

Man is a social animal. In fact even science accepts this fact, with a plethora of social networking sites in vogue. Ironically, science has created the very means to disjoin people-to-people interaction (with each one of us spending more time with our gadgets than our family or closed ones) and then claiming to prove itself as an adjunct in enhancing communication. Security, love, self-esteem, motivation which circumscribe the psychological and social needs of man are the essence of happiness. Physical creations can only distract the mind but not address the root cause of trouble.

As per Newton's third law of motion, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So goes true for scientific inventions (and why not, after all his laws form the very core of these inventions). For every positive implication, one can find a contradictory path. Quoting the same examples, increased access to medicine has resulted in higher levels of drug trafficking, non-proliferation and its compliance has raised the threat to mass destruction and terrorism and gene manipulation and cloning has put a big question mark on the ethical structure of science. More recently, people in Africa refuted the use of contraceptives and the concept of Malthusianism terming it as a pejorative connotation and an ideology being used to usurp the land of their ancestors. How do we then claim to be spreading happiness by scientific innovations?

It is only when we make technology cost-effective can we expect universalisation of the happiness index. India still struggles under a 37% population below poverty line (the figure being a dubious issue) with increasing cases of farmer suicides and 48% children being malnourished. If we can make innovations and mould our scientific knowledge to befit people at the bottom of the pyramid can we generalize a happiness index. Meanwhile, it remains a utopia or an individual's self-defined formula that shall fail to address the society as a whole. .

SWASTI RAIZADA