Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Quantity vs Quality

One of the measures that is often used to define how well a country or society is doing in the modern world is life expectancy. As the thinking goes, the longer the average person lives, the better overall life is. In essence, because of the way modern westernized humans think, we have decided that quantity equates to quality.

Yet, despite these beliefs, there are many indicators that show that this assumption can be rather spurious. While the average American can expect to live to the ripe old age of 78 (or 82 in Japan), we spend inordinate amounts of money, time and energy searching for the ever elusive happiness. We abuse substances and foods. We buy fancy cars and speed boats. We pick out and swap designer spouses. We fill up mental health centers and enrich plastic surgeons.

Yes, longevity may have its perks, but just not as many as we may wish to think.

Compare this life expectancy rate to that of the Pirahãs of the Amazon. At 51 years old, I have exceed the life expectancy of the average Pirahã by 11 years!! Just as the average westerner is entering middle age, a Pirahã man or woman is preparing to be buried.

So, it would seem that we westerners are much more advanced than our Amazonian cousins. Yet, according to author Daniel L. Everett in his book "Don't Sleep, There are Snakes",
Pirahã laugh about everything. They laugh at their own misfortune: when someone's hut blows over in a rainstorm, the occupants laugh more loudly than anyone. They laugh when they catch a lot of fish. They laugh when they catch no fish. They laugh when they're full and they laugh when they're hungry. When they're sober, they are never demanding or rude...This pervasive happiness is hard to explain, though I believe that the Pirahãs are so confident and secure in their ability to handle anything that their environment throws at them that they can enjoy whatever comes their way. This is not at all because their lives are easy, but because they are good at what they do."
For all of our sophisticated knowledge and technological advances, it seems the Pirahãs embrace one concept that we each have hard time with -- most of the time, quality trumps quantity, not the other way around.

Think about this radical concept for a moment. If you could live a life of 40 years of contentment versus 80 years of a mixture of happiness and misery, which would you choose?


  1. Life expectancy is not the only weird measure in economics. The one that really gets me is the use of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of a country's success and well being. And yet the blind pursuit of increasing GDP itself causes more unhappiness and dissatisfaction.

    And then there's the mantra of economic growth at all costs, as if any and social and economic problems can be "treated" or "cured" by a healthy dose of growth. Not realising that the pursuit of growth continues to be the cause of many problems, not the solution.

    masterymistery at cosmic rapture

  2. That's interesting, TRT. People in the new age movement insist that being happy and worryless prolongs life. Yet those Amazonians live such short lives. Here in North America we worry about everything and we live for a long time.

    That kind of defeats the positive-thinking theory of longevity.

  3. What would I choose? I choose to laugh!


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