So here’s a question: why is the state of human welfare so bad, even for those operating at the top of the Maslow hierarchy? There are lots of people in the world whose needs are being met. They have solidly reliable access to food and shelter and clothing…and, hell, let’s throw in healthcare and education and entertainment…plus affection from loved ones and respect from society. They can enjoy the many fruits of prosperity and spend their leisure pursuing whatever random things seem most interesting to them. If they fail, by and large, there are no catastrophic consequences. So why are they so very often unhappy?
If you ask them, of course, they’ll usually tell you that their needs aren’t really being met after all. They don’t have quite enough money to be secure, or their social situation is precarious and anxiety-producing, or some such. Sometimes they’re even right about that kind of thing. But as a broader explanation this is implausible on its face, just because the complaints and the worries are so disconnected from any tangible truth. Some of the richest and most materially-stable humans on earth are consumed by thoughts of financial insecurity. Some of the most popular and well-beloved people are driven mad by amorphous, unfalsifiable worries about community status. There is literally no amount of catering-to-basic-level-needs that will reliably satisfy, and so we must conclude that the real psychological problem — even if it can feel like a basic-needs problem — lies elsewhere.
There’s no shortage of answers and explanations. Every two-bit psychologist, every literary novelist who wants to ramble about the Human Condition, has his own theory. Some of them have come up with some pretty good stuff.
But before we get to any of that, here’s a better question: why would we ever expect the state of human welfare to be good?
At this point we pretty much understand the functional role of happiness in the human psyche. And that role, sadly, is not “serve as the baseline for existence because that would be awesome.” It is a much more limited, narrow-purpose thing. It exists to reward us, in a small and temporary way, for doing things that are deemed useful by the Blind Idiot God of evolution. It is a behavior-management tool, the carrot in a basic carrot-and-stick scheme. It is the pellet handed out to a lab rat who has successfully completed a task.
You successfully found a sheltered place to build a fire, and got out of the cold for the night. Ding! Have some warm fuzzy contentment!
You successfully chased and killed that gazelle, and now you’re going to be well-nourished for a while. Ding! You get to feel proud and accomplished for a little bit!
You successfully took down your Hated Rival, and now that fertile-looking cutie is giving you a smoky gaze from across the feast-table. Ding! Enjoy an ego-boost and some dreamy infatuation!
The happiness switch is not supposed to be on all the time, or most of the time, or really anytime other than “right after you’ve just done something advantageous.” What would be the point of that? It wouldn’t be a very useful behavior-management tool at all!
When all your needs are reliably and easily met, it’s like being a lab rat who gets moved into a cage where he can receive a pellet whenever he pushes the lever. The reward-system becomes disconnected from emotional reality and quickly loses its meaning, producing aimlessness and anomie. Getting your pellet no longer carries that special frisson of Suddenly-The-World-Is-Great. But, and this is important, the old system was way worse. Now that you have your pellet-lever, you spend most of your time being bored. Under the old system, in exchange for a few moments of psychic reward, you spent the rest of your time being bored AND anxious AND desperate — and you didn’t even get enough pellets!
(Also, to be sure, the conquest of obstacles can provide satisfying meaning only if the obstacles are real. If you deny people the fulfillment of their needs on the theory that they will benefit psychologically from the chase, they will quickly and rightly conclude that the only genuine obstacle they face is you. So long as we have ready-made solutions to material and social difficulties, there is really nothing to be gained by failing to employ them.)
If we’re going to build a golden age of human welfare, the first step is to abandon any notion that there has ever been a golden age of human welfare that we can use as a model. When you’re thinking about the woes of modern life, the antediluvian temptation is a constant danger, and as far as I can tell it’s ensnared most of the people who take these issues seriously. “Things are so screwed up now. Let’s try to roll things back, at least in some ways, to a time when they were less screwed-up…” No. Stop. Things are bad, but even on a purely-psychological front they’re better than they’ve ever been. In most places and times, if you weren’t actually worrying about starvation or plague, you were worrying about the life-or-death personal politics of the community in which you were inescapably embedded. Anomie has replaced (a) the terror of deprivation and (b) the soul-crushing tyranny of tightly-knit all-powerful social structures; if that’s the choice, I’ll take the anomie. Every known human society has been obsessed by its own problems. No sizeable group of people has ever believed itself to inhabit Paradise. The past holds many lessons but no solutions. The only way forward is forward.
All right. If we’re willing to oversimplify grossly, we can use this lab-rat-and-pellet metaphor as a model for the psychological/spiritual difficulty that manifest as people approach the top of the Maslow hierarchy.
Under “traditional” circumstances, humans experience life as a continual quest for small psychic rewards, which are attained by performing useful tasks that fulfill basic social and material needs. Fortunate circumstances allow certain humans to attain those rewards in such abundance, and with such reliability, that they cease to have any psychological weight. This produces an aimlessness, a lack-of-life-structure, to which those humans often respond by flailing around in various dysfunctional ways.
It’s not a new phenomenon, of course — it’s afflicted various elites as long as there have been elites — but modernity means that there are a lot more people who are affected by it, and that dealing with it intelligently has become a major cultural imperative for our civilization.
In broad terms, there are three basic solutions to this problem.
For starters, there’s enlightenment, in the Buddhist sense. You can make a project of restructuring your mind and modifying your utility function, eliminating certain native psychological needs and vulnerabilities, such that you no longer hunger after the sensation of successful reward-hunting.
(Any actual Buddhist would raise holy hell at this description of enlightenment, of course, and my impression is that the process does indeed look very different from the inside. But from a cultural engineer’s perspective, from the perspective of someone trying to explain how this kind of spiritual praxis can address widespread psychological problems, it has enough explanatory power to be useful.)
…and if you can swing this one, go to, by all means. It may be 2500 years old, but when it comes to the problem of human suffering, Buddhism (or one of its various derivatives) is still the best answer we’ve come up with. Becoming an arhat will solve all your problems, or at least render them totally irrelevant.
The downside, of course, is that this solution does not scale. Like, at all. Really, I mention it only for the sake of being comprehensive. Enlightenment is pretty much most the difficult, counterintuitive, counter-evolutionary thing you can ask a human mind to do to itself; it is entirely out of reach for 99.99+% of the population. Buddhism is the most popular religion in the most populous part of the world, and has been for a very long time, and the number of enlightened sages is nonetheless so small as to be negligible. Maybe it’s possible to help people on a mass scale by teaching them to transcend desire, but if so, someone smarter than me is going to have to figure out how.
In a more normal vein, if all your basic needs are being trivially fulfilled, you can address the ensuing anomie by creating artificial needs whose fulfillment is associated with artificial rewards. We usually call this “setting life goals.”
I’m going to write a great novel and get it published. I’m going to get promoted to Senior Vice President. I’m going to be elected to Congress. I’m going to buy a vacation house in the Hamptons. I’m going to save kids from dying of malaria. I’m going to discover a cure for cancer. And when I do, I will deem myself to have Succeeded, and there’s going to be that same little Ding! that my tribal ancestor must have felt when he speared a gazelle, and it’s going to be so great.
Let me be absolutely clear: I am not knocking this strategy. I am in favor of setting life goals. I believe that everyone who can afford them, meaning “everyone with the resources and leisure to worry about self-actualization,” should have them. It’s probably necessary for any kind of happy, healthy lifestyle. It’s definitely necessary if we want people to continue striving virtuously, breaking new barriers and reaching for the stars and so forth, even when their basic needs are being met. Figuring out how people can set the best goals for themselves, and then figuring out how to disseminate that knowledge, is going to be a key task for any would-be post-scarcity utopia.
All that said, I am going to raise a note of caution here. I think that many utopian optimists are inclined to see this kind of thing as the One Great Fundamental Solution to all the psychological problems of modernity. Climb ever higher! Reach ever farther! Life won’t seem drab or dull or empty when you’re kicking so much ass! And, in its more extreme forms, this is dangerously misguided. Life goals are important, but by themselves they won’t be and can’t be enough, and leaning on them too hard carries serious costs.
For one thing, artificial self-imposed “needs” are much weaker than basic needs when it comes to providing a structure for a human life. If you’re questing after food, or even if you’re questing after affection, you’re going to remain in the grip of that quest until it’s completed; you’re not going to sigh in despair when the going gets tough or when someone sneers at your project, wondering whether maybe you’re just wasting your time on something stupid, because you have actual fundamental human needs that aren’t being met. Self-actualization goals, which are being pursued (from the individual agent’s perspective) as much for private psychic benefit as for any intrinsic purpose, are a lot more vulnerable to being randomly undermined. Which is very bad, if people are relying entirely on those goals to provide meaning in their lives.
Also, of course, artificial needs have the same basic problem as non-artificial needs: sometimes they don’t get met, because sometimes you fail at your various tasks. Saying tsuyoku naritai! is all well and good, but humans are not possessed of infinite drive or infinite emotional resilience. If people have nothing to fall back on psychologically when they don’t succeed in their various quests, if success is the only fountainhead of that-which-is-desirable-in-life, the results will be grotesque.
…and it is also true that any project, once it has become someone’s psychological crutch, is liable to become bigger and more aggressive than it really should be. Sometimes people decide to invest themselves in things that are bad. Sometimes people decide to invest themselves in things that are good, but nonetheless drain more than their share of resources from the world. In general, it is useful to be able to point this out and act on it without having to declare total war on those who have invested in those things. I do not want the future to be an apocalyptic war between the random hobbyhorses of people whose entire egos are at stake. Which means, once again, that those people will need some foundation for their psychological well-being beyond their success at the tasks that they’ve set for themselves.
We need something more.
Fortunately, nature has supplied…
The third strategy is the thing that psychological theorists call narcissism.
God! I hate the use of that word, in this context. Even the relatively nuance-minded thinkers cannot help framing narcissism as a disease of the psyche, to be overcome as expeditiously as possible; in the popular consciousness, of course, narcissism translates to something like “irredeemable evil.” As someone positing that it is both unavoidable and mostly-a-good-thing, I would much prefer to use some kind of less-loaded terminology. I’ve considered using a phrase like symbolic orientation or narrative orientation, and perhaps at some point I’ll try to make one of those phrases stick. But…however strongly our interpretations and conclusions differ…it’s uncomfortably clear that the theorists and I are talking about the same fundamental thing, and I’m not going to try to paper over that fact.
In simplest terms, this phenomenon can be described as follows: you tell yourself a story about who you are and why your life is worthwhile.
(…sounds pretty damn innocuous when you put it in those terms, no?)
Everyone does this to some extent, of course, but it becomes more and more important as you move farther and farther away from being in the thick of the getting-your-needs-met rat race. It’s the world’s very simplest and oldest mindhack, so convenient that most people do it unconsciously as soon as life affords them the opportunity. It lets you restructure your own psychological welfare, shifting the focus away from getting a stream of treats from the world — since the treats, which were few and far between in any event, no longer satisfy — and towards something that’s theoretically longer-lasting, more secure, and easier to control.
The mechanic is extremely straightforward. You create a narrative that explains (a) what your identity is, and (b) why it is super great and totally fulfilling for you to have that identity. This narrative, if well-crafted, will eventually become a superreal totem within your own mind — it’s not hard to make it so, narrative is an excellent tool for hacking the human psyche, basic tricks like “symbolism” and “POV focus” can make a story way more compelling than reality if you’re willing to invest in it. (If you doubt me…just think about how easy it is for a story to make you identify with anyone just by making him the protagonist for a while.) Then, whenever you start feeling hurt or worthless, you just check the circumstances of your life against the contours of the narrative. So long as they basically line up, it serves as confirmation from the universe that you still are who you think you are…which is super great, remember?…so everything is OK. No matter what events have actually just taken place in the world, everything is OK.
I am a brilliant physicist. We know this, because I got a PhD in physics from Princeton, and because I wrote that one paper that everyone thought was so amazing. And when I haven’t come up with anything great in a month, and I feel like I’m thinking through sludge, and I’m wondering whether there’s any point to my continued existence…well, it’s still true that I got my PhD and that I wrote that paper, so it must still be true that I’m a brilliant physicist, so I still have merit. And everything is OK.
I am so incredibly glad that our minds are capable of this One Weird Trick. It’s a semi-stable source of human welfare. Unlike “normal” non-narcissistic forms of well-being, it works even if the world hasn’t just handed you a shiny; you can push the button all on your own, whenever you need it. It does the thing that wireheading does, a little bit, except that it keeps people engaged with the world (through the vector of their all-important identities) instead of turning them into zombies.
In fact, it can even do a pretty OK job of helping people keep up with virtuous behavior, by making the rewards of virtue stable and reliable (in the form of continued identity confirmation) rather than stochastic and random and likely-unsatisfying-most-of-the-time.
(And, in all honesty, I should add: beyond any operational considerations, having people maintain consistent and compelling narrative identities is a strong terminal value of mine. For aesthetic/artistic reasons, basically.)
These benefits appear even when you’re operating near the top of the Maslow hierarchy. They appear even when your self-imposed tasks don’t get successfully completed. For a low low cost, they can be sustained for a long time.
Narcissism is very likely to be the thing that saves the world.
…assuming that it can be harnessed properly. Which is actually pretty difficult. It has a number of dramatic failure modes, and they’re easy to fall into.
Most obviously, you can build your identity around a bad story, a story that requires you to engage in constant destructive action if you’re going to keep it up. Y’know, something like “I am an alpha-male demigod who dominates everyone he meets,” or “no one can resist my sexual charms,” or “I am always the smartest person in the room,” or “I am a Holy Warrior who will never question the Cause.” People who are constructing narratives for themselves, unguided, do that kind of thing an awful lot. If you were wondering how narcissism got such a bad reputation, well…
For that matter, you can allow your identity-bolstering narrative to drift further and further away from reality, so long as you still have some vaguely-plausible means of confirming that it’s “true.” The exemplar here is the washed-up professor who hasn’t said or done anything worthwhile in years, but who doesn’t worry about it, because he knows that he’s a genius, because he totally has a degree from Princeton and he wrote that one paper in nineteen-dickety-two. That is a thing that can happen, if you’re using stories to hold your ego up.
And then there’s the big problem, which is the exact opposite of that: narcissistic injury.
Telling a story about yourself provides some protection from the ego-shredding vicissitudes of the world, but often it’s not enough. The narrative will always necessarily be at least somewhat in conflict with reality — at the very least, it will contain useful literary-device-type features like “you are the main character” and “things symbolize other things,” which do not correspond to real phenomena. Sometimes, the facts of the world will directly conflict with the narrative (e.g., you find yourself unable to complete a task that is central to your constructed identity). Sometimes, the facts of the world will conflict indirectly with the narrative, making it difficult to confirm that the story still applies (e.g., you go a long time without getting a chance to perform that task, and its salience to your life experience starts to feel doubtful). Very often, your interactions with other humans will result in attacks on the narrative, as they fail to respond to you in an “appropriate” way or to acknowledge your identity-critical traits.
All of these things are very psychologically damaging. At best, they render all your narcissistic defenses useless. Often it’s a lot worse than that; when you bind up your identity in a story, the story becomes a vulnerable point in your psyche, and a successful attack on it can hurt enormously and leave you not really knowing who you are. This is “narcissistic injury,” and people tend to deal with it very badly.
…there are those who believe that most of the problems of the developed world right now can be summed up as “otherwise-well-off adults flailing around in the throes of narcissistic injury,” and I’m not prepared to say that they’re totally wrong. Narcissistic narratives are fragile, and when you’re talking about people who have most of their basic social and material needs being met without much effort, there’s a lot of ego wrapped up in those narratives.
The conventional answer is “people need to learn to be less narcissistic.” You will be unsurprised to hear that I’m not on board with that. The old ways were not and are not better. Narcissism, properly constructed, is the main thing that allows us to exist at repose in the universe. It allows us to have some sense of who we are; it allows us to take a sustained comfort in that knowledge even as events jostle us around, even as worldlier pleasures pall. It gives us the wherewithal to see and appreciate ourselves, which is the necessary first step towards constructing ourselves beautifully. It’s the bedrock of any stable, happy existence where personal identity continues to be a meaningful thing.
Which means that shoring up all those weaknesses I just listed becomes a critical component of any utopian culture-engineering plan.
This is basically a three-pronged project.
People have to be taught how to build their identities around worthy stories, beautiful and virtuous stories, so that they don’t end up building themselves around crappy stories that are incompatible with utopian existence.
People have to be taught how to keep one eye on reality, so that their identity narratives don’t spiral into utter fantasy.
And — most importantly —
Human relationships and social institutions need to be constructed so as to reinforce identity narratives, rather than tearing them down, so that needless narcissistic injury may be avoided.
This is the main thing at the heart of all my utopian dreams.
We are free from our lower needs now, mostly, at least the luckiest ones amongst us. We are trying to self-actualize. We construct wonderful dream-selves, and then we try as hard as we can to live up to them. But it is hard, and often we fail, and the heartless universe gives no honor to the struggle. We ask anyone who will listen: Who am I? Am I truly the person I believe myself to be? And because we are lowly mortals, we so rarely receive an answer, and we thirst for recognition like it is water in the desert.
We can do better for each other.
As it happens, I have some more-concrete thoughts about that. I know that it is possible to help people construct narrative identities, and to shield those identities from injury, using techniques that are rarely considered by normal humans. Early in my adulthood, I was lucky enough to stumble into a hobby whose fundamental technology is a superpowered form of identity-recognition…