Sunday, September 25, 2016

Does your flourishing depend on having a meaningful life and being true to your self?

The idea that people gain happiness by acting in accordance with their perceived identity has interested me since I read (and wrote about) Identity Economics, by George Akerlof and Rachel Kranton quite a few years ago. The idea was used in their book to consider the incentives that people have to conform to the norms and ideals of the social categories to which they belong (e.g. gender, race, social class, age group) but I wonder whether the idea of being true to one’s self might shed light on the relationship between happiness and deeper concepts of identity related to personality, signature strengths and values.

A search of the relevant literature in psychology has not uncovered any direct tests of this idea, but I have found a couple of articles that seem to point in the direction of a hypothesis that might be worth testing.

My starting point is that the extent to which people assess their lives as being meaningful seems to be closely related to their perceptions of their identity. We know from research by Roy Baumeister (with Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky) that the extent to which people view their lives as meaningful is closely related to doing things that express themselves (for a summary discussion see Baumeister’s essay entitled The Meanings of Life).

The research by Baumeister et al was focussed on the differences between happiness and meaningfulness of life as assessed by the individuals in their survey. The two states overlapped substantially: almost half of the variation in meaningfulness was explained by happiness, and vice versa. The researchers used statistical techniques to abstract from this interdependence and to look for factors that had different impacts on happiness and meaning.

The research suggested that the extent to which people identify as being wise or creative was associated with them viewing their lives as meaningful, but did not make them happier. Other factors adding to meaningfulness but not happiness included working, exercising, meditating and praying. Stress, negative events, worrying, arguing, and reflecting on challenges and struggles all seem to be part and parcel of a highly meaningful life.

Factors that added to happiness that had little impact on meaningfulness of life included satisfaction of desires, having enough money to buy the things one wants, good health, and the frequency of good and bad feelings. There is a trade-off between happiness and meaningfulness of life because people have to choose at the margin whether to allocate more time and other resources to the things that make them happier or to things that make life more meaningful.

Unfortunately, the research I have been discussing did not consider to what extent people perceive themselves as actually acting in accordance with the values that add meaning to their lives. It might be possible for some individuals to feel that their lives are highly meaningful but to be unhappy because they lack the self-control to live up to the high standards that they set themselves. Alternatively, greater self-control may make it possible for people to attain more meaningful lives through a smaller sacrifice of happiness.

There is some research which shows that inadequate self-control has a deleterious effect on happiness. Psychologists define self-control as the ability to override or change one’s inner responses as well as to interrupt undesired impulses and to refrain from acting on them. An article entitled “Yes, But Are They Happy? Effects of Trait Self-Control on Affective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction” by Wilhelm Hofmann, Maike Luhmann, Rachel Fisher, Kathleen Vohs and Roy Baumeister concluded: “our data clearly indicate that people who have more trait self-control feel happier and are gladder about their life”.  The authors found that “many benefits of high self-control are linked to handling and avoiding conflicts among goals”.

Adding all that together suggests to me that it might be reasonable to hypothesize that an individual’s happiness depends on: (1) the extent to which they perceive their life to be meaningful (this variable accounts for factors that jointly influence the meaningfulness of life and happiness); (2) factors that add to happiness that have little direct impact on meaningfulness of life; (3) self-control.
That relationship could be turned around the other way to view meaningfulness of life as a function of happiness and the other two variables (with opposite signs expected for the estimated coefficients expected for those variables).

The important point is that there may be potential for many people to flourish to a greater extent by improving their self-control. Roy Baumeister and Ron Tierney wrote a book about how to do that, which was discussed on this blog a few years ago. 

After writing this piece I had some doubts about whether it makes sense to suggest that people with self-control problems would claim that their lives are meaningful. Then it occurred to me that just about everyone I know is a reforming sinner – a fallible human trying to live a better life. I don’t know many saints!
Introspection can’t take me far, but it does tell me that sinners who try to reform themselves often do so because they feel their lives are meaningful and should not be wasted. Introspection also tells me that reforming sinners cannot live with no regrets unless they are willing to expose themselves to temptation, and that when people are tempted they find themselves outside their comfort zones - they tend to succumb to temptation from time to time and feel somewhat unhappy.
For example, while I was giving up smoking I would have certainly said that my life was highly meaningful. However, in order to live a normal life I had to expose myself to situations where I was tempted to have a cigarette. So, I spent a fair amount of time suffering from withdrawal symptoms and would probably have rated my happiness somewhat lower than when I was smoking full-time.

That story has a happy ending. For many years I have been able to observe other people smoking without craving for a cigarette. I would now give myself a higher rating for self-control, but I’m still a fallible human trying to live a better life! 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Does stasis now make more sense than dynamism?

It is now about 18 years since Virginia Postrel suggested in The Future and Its Enemies that our political, intellectual and cultural landscape was increasingly being defined by “stasis” and “dynamism”:
How we feel about the evolving future tells us who we are as individuals and as a civilization: Do we search for stasis – a regulated, engineered world? Or do we embrace dynamism – a world of constant creation, discovery, and competition?

The author was writing about the United States, but the ideas in her book have much wider application. The old political divisions seem to breaking down all over the world. On many issues there is not much political distance between social reactionaries, green reactionaries and technocrats. The social reactionaries yearn for the kind of world our parents lived in, green reactionaries yearn for a premodern society and technocrats fear change that is not managed by governments. They all see virtue in government regulation of innovation. As a result, we see strange alliances forming on issues such as fracking.

By contrast, dynamists share beliefs in a spontaneous order. They emphasize individual flourishing and individual responsibility, and the possibilities for progress that emerge when people are free to experiment and learn. They care about “protecting the processes that allow an open-ended future to unfold”.

Virginia suggested that dynamists don’t yet share a political identity. She notes that they may view themselves as libertarian, progressive, liberal or conservative. That still seems to be true. Many dynamists eschew politics. Of those who take an interest in politics, people who see themselves as libertarians or classical liberals would have least objection to being labelled as dynamists - if they understand what the label is intended to mean.

Misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘dynamist’ might be a problem. To the uninitiated, the word could appear to refer to history’s hastening agents who seek to activate what they perceive as ‘historical forces’ to achieve a particular vision of future society. I can’t think of a positive word that adequately captures the idea of allowing an open-ended future to emerge. A new word might be required: e.g. ‘catallaxist’ - a believer in catallaxy, or spontaneous order.

Advances in technology have helped those who believe in spontaneous order to achieve some important victories over the last 18 years. For example, the emergence of services such as Uber are helping to break down regulation protecting incumbent service providers.

Yet, on balance, it looks to me as though the stasists have been winning the economic policy debate. In the aftermath of the GFC, deregulation has often been perceived as a cause of economic crisis, overlooking the effects of the regulatory environment in encouraging some financial institutions to believe that they were too big to be allowed to fail. The actions of some leaders of the economics profession in distancing themselves from market liberalisation policies has lent weight to populist demands for a return of stasist policy prescriptions.

As I see it, identifying myself as a believer in spontaneous order does not involve an ideological commitment never to advocate government intervention under any circumstances. It has to do with where the onus of proof should lie. In the case of migration, for example, I would argue that the onus should be on those favouring restrictions on international movement of people to justify why such restrictions should exist. It is argued that free international movement of people is incompatible with welfare systems in which immigrants can qualify for social assistance, but it is not obvious why immigrants should qualify for social assistance.  A more persuasive argument immigration restrictions can possibly be mounted in terms of potentially adverse social consequences of a large influx of migrants with different cultural traditions.

Similar considerations apply in relation to new technology. It is easy to mount a persuasive argument for regulatory restrictions on access to nuclear technology, but that is obviously an extreme example. Some statists have argued that innovations in home entertainment should be regulated to avoid adverse social impacts, but they imply that individuals are not capable of learning how to make sensible decisions for themselves and their families about use of new technology. Some of us had difficulty in making good decisions about use of our leisure time following the introduction of television, but that is not a powerful argument for the government to make such decisions for us. Of course, as suggested by Daniel Lattier, we have a responsibility to learn to use technology wisely, i.e., temperately. Similar considerations have applied in many aspects of life, e.g. food, beverages, sex, since ancient times.

How should we view decisions about whether to enhance brain power with neural lace? I ended a recent post on this topic suggesting that neural lace will not be worth having unless it can be developed in such a way as to enable humans to protect the privacy, autonomy and responsibility that is integral to their individual flourishing. I should have added that the decision to have a neural lace implant will be best left for individuals to make for themselves. Anyone wants to argue that choosing to use some particular form of neural lace would be tantamount to selling oneself into slavery, is of course free to try to make a case for regulation or prohibition.

My reading about potential consequences of artificial intelligence (see blog posts here and here) has left me feeling somewhat more cautious about new technology, but that does not mean that stasis now makes more sense than dynamism. Virginia makes some relevant points. She acknowledges: “the open-ended future can be genuinely scary, the turmoil it creates genuinely painful”. However, she follows with the observation:
“Statist prescriptions … stifle the very processes through which people improve their lives – from the invention of new medical treatments to the creation of art. In their quest for stability, statists make society brittle, vulnerable to all sorts of disasters”.

Like other technological innovations, the advent of super-intelligent machines has potential to expand the possibilities for human flourishing. It will also expand the range of technology by which the flourishing of individual humans could be threatened by other entities, including governments.  New technology will not alter the fundamental principle of liberalism and that adult individuals should be free to flourish as they choose, provided they do not interfere with the rights of others.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Does individual human flourishing require entrepreneurial qualities?

When I was young it seemed possible for most people in relatively high income countries to choose a career suited to their personal abilities and inclinations, obtain the qualifications necessary to pursue that career and then look forward to working in the same occupation until their retirement. It seemed possible for people to plan their lives around stable career paths, in order to obtain the optimal combination of income, interesting work, job security, or whatever else they were seeking. Educational opportunities depended to a larger extent on wealth and/or ability, and career opportunities for women were more restricted that at present. Nevertheless, everyone who applied themselves diligently was predicted to end up having a successful career.

From an individual's perspective, such predictions were always problematic. For one reason or another, some people were more successful than predicted. Others made mistakes in their career choices and either changed paths, or came to perceive themselves as square pegs trying to fit into round holes. There was always a lot of adjustment going on in the labour market as people moved between firms and industries in search of better opportunities, or as a result of retrenchments. Most people ended up with satisfying careers, but some didn’t.

These days there is much greater uncertainty about whether young people will be able to pursue the careers they prepare for, even though educational opportunities are more widely available. Predictions can be made about the kinds of skills that are likely to be in demand in future (see, for example a post I wrote last year on this question) but we cannot be confident that any particular academic pursuits (including STEM subjects) will necessarily produce the skills that potential employers might want.  Acquiring useful skills and obtaining rewarding employment seems to be becoming more akin to an entrepreneurial process of discovering and gearing up to supply a market niche.

In thinking about the process of skill acquisition and job search it may be helpful to reflect upon Israel Kirzner’s view of the way entrepreneurial decision-making differs from economizing decision-making i.e. efficient use of known means to achieve known ends. Kirzner notes that entrepreneurial decision-making requires a posture of alertness:
In addition to the exploitation of perceived opportunities, purposive human action involves a posture of alertness toward the discovery of as yet unperceived opportunities and their exploitation. This element in human action – the alertness toward new valuations with respect to ends, new availability of means – may be termed the entrepreneurial element in the individual decision’ (Perception,Opportunity and Profit, p 109).

Of course, occupations are just one aspect of life. How does the forgoing discussion relate to the question I asked at the outset was about human flourishing? Is it reasonable to argue that the entrepreneurial alertness discussed by Kirzner is an important component of the practical wisdom required for individual human flourishing?

In my view, Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen make a strong case for that in their recently book, The Perfectionist Turn, aspects of which have been briefly discussed in the last two posts on this blog (here and here). After acknowledging Kirzner’s insights, the authors suggest that just as entrepreneurship involves a discovery process, so too does human flourishing. This is contrary to the view of people who imply that pursuit of our final end in life is merely an optimisation process:
Knowing what our end is, so it is said, will leave us only the task of utilizing the means at our disposal to effectively achieve that end. Yet, as we have tried to show in our various discussions of freedom and self-direction, our end of a perfecting or flourishing life is not like one of using known resources in their most effective manner. Rather the perfecting is more like discovering means available to such an end that are as yet unknown, or only partly known, to us. Moreover, once those means are discovered, it is equally mistaken to suppose that efficient usage is the only remaining challenge. Because perfecting or flourishing is not a passive state but an activity, there is virtually a constant reassessment of the adequacy and appropriateness of the means; this, as a consequence, suggests openness and alertness to new opportunities amidst changing circumstances. Finally, optimization suggests efficiency along only one dimension, but flourishing (at least in our view) is inclusive of multiple dimensions’ (p 287-8).

While such observations about the qualities required for individual human flourishing would probably have been as relevant in ancient Greece as they are today, we are helped to comprehend them by a sympathetic understanding of the qualities required for successful entrepreneurship.