I think I read this a loooong time ago, like in high school. I really couldn’t remember much of the story. Anyway…
The plot itself is really stupid, but I think that’s forgivable since it’s just a device to introduce us to the world. In a nutshell, a “savage” from an Indian reservation joins civilized society, but is appalled by the rampant promiscuity, psychological drug use, lack of God, and lack of Shakespeare (and the like). He kind of goes violently crazy, I think a little too quickly and in an uncalled-for manner.
The brave new world: people are “born” or rather grown in bottles in giant assembly line factories. An individual’s status in society, which determines the type of jobs available to them, is predetermined from birth. Alphas are given the best care and advantages, then there are Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. The latter two are purposely injured to limit development by such things as pouring alcohol into their bottles to stunt their growth and intelligence, making them more suitable to the life of a laborer. After “decanting”, children are raised communally, and a good portion of their education is done through hypnotic repetition during sleep. The whole effect of these suggestions is to mold the desires and thoughts of every individual into a stable unity. If anything unpleasant does manage to occur, the drug Soma is widely available, which gives a long-lasting high with no after effects, besides a great feeling of contentment.
Alright, so, this is all supposed to make the reader uneasy and start questioning whether a stable, safe, disease- and want-free society is worth sacrificing all individuality. I’m somewhat persuaded by the merits of the system — so much of unhappiness is due to our reality not meeting our expectations; so why not mold human expectations so that they fit our reality? But the characters living this way do seem more like machines than men – something essential to humanity seems like it got lost in the process.
The author sets off to many places around the world to find out what makes us happy. Pretty entertaining travelogue, interposed with some philosophy and psychological research about happiness.
Key ideas on happiness:
- “Wanting” and “liking” activate different parts of the brain. What we want is not always the same thing as what makes us happy.
- Trust is a huge part of happiness. We need to have trust in our neighbors, government.
- On the flip side of trust, envy is toxic to happiness.
- Family, friends and relationships are important.
- Recipe for happiness: count the number of kind acts you do each day + think about death each day (makes you realize each moment of life is a gift).
- Hedonic adaptation: events may temporarily boost our happiness high (winning the lottery) or low (being paralyzed in a serious accident), but over the long term an individual’s happiness levels are generally consistent.
Some notes on some countries he visited:
- Bhutan: “Gross National Happiness”
- Qatar: Riches don’t buy happiness.
- Iceland: head of Iceland’s “Heathen” religion admits it all might be a “confused muddle” but still people need a belief system in order to have transcendental spiritual experiences.
- Moldova: Least happy country on the list that isn’t at war. Moldovans are glad when misfortune strikes others – “at least it wasn’t me!” (Although, seems like author was looking for misery and found it…)
- Thailand: too much introspection, even about happiness itself, causes unhappiness. Just go with the flow.
A paraphrased quote: “Maybe happiness is being in a place where you don’t want to go anywhere else, or just being yourself and not wanting to be anyone else.”