Disclaimer: The 'reflections on' series is better appreciated if you've read the source material, though it isn't necessary. You can find the book here or here, the audiobook here, and a summary here.
If you are in passionate love and want to celebrate your passion, read poetry. If your ardor has calmed and you want to understand your evolving relationship, read psychology. But if you have just ended a relationship and would like to believe you are better off without love, read philosophy.
Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis
In appraising our post-work future, we've been looking at the concept of fulfilment as a central pillar of our ideal future vision. It's appropriate then that we now turn to the field of Positive Psychology - or, my preferred name, happiness science - to understand what it means for humans to feel fulfilled at a deeper level, and what it takes to achieve it. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt was reviewed in Nature as "by some margin the most intellectually substantial book to arise from the 'positive psychology' movement". He combines modern psychology and neuroscience with ancient wisdom and philosophy to lay out a "contemporary understanding of the human condition with such simple clarity and sense", as The Guardian put it.
The book is a guide on how to be happy now, which aligns more to the strategy side of our mission. It is valuable in that role, but I will use this reflection almost exclusively to inform our ideal future vision. What can happiness science teach us about how our ideal future world should look? What ideals might we strive for today that can be the foundation of our ideal future? What things make humans universally happy? How does the science interact with our defined technology frontier for our ideal future, that of a post-work world enabled by ubiquitous human level AI? I'll explore all of these questions, and more, in the following reflection.
After exploring whether happiness comes from within, as Buddha and many ancient philosophers argued, or from outside, as our modern, western culture is oriented around, Haidt settles on his final 'happiness hypothesis', that "happiness comes from between". He agrees with much ancient wisdom of living virtuously as a path to happiness, but stops short of proposing full detachment suggesting that it is an inhuman idea - that we are social creatures that need love and relationships to be truly fulfilled. He says that "happiness requires changing yourself and changing your world. It requires pursuing your own goals and fitting in with others". Rather than summarise all of the key ideas that contribute to this conclusion here, I will summarise and address the relevant ideas from the book as I reflect on them.
Being 'good' is arguably the largest notion of an ideal future vision that we haven't yet discussed. We will save the topic of morality and social construction/cohesion for another time, and here focus on individual fulfilment. Many people through history have argued that morality is 'ideal' by definition - in fact 'ideals' is often a synonym for 'virtues'. Haidt takes a scientific look at this question and finds an initial answer - morality is ideal as it conveys a positive emotion, one he calls elevation. In fact Thomas Jefferson breaks down the components of elevation as: "an eliciting or triggering condition (displays of charity, gratitude, or other virtues); physical changes in the body (“dilation” in the chest); a motivation (a desire of “doing charitable and grateful acts also”); and a characteristic feeling beyond bodily sensations (elevated sentiments)". This feeling comes from what is believed to be an innate sense of sacredness and divinity that are felt not only through elevation but also disgust and awe - the disgust we feel when smelling a bad odour is the same feeling as when someone violates our code of ethics, and awe is a fear and submission to something bigger than ourselves that falls on the same dimension. Haidt argues that liberals and secular thinkers often ignore or misunderstand this dimension, despite it being just as relevant to the non-religious.
Haidt present this 'dimension' in his framework of the three ethics: autonomy, community, and divinity. "Autonomy is about protecting people from harm and giving them freedom to pursue their own goals. Community is then about protecting groups, families, companies, or nations with values such as obedience, loyalty and leadership. Divinity is about protecting the inner divinity of a person to live in a way free from moral pollutants". This seems to be a helpful framework for us in determining our set of values and virtues - what it will mean to be 'good' in our ideal future world. There are tradeoffs between these dimensions - loyalty to a strict religious code might violate the ethic of autonomy if it robs a woman of her right to choose, for example. To overcome, or minimise these tradeoffs Haidt turns to the work on 'virtues and strengths'. Through their thorough review of the literature, Peterson and Seligman suggest that there are twenty-four principle character strengths grouped into six virtues. They are:
Wisdom: • Curiosity • Love of learning • Judgment • Ingenuity • Emotional intelligence • Perspective
Courage: • Valor • Perseverance • Integrity
Humanity: • Kindness • Loving
Justice: • Citizenship • Fairness • Leadership
Temperance: • Self-control • Prudence • Humility
Transcendence: • Appreciation of beauty and excellence • Gratitude • Hope • Spirituality • Forgiveness • Humour • Zest
Not only do we want a society that has these virtues engrained - for example our discussions of fairness engrain the virtue of justice - but everyone should strive to live by them to feel elevation and fulfilment.
We have seen the importance of purpose in living a fulfilled life, and I have argued that there are plenty of activities for us to find purpose in beyond work, given that all work will be done by machines in our ideal future world. As a 'strategy' book, Haidt defaults to work as the primary form of purposeful activity, but as we saw before the research that underpins this is simply a set of principles that can be applied to any number of activities.
The three components of purpose that Haidt draws out of the research are (1) a use of strengths to gain a feeling of mastery, (2) engaging with others to feel community, and (3) engaging with something bigger than the self. Elaborating on the first component introduces the concept of flow - the state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one's abilities. Martin Seligman argues that it is the strongest form of gratification - activities that engage you fully - which if balanced with pleasures - "delights that have clear sensory and strong emotional components", such as eating a delicious meal - will provide maximum happiness. It begs the question, if we have AI taking care of all of our needs, where are the opportunities to find tasks that are "challenging yet closely matched to one's abilities"? I believe that most hobbies or activities provide fertile ground for this kind of experience. I can personally attest to having experienced flow as much through my hobbies - typically team sports or yoga - than I have through my work. Hobbies also provide the second component, community, in ways that work doesn't always provide. Even individual hobbies such as archery or knitting can foster a sense of community as you engage with others that share the passion.
The third component is harder to understand in a post-work world. We often describe the purpose in our work as 'trying to change the world for the better', and it's this engagement with the world as a whole that gets us feeling outside of or beyond ourselves. Here, Haidt provides an answer directly - religion. He says that religion is a highly evolved mechanism for feeling beyond oneself - and fostering community to boot. While religion is decreasing in popularity around the world, I believe our post-work future will usher in a spiritual revolution as people crave this connection with something greater, and the feeling of community that comes with that. We are already trending in this direction in developed countries. My hypothesis is that the move away from traditional religions and towards spirituality is driven by a disagreement with some of the core values of those organised religions, and that we could see new religions form - even if they aren't called as such - around new sets of shared values born out of a search for truth.
My favourite definition of mental health comes from American Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, "mental health is dedication to reality at all costs". As I laid out in my theory of mental bandwidth, engaging with reality takes a greater mental toll than trying to live outside of it, but living in truth is vital to our mental health and ultimately our happiness. This is why I am so optimistic about our future as we will have increasing ability to identify the truth and the mental bandwidth necessary to live with it. I also believe that the pursuit of truth will increasingly be seen as a spiritual journey that will provide ever more people with purpose and community.
I have an emerging hypothesis that early religions had this same aim of seeking truth. They tried to answer the biggest questions humans have, largely around why we are here, the meaning of life, and what it means to live well. I feel that they locked-in premature answers - the best answers they could achieve with the resources available to them - and that these were corrupted by power structures. To take hold as a religion, they had to lock-in their beliefs, not only because it's significantly easier to share a concept as simple as the 'ten commandments' centuries before the invention of the printing press, but because an omniscient god wouldn't change their mind, they are incapable of getting something wrong by definition. I believe this inflexibility is the cause of both the decline in religious participation, as people are increasingly put-off by religious values or teachings that are incongruent with their world-view, for example the superiority of men in many major religions. To be very clear this is merely my hypothesis. I will be seeking out experts in this field to engage on this topic and hope to return to it in the future.
This is disappointing, as Haidt shows the value of organised religion in providing community and a constraint of shared values, which helps people feel more secure and supported. He suggests that an ideal world would combine the virtues stemming from the ethic of autonomy (freedom, inclusion, justice) with those of the ethic of community (leadership, loyalty, obedience). This middle ground seems to be based in truth - if we could align on a set of shared values grounded in truth and with a full understanding of the tradeoffs involved and implied, we could have the best of both worlds. I believe there's a world in which WFW? can evolve into playing this role. This is a community of people looking to find an ideal set of shared values by seeking truth in the acquired wisdom of humanity. In theory this checks all of the boxes.
The notion of this ideal state raises a range of important set of questions for our strategy of how we might achieve it:
How do we bring everyone onto the same page when wars have been fought between religions?
To what extent are the wars over different values vs different truths?
If truths, is it possible to do the investigation necessary to find that actual truth, and convince over time with logic?
Are we able to distill the major religions into their hierarchy of values? Would it be right to do so?
Can we then compare each religion to the 'ideal' to identify where the differences lie - either differences in a certain value (I.e., abortion) or on the hierarchy between shared values?
Even if we can determine an 'ideal' set of values, it will be a tall order to bring everyone around to that way of thinking. However it seems that the idea and the act is very purposeful in itself.
A relatively minor point in the book, Haidt mentions the studies showing the strong positive relationship between happiness and control. When humans feel out of control, their happiness decreases and they do not adapt to this lower level, they remain unhappy. This is seen when people have to live with chronic sources of noise (not controlling when the cars will honk their horns) or have lengthy commutes (not controlling the traffic and behaviour of other drivers). We should be mindful of this phenomenon with respect to our AI future - if we create an artificial intelligence greater than ourselves then will inevitably cede control, even if we solve the AI alignment problem. I am hopeful - my hypothesis is that through fostering a greater sense of non-attachment will make us more resilient to loss of control. That said, it's another argument in favour of slowing AI capability development.
Haidt shares the research suggesting that we are all genetically predisposed to a level of happiness, a trait he calls optimism. We have a predisposed range of happiness we are most likely to fall within, and the voluntary actions we take plus the environment we find ourselves within determines whether we experience the top or bottom of our range. The bottom of one person's range might be above the top of another's range, likely if that person has chronic depression, for example. This adds another dimension to our 'lottery of birth' concept. Not only are our wealth and income levels driven mostly by factors outside of our control, but our happiness too! It further suggests we should strive for a fairer, equal society and do more to support those with lower happiness set points, using the proven strategies Haidt puts forth: meditation, cognitive therapy, and Prozac.
The Happiness Hypothesis contributes a lot to our ideal future vision. We have initial validation of the role of morality in individual fulfilment. We must emphasise the role of communities of shared activities, particularly when they are engaging with a sense beyond oneself such as the search for truth in philosophy. We've seen that the ideal society is constrained by a set of shared values but with the freedom to also be asking whether they can be improved upon. We also have warnings on not giving up control and on ensuring an equal society. From here we'll explore the role of morality in societal cohesion beyond simply individual fulfilment, and the strategies for making this all a reality.
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