On Thursday, should all things go according to plan, I’ll return to Harvard University to interview one of the most influential social cognition researchers in modern Psychology. In an interesting twist, this particular scholar has a personal history as a science fiction writer. After struggling at that with only modest success, via an interesting twist he returned to his education and went on to become this incredibly notable scholar.
In my mind there are two Psychologists that stand out as writers who then rethought their life, only to return to school and end up at Harvard: BF Skinner and Dan Gilbert. Note that one of these dudes happens to be dead, so I’m hoping to talk to the living one.
As per the rules of modern day geek-ism there are essentially two spirits by which one may be moved in modern, film dominated, sci-fi. Two visions, if you will. There is the beautiful utopia of Star Trek. The Star Trek mythology is essentially that the inhabited universe has slowly come to provide for all its citizens. Now that our basic needs have been fulfilled, people are now freed to pursue their true selves, dedicating their lives to art, beauty, scientific exploration, and, of course, to seek out new life and new civilizations. In one episode of Star Trek, 20th-century people were brought into the utopian Star Trek to discover their banks (and bank accounts) were gone! But, more importantly, that pursuit of money no longer mattered, anyway!
Star Wars is dystopian. There are resources, and there is wealth for the ambassadors and great cities scattered in the universe. There is also a huge amount of diversity in types of species, levels of wealth, available technology, and treatment of populations. There are poor and backwards societies, there are brutal living conditions, and there is slavery. The universe is rife with resources and talent, but most live in poverty and few are uplifted by the grand movements of the society. Many are suppressed by a dark and authoritarian regime. Yes, there are great moments of victory and wonderous happenings, but for most in the Star Wars universe, most of the time, life is hard and it is probably going to get harder.
Okay, so two classic sci-fi worlds and two distinct possibilities: do we uplift and help each other to happiness, or do we seek individual glory and fight our way to survival. If you look at the animal kingdom, especially considering competition between species, there is a lot of fighting out there. Ants will go to war with other ant colonies for territory, sharks and dolphins battle across the oceans, and we humans are pretty consistent in our efforts to push every other species aside for our resources. Conflict is a constant, as are the pains of stress and resource management.
The interesting thing to note is that the emphasis on happiness is a very, very modern phenomena. In the western world we have homes that are outfitted with comforts to promote restfulness and oasis from the business world. That idea, the concept of a house being your home that is separate from your business is quite new among humans. For centuries where you lived was your business. There was never vacation. There was no respite from daily struggle. It was all struggle or starvation. We purchased the resources in modern society to allow the concept of the pursuit of happiness, moreover to create the spaces, services, and practices we have designed to promote happiness. Happiness is now a goal. An attainable state artifacted from modern living.
Not that modern living necessarily makes us happy — we all are well aware of the pitfalls of modern living and its many pains (both real and imagined). But because we invented happiness as a goal state, we are doing things differently than, perhaps, our forebears from centuries ago?
In one of his many eloquent essays, BF Skinner suggested the following: we have removed ourselves from the fruits of our labors and now seek the reinforcements directly. If you want music, it isn’t necessary to learn an instrument, nor master a particular score, just pop on the any number of streaming sites and enjoy! You can cook, but why not order out? Enjoy food, no labor required! And your work? If you are reinforced with a paycheck (a) that is indirect and only adds to your ability to seek reinforcement elsewhere and (b) it is not paid each time you do something. Rather, it shows up at regular intervals not directly tied to your physical exertion nor rapidly reinforcing your actions (behavioral contingencies are typically reinforced within seconds of a completed act). Yes you may be paid, but that payment is only laterally involved with your actual work and only through the accounting and procedures independent of the work you do (unless you are an accountant. If you are an accountant, feel free to skip reading this section. I don’t mind).
So how do we make ourselves happy, and what does this have to do with Star Wars vs. Star Trek? As I dive deeply into the works created by my conversation partner this week, there are some clear answers. First, there is no secret to happiness. The mundane things that make you happy (chatting with people, eating good food, playing games with friends, making love, etc.) are all things that make you happy. If you spend time on the things you enjoy, you’ll be more consistently happy than if you do not do those things. Second, it’s not like you ever achieve a final, and ultimate happiness. There isn’t an end-state of nirvana waiting if you just get the right combo of behaviors and pills. Like everything else (succeeding at a task, maintaining a good relationship with a loved one, maintaining your fitness), happiness is process not end point. Do the good stuff that you like, that uplifts you, and expect to experience the regular benefits of greater well-being. IF you stop doing those things, then expect your happiness to be reduced. Third, in all this happiness pursuit, you gain more from helping others than just getting stuff. To paraphrase from Dan Gilbert, if you buy yourself a coffee, it’ll be nice and will fulfill your enjoyment of the beverage while you drink it. Buy coffee for the person behind you on line, and you’ll make their day much better and experience a more intense and lasting happy feeling of happiness. It won’t be forever, but that social connection you gain from helping someone is a more powerful emotion than just the thrill of buying yourself something.
There is no secret to happiness, but clearly both Star Wars and Star Trek are valid. If, as a society, we maintain that resources should be hard fought and earned in all cases, then we will remain in competition. There will be winners and there will be losers. There will be concentrates of wealth for those with the wherewithal, luck, and/or motivation to garner resources successfully. And there will be many struggling for every scrap of food. We can embrace the rugged power of individuals move on the path to Star Wars, with its incredible highs and devastating lows.
Or we can do something very extreme. We can decide that we have collectivist goals and a need to be communal in our resources. Not a little communal, but a lot communal. As we automate our processes and develop the resources available to us, we can free people from laboring for survival. That is an option if we radically change our emphasis on the value of human life relative to wealth. If we do that, then we can work towards Star Trek.
Whichever path we choose, rugged individualism or communalism, we have the tools for happiness available to us. They won’t make us permanently happy or put us into a state of permanent nirvana, but we can be committed to being more connected to the people around us. Just that: a few more kind words, a little more openness to others, and we would raise our life satisfaction. That seems important, its just not a secret.