From Physical to Psychosocial Survival: Humanity’s Complicated Obsession with Progress

If the history of earth was reduced to 12 hours, humans would have entered, barely, in the last minute. In that one minute, humans went from being hunters and gatherers (clearly an insignificant part of Earth’s food chain) to dominating the entire world. Unlike any other animal, humans (specifically, Homo Sapiens) have created social constructs like race to divide us, spiritual theories like religion to guide us, and power structures like capitalism to subdue us. Each of these messes we’ve designed comes from a common thread — a desire to progress. 

Progress is what made my uncle leave India last year for a new life in Canada. Progress is what made me work in Washington D.C. this past summer. Progress is what turned the Bay Area into a cesspool of startups. Whether we want a stagnant life or not, progress is often times inevitable. The world around us is continuously changing — often in ways beyond our immediate comprehension or consent — but so are we. We are constantly developing physically, psychologically, and spiritually from the moment we are born due to unavoidable biological, cultural, and environmental factors. Progress is not always in our control — for example, babies’ bodies mature into adult bodies without any choice, but some adults “choose” (more like subtly manipulated) to stay fit through regular exercise. This may be because of health concerns or (more likely) a psychological shift in the way we see our body — as a reflection of our self-worth (dictated by societal beauty standards) instead of as a vehicle to experience life. We are unknowingly and consistently pressured to change for the “better” — an inspirational, yet subjective message that manifests in various ways: the new television series on Netflix instructs us to “Marie Kondo” our closets; therapists and self-help groups force us to confront our past traumas; and capitalism urges us to move up the corporate ladder. In short, each of these messages advises us to do this one thing to become better. And so, we subsequently comply to optimize, prioritize, and improve every part of our life, from our bodies to our houses to our minds to our careers, in order to maximize progress.

Like all animals, we have an instinct to survive — however, I believe the idea of progress as a form of survival is not necessarily innate, but a response to our changing environment. The need to physically survive, which is a smaller worry in a developed world due to medicine and other protections, has been replaced by the need to socially and psychologically survive. In other words, I am no longer afraid that a mountain lion will eat me as I walk down the street everyday, but I am constantly worried about how other people perceive me, whether I’ll ever land my dream internship, and when I’ll attain eternal happiness. Psychologist Dr. Jim Taylor summarizes this point well: “The fight-or-flight reaction to threats is far too simplistic to effectively overcome many of the threats we are confronted with today. Unlike threats of the past, today’s are often neither immediate, nor foreseeable, or understandable, much less controllable.” Because of this shifting reality, our perception of survival has changed as well: someone may agree to work an unethical job (that may adversely affect others) as long as they can pay the bills and buy food to survive in a capitalist nation. Survival is more likely to be a slow process rather than a set of immediate decisions; a person diagnosed with cancer is (typically) not going to die in one day and a risk we took as a young adult (i.e. living in an hurricane-prone zone because housing was less expensive) may ultimately and abruptly finish us in the future. Our psychosocial survival instincts tell us that to be human means to seek (and adapt to) a better version of yourself and the world you live in every day. This is where the desire to progress (positively change) comes from. If I live in a hurricane-prone area, my goal will probably be to find a better job with a better salary, so I can find a better location to settle in. 

Of course, each person develops differently in a different environment and has contrasting beliefs of what progress consists of; but generally, progress is defined as “a cumulative process in which the most recent stage is always considered preferable and better, i.e., qualitatively superior, to what preceded it.” As Alain Benoist states in A Brief History of the Idea of Progress, this mindset was a result of the Enlightenment era, where “the reign of reason [was] supposed to lead to a society that is both transparent and peaceful. The men of the Enlightenment believed that, since man in the future will act in an always more ‘enlightened’ manner, reason will continually improve, and humanity will become morally better." This is an important and extremely flawed assumption — that reason will lead to peace — simply because our collective reasoning is so often wrong. War, famine, and instability still exist in our current technology-infested world, despite our consistent attempts to progress and overcome it. 

Then why do we cling to progress — or why do we desire progress — when we know that ultimately we will never be the “best”? Because progress offers purpose. Progress gives each person a goal to achieve while they wait for death. And very often that goal is peace and happiness. To reiterate — the means by which we think we will achieve peace and happiness is extremely subjective. Some truly believe (like my older sister) that going through an entire closet to determine which items spark joy will contribute to overall peace and happiness. For some, it may be creating a family, deepening a spiritual connection, and/or climbing the corporate ladder — all of which usually require a lifetime to develop and sustain. As Oprah said, “There is no greater gift you can give or receive than to honor your calling. It’s why you were born. And how you become most truly alive.”  

If Oprah is right (and let’s be real, when is she wrong?) and we all do have a specific “calling” (the tool) that allows us to feel “most truly alive” (which I interpret as being genuinely happy), then, why do we all not adhere to it? The answer, in my opinion, is that ironically, collective progress can sometimes inhibit individual progress. I cannot just go from a hurricane-prone area and live in a house in a safer city without paying for it, because capitalism and governmental regulations (constructs / rules we created to equalize society) stop me. Similarly, I believe that many people are not honoring their calling, because they are trapped by the chains of collective progress (i.e. wealth inequality, racism, sexism, mass incarceration, capitalism, etc.) that our amazingly reasonable, enlightened minds conceived. In fact, the emergence of self-care culture uniquely implies that our regular lives fail to offer the solace we need. Peace with ourselves and our lives is something we must actively schedule instead of it being a natural, constant result of our everyday actions. 

For a long time, I believed life could be boiled down to a mathematical equation: money + societal approval = societal survival = perfect life = peace = happiness. However, this equation implies a linear progression with happiness as the final, eventual, stagnant outcome. But, the happiness I’ve experienced is nonlinear and fleeting. Like I said earlier in this essay, the world around us is continuously changing — we are constantly dealt new variables that transform the nature of the equation I presented above. We do things because they will offer us money and/or societal approval, which will someday potentially lead to happiness, instead of doing things that consistently and directly offer us happiness even when the world around us changes (by this, I mean adhering to your calling, not doing drugs). When we seek a better version of ourselves, we seek the path to true happiness and peace. I believe that past progress has clouded this path, which is why we must dismantle the unfair systems that collective progress has created in order to allow individual progress to flourish.

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"We do not grow absolutely, chronologically. We grow
sometimes in one dimension, and not in another;
unevenly. We grow partially. We are relative. We are
mature in one realm, childish in another. The past,
present, and future mingle and pull us backward,
forward, or fix us in the present." - Anais Nin