I love this list of the 50 greatest breakthroughs since the wheel from The Atlantic. The accompanying article is worth a read. It includes insights about the challenges of taxonomy and the future of innovation.

The article got me thinking about not only what innovations have had the biggest impact on humanity, but specifically, which have led to the greatest gains in human happiness. I don’t have access to the panel of experts that The Atlantic does, so I just had to use my own brain to come up with this list (hence, all the flaws).


1. The telephone and email (but not Facebook).

The telephone, and later email, allowed people to stay close to friends and family, despite long distances. Years of psychological research has proven out the critical connection between strong social relationships and feelings of well-being. Advances in communication technology allowed people to maintain relationships, while at the same time pursuing self-actualization far from home. Not all communication tools breed happiness, though—there’s evidence that social networks can increase feelings of sadness, loneliness, and envy.

2. Agriculture.

You know the story. Before the invention of agriculture, we were hunting and gathering our way through life, with nary a free moment. Along comes farm life, and all of a sudden we can settle down and get domestic. We sow our seeds, harvest our crops, and start needlepointing “There’s no place like home” onto pillows. The by-product is something called “free time.” Art and culture flourish.

3. The printing press.

That old standby of Greatest Invention lists. It really is a gem. Gutenberg’s movable type machine makes the list because it led to the democratization of information, which led to literacy, which led to the concept of education, which is directly linked to happiness (if only because of its relationship to income). Also…novels.

4. The telescope.

Perhaps this would fit better on a list called “Greatest Sources of Existential Angst.” No other invention represents such a crisis of human confidence. Are we the center of the universe? Nope. How about the solar system? Nuh uh. But there’s no doubt that looking starward led to some of the greatest discoveries about the origin of life and our place in the universe, not to mention the tremendous human accomplishment of leaving our planet. Everyone knows photographs from the moon make people happy.

5. The weekend.

It’s pretty simple. Sleeping in + spending time with friends and family + pursuing passion projects = more happiness. Thanks, Labor Rights movement!

6. The calendar.

Calendars enable planning and anticipation—one of the keys to happiness. From Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage: “Often, the most enjoyable part of an activity is the anticipation. If you can’t take the time for a vacation right now, or even a night out with friends, put something on the calendar—even if it’s a month or a year down the road. Then whenever you need a boost of happiness, remind yourself about it.”

7. The camera.

The flipside of the calendar. Cameras allow you to capture happy moments in time, and recollect them later on. The technology has evolved, but the happiness jolt is the same.

8. Democracy.

The simple premise that people should govern themselves is deeply tied to what we know about happiness. Functioning democracies require an astonishing amount of community trust, freedom, and equality—necessary ingredients for happy living. Though flawed in practice, the spirit of democracy has human happiness at its core.

9. Socialism.

Securing basic needs, such as food, shelter, and good health, is critical to happiness. A strong social safety net reduces stress and increases resilience in a population. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the top five happiest countries, according to the United Nations’ 2013 World Happiness Report, all have some form of socialized medicine.

10. Medical breakthroughs.

The germ theory of infectious disease, anesthesia, penicillin, and vaccines all led to longer and higher quality lives. Advances in mental health care are just as important to overall well-being.

It’s clear that most of the things on the list have a downside. The agricultural revolution contributed to social inequality, environmental destruction, and many of the health problems we face today. The printing press enabled the publication of violent manifestos. The weekend led directly to the concept of the Monday morning blues.

So, this list is imperfect. Can you help improve it? What would you add or remove?

(Along the way, I thought of a few candidates for innovations that reduced human happiness the most: television, advertising, and auto-tune stand out as being particularly egregious.)