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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics


Monday, June 17, 2013

Will People Be Happier in the Future?

Will People Be Happier in the Future?

Let us examine the question of future happiness. Fifty years from now, are people likely to be more happy than they are now, or less happy?

One rather naïve idea is that people will be much happier in a few decades, because they will have more material goods. Some will list a series of cool gadgets that people will have in the future, and suggest that people will be happier because they will have all of these hi-tech wonders. However, while material goods may make life easier or more pleasurable, material comforts seem to have surprisingly little effect on the happiness level of human beings.

Richard A. Easterlin wrote a paper entitled “Will Raising theIncome of All Increase the Happiness of All?” Citing numerous surveys in different countries, Easterlin concludes that increasing the income of all does not increase the general happiness level. Easterlin points out, for example, that between 1958 and 1987 real per-capita income in Japan multiplied five-fold, and most Japanese acquired a host of consumer goods such as television for the first time. However, during this period the happiness level of the Japanese did not increase, judging from surveys in which people were asked how happy they are. Similar results have been found for Western Europe. During a post-war period in which income rose very sharply, the percentage of people who identified themselves as “very happy” did not significantly increase.

There are various possible explanations for these findings. One is that many people currently judge their own well-being in relation to what their friends have; and if everyone's income goes up, an individual won't necessarily regard himself as being better off. The same type of person who may have felt unhappy in 1950 because he didn't have a color television set may be unhappy in 2030 because he doesn't have the latest virtual reality goggles. Others say that longing for (and struggling to get) the latest consumer goods is a kind of unending “hedonic treadmill” which doesn't really get you anywhere in terms of increased happiness.

If this is the case, it may have an upside in relation to future happiness: if resource depletion or environmental problems or economic problems cause our national GDP to decrease in the future, and the average personal income of a US citizen decreases, it may have relatively little negative effect on our happiness. If getting all that shiny new stuff really didn't make us much happier, then we won't get significantly unhappier if we have less of that shiny new stuff in the future.

But what type of future developments might have a large positive effect on our happiness? I can think of two general things: (1) automation advances that give us much more time for social, intellectual, and spiritual pursuits; (2) drugs, genetic tweaks or brain enhancements that might produce an elevation in human mood or an increase in the human ability to appreciate and enjoy that which is good, sublime, or beautiful.

More Happiness Through Less Work?

Currently there is some evidence that being unemployed can make you unhappy, but that is to be expected in a society in which most have to work to pay the rent. But let us imagine a future age that is enjoying the fruits of robotic automation, so that most people do not need to work more than 20 or 30 hours a week. Imagine the same society had adjusted to such a situation, so that people thought it was good and natural to be spending a lot more of their lives doing what makes them happy rather than doing what makes some corporation happy. In such a society there would be much more time for people to enjoy great books, enjoy spiritual pursuits, socialize with friends, follow intellectual interests, enjoy hobbies, and do other things that tend to have a higher effect on happiness than the materialistic pursuit to acquire the latest shiny consumer goods. That could well lead to a significant increase in human happiness. 

Chemical, Electronic, or Genetic Shortcuts to Happiness?

David Pearce is a rather interesting philosopher who has posted the online book-length manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative. This work is summarized as follows by the wikipedia article on Pearce:
His book-length internet manifesto The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how technologies such as genetic engineering, nanotechnology, pharmacology, and neurosurgery could potentially converge to eliminate all forms of unpleasant experience among human and non-human animals, replacing suffering with gradients of well-being, a project he refers to as paradise engineering."

I find parts of this manifesto to be utopian, impractical and overblown, particularly when Pearce speaks in grandiose terms about the abolition of "all suffering in sentient life.” But there are some fascinating technical proposals in this work which may be very achievable, and which could have a very significant beneficial effect on human happiness.

Pearce notes that a person's mood is a function of brain chemicals such as serotonin. He imagines how we might make genetic tweaks that result in elevated levels of brain chemicals that are the key to good mood, as well as esthetic enjoyment and appreciation.

He imagines the birth of future children who are genetically engineered to be happier. This idea may make sense. When we think of parents consulting with a genetic engineer who might enhance their offspring, we usually think of people concentrating on having a child who is stronger or smarter or more beautiful. But wouldn't the best genetic enhancement be one that resulted in a happier child?

Pearce imagines genetically engineered humans with a heightened sense of wonder and appreciation. As the poet Wordsworth lamented, children feel a sense of wonder of nature that they may lose as adults:

 What though the radiance
 which was once so bright
 Be now for ever taken from my sight,
 Though nothing can bring back the hour
 Of splendour in the grass,
 Of glory in the flower
 
But what if there was a genetic tweak we could make (or a pill we could take without side-effects) so that every person felt a kind of hyper-enjoyment at all that is good and beautiful, which would not diminish as we age? That might be the ticket to a far, far happier human race.

Compare two different approaches. If we move heaven and earth to give billions of more people a lot more big shiny things for them to own and treasure, we might end up trashing the planet. But if we were to make a genetic tweak to make a future generation feel happier than today's Powerball winner just by looking at the stars and the clouds and the trees and the grass and the flowers, that would have no environmental cost, and might result in even more human happiness.