Monthly Archives: March 2017

Summary of the Harvard Grant Study: Triumphs of Experience

A Harvard study followed 268 undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 for 75 years, regularly collecting data on various aspects of their lives. The findings were reported in a recent book by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant: Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.

Here are five lessons from the study pertaining to a happy and meaningful life. First, the most important ingredient for meaning and happiness is loving relationships. Even individuals with successful careers and good physical health were not fulfilled without loving relationships. Second, money and power are small parts of a fulfilling life; they correlate poorly with happiness. Those most proud of their achievements are those most content in their work, not the ones who make the most money. Third, we can become happier in life as we proceed through it, despite how we started our lives. Fourth, connection with others and work is essential for joy; and this seems to be increasingly true as one ages. Finally, coping well with challenges makes you happier. The key is to replace narcissism with mature coping mechanisms like concerns for others and productive work.

Robert Waldinger, who now heads the Grant Study that began in 1938, recently gave a TedTalk about it that has been viewed more than 6 million times. While the study only includes white males, it does include those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. What the study show unequivocally is that the happiest and healthiest people are those who maintained close, intimate relationships. Moreover, personal relationships are just as important to your health as diet and exercise

“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely,” Waldinger said in his TedTalk. Something about satisfying relationships protects us from some of the harm done by aging. Furthermore, other things associated with happiness, like wealth and fame, do not make much difference.  Instead what matters is the quality and stability of our relationships. So casual friends or abusive relationships don’t improve the quality of our lives. (Waldinger also has a blog about what makes a good life.)

While many of us want easy answers to the question of how to be happy, Waldinger says that says that “relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.” But the evidence shows that that is how we find real happiness.

Reflections

Noteworthy is that these findings overlap almost perfectly with what Victor Frankl’s discovered about the meaningful life in his classic: Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl says we find meaning through: 1) personal relationships, 2) productive work, and 3) by nobly enduring suffering. The only difference is that Frankl doesn’t talk specifically about money, although no doubt he would agree that it is of secondary concern. Also noteworthy is how the findings of Vaillant and Frankl agree with modern happiness research. Here are just a few of the excellent books whose social science research supports these basic findings.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Is Existence Better than Non-existence? (Final Thoughts on Hope)

Surely the evidence that [humanity] has risen thus far may give [them] hope for a still higher destiny in the future. ~ Charles Darwin

People … yearn to have a purpose larger than themselves. We are obliged by the deepest drives of the human spirit to make ourselves more than animated dust, and we must have a story to tell about where we came from, and why we are here. ~ E. O. Wilson

More than a month ago I began to exam the concept of hope. I voiced my conclusions in, “A Defense of Hope.” Here is a brief summary of my conclusions.

1 – I am neither optimistic or hopeful about the future because I don’t expect good outcomes, or anticipate that my wishes will come true.

2 – Hope is more fundamental than optimism, for optimism usually relies on a belief that a desirable outcome is probable, whereas hope is independent of probability assessments.

3 – I recommend an attitude of hope without expectations. This attitudinal hopefulness rejects despair, emanates from our nature, expresses itself as caring, spurs action, and makes my life better.

4 – I recommend wishful hopefulness for the same reasons, as long as it is possible that our wishes can be fulfilled, even though we don’t expect them to be.

5 –  I hope that life is meaningful, that truth, goodness, and beauty matter, that justice ultimately prevails, and that the world can be improved.

6 – Hope emanates from our biological drive to survive and reproduce, and may expand with the emergence of consciousness and culture.

7 – I can lose my hopeful attitude and give in to despair.

8 – Conclusion – We should (generally) adopt both attitudinal and wishful hopefulness. Still there are situations in which we should give up hope.

Final Thoughts – If attitudinal hopefulness is about acting and striving, do we express some cosmic longing by hoping for good things, and then acting to bring them about? Do we commune with reality by hoping, and if so does this mean that the cosmos is somehow good? Could this be what Plato meant when he said the idea of the good was at the apex of being and reality? Or is Schopenhauer right—our actions simply manifest a blind will, “full of sound and fury signifying nothing?”

The issue of hope then is linked with the question of whether existence is better, or could be better, than non-existence. If existence is better now, and will remain better than non-existence, then attitudinal and wishful hoping are good things. If existence is now worse than non-existence, but could become better than non-existence in the future, then we have to balance things like: how much worse it is now compared to how much better it might become and the probability of existence becoming better. If non-existence is always preferable to existence, then hope is a bad thing.

Unfortunately I don’t know whether existence is now, or will become, preferable to non-existence. I don’t know if it is better for humans and the universe to exist than not to. These questions are as unanswerable as trying to prove that “coffee with cream is better than black coffee,” or “that love is better than hate.”[i]

So in the end, without answers to my metaphysical musings, I return to the idea that it is generally better to hope than despair, with the usual caveats that my hoping attitude must be intrinsically satisfying and the objects of my hopeful wishing are realistic. So after all this searching I can do nothing more than echo William James and Fitz James Stephen: “Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes.” This isn’t much to hang your hat on, but at least this modest conclusion is intellectually honest. We don’t have to be embarrassed to claim that, while we don’t expect the best, we do hope that somehow things will work out in the end.

So now, after my search for hope, I agree with and truly understand this great quote:

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

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[i] Edwards, “The Meaning and Value of Life,” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke and Steven Cahn (Oxford University Press,) 133.

Philosophy and Hope (Academic)

The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence. ~ Gertrude Stein

For the last few weeks I’ve been discussing hope, and I’d like to now briefly summarize the standard account of hope among professional philosophers.Here’s how the discussion of hope begins in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Hope is not only an attitude that has cognitive components—it is responsive to facts about the possibility and likelihood of future events. It also has a conative component—hopes are different from mere expectations insofar they reflect and draw upon our desires.2

So hope encompasses both cognitive and non-cognitive aspects of the mind. The cognitive component assesses possibilities and probabilities, the non-cognitive component has to do with desires.

In the “standard account,” hope consists of both a belief in an outcome’s possibility and a desire for that outcome. Here is the“standard account,” as defined by R. S. Downie:

There are two criteria which are independently necessary and jointly sufficient for ‘hope that’. The first is that the object of hope must be desired by the hoper. […] The second […] is that the object of hope falls within a range of physical possibility which includes the improbable but excludes the certain and the merely logically possible.

Or, as J. P. Day writes, “A hopes that p” is true iff “A wishes that p, and A thinks that p has some degree of probability, however small” is true.

The standard definition of “hoping that,” conforms to my definition of wishful hoping. But it doesn’t address the attitudinal hoping that motivates me to act, rather than despair. So nothing about the standard definition gainsays the kind of hope that I advocate.

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1. My summary borrowed from the entry on hope in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

2. Conation is any natural tendency, impulse, striving, or directed effort.[1]

Summary of Schopenhauer on Hope: From “Psychological Observations”

Schopenhauer.jpg

I would be remiss if I didn’t consider the critique of hope found in the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. (I considered his view of pessimism in my last post.) He speaks of hope most directly in an essay titled, “Psychological Observations.” Immediately preceding his brief discussion of hope, he makes these pertinent observations:

 it is usual throughout the whole world to wish people a long life. It is not a knowledge of what life is that explains the origin of such a wish, but rather knowledge of what man is in his real nature: namely, the will to live.

The wish which everyone has, that he may be remembered after his death, and which those people with aspirations have for posthumous fame, seems to me to arise from this tenacity to life …

We wish, more or less, to get to the end of everything we are interested in or occupied with; we are impatient to get to the end of it, and glad when it is finished. It is only the general end, the end of all ends, that we wish, as a rule, as far off as possible.

These considerations of wishing, especially that we don’t die, lead him directly to his discussion of hope.

Hope is to confuse the desire that something should occur with the probability that it will. Perhaps no man is free from this folly of the heart, which deranges the intellect’s correct estimation of probability to such a degree as to make him think the event quite possible, even if the chances are only a thousand to one. And still, an unexpected misfortune is like a speedy death-stroke; while a hope that is always frustrated, and yet springs into life again, is like death by slow torture.

Notice here that his conception of hope entails expectation, the kind of hope I also reject. But surprisingly, in the following passage he seems to defend hope:

He who has given up hope has also given up fear; this is the meaning of the expression desperate. It is natural for a man to have faith in what he wishes, and to have faith in it because he wishes it. If this peculiarity of his nature, which is both beneficial and comforting, is eradicated by repeated hard blows of fate, and he is brought to a converse condition, when he believes that something must happen because he does not wish it, and what he wishes can never happen just because he wishes it; this is, in reality, the state which has been called desperation.

Essentially he’s saying that to lose expectant hope, which he says is both beneficial and comforting, is to despair. This suggests that hope is a good after all. Yet this brief discussion of hope must be taken in the context of his entire philosophy. First, what he writes here is more description than prescription; he says that people do find comfort in hope, not that they should. Second, he would reject the action motivating, attitudinal hope that I advocate because he believes blind will motivates action, and we are all better off dead. In the end, Schopenhauer’s philosophy challenges the hopeful among us.

Summary of Marshall Brain’s “Robotic Nation”

Recent discussion about the effect of technology on employment reminded me of Marshall Brain‘s prescient essays of almost 20 years ago. (“Robotic Nation,” “Robots in 2015,” and “Robotic Freedom“) Here is a summary of the main theses in each essay.

Robotic Nation

OUTLINE

Tip of the Iceberg – Technology transforms employment because of
Moore’s Law – Exponential growth is leading to a
The New Employment Landscape – where the equation
Labor = Money – will no longer hold, necessitating new economic models.

Brain believes every fast food meal will be (almost) fully automated soon, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Right now we interact with automated systems: ATM machines, gas pumps, self-serve checkout, etc. These systems lower cost and prices, but “these systems will also eliminate jobs in massive numbers.” There will be massive unemployment in the next decades as we enter the robotic revolution.

In the next 15 years most retail transactions will be automated and 5 million retail jobs lost. Next, walking, human shaped robots will begin to appear, and by 2025 we may have AI equipped machines  that hear, move, see, and manipulate objects with roughly the ability of humans. Robots will get cheaper and become more human shaped to facilitate their use of cars, elevators, and other objects in the human environment. By 2030 you will buy a $10,000 robot that will clean, vacuum, and mow the lawn. Robotic fast food places will open shortly thereafter, and by 2040 will be completely robotic. By 2055 robots will replace half the American workforce leaving millions unemployed. Restaurants, airports, construction, hospitals, truck drivers and airplane pilots are just some of the jobs and locations that will have mostly robotic workers. These robots will last for years, and need no vacation or sick time.

While robotic vision or image processing is currently a stumbling block, Brain thinks we will make significant progress in this field in the next twenty years. This single improvement will bring catastrophic changes, analogous to the changes brought about by the Wright brothers. Brain applauds these developments. After all, who wants to clean toilets, flip burgers, and drive trucks, activities that waste human potential.

If all this sounds crazy, Brain asks you to consider a prediction of faster than sound aircraft in 1900; a time when there were no radios, model T’s or airplanes.  At that time many thought heavier than air flight was impossible, and predictions to the contrary were often ridiculed. Thus the employment world is changing dramatically and rapidly. Why?

The basic answer is Moore’s Law—CPU power doubles every 18 to 24 months. Computers in 2020 will have the NEC Earth Simulator. By 2100 we may have the power of a million human brains on our desktop. Robots will take your job by 2050 with the marriage of: cheap computers with the power of a human brain; a robotic chassis like Asimo; a fuel cell; and advanced software.

The new employment landscape isn’t so different from the one of 100 years ago, but it will be vastly different once robots that see, hear, and understand language compete with humans for jobs. The 50 million jobs in fast food, delivery, retail, hotels, airports, factories, restaurants, and construction will be lost in the next fifty years. But America can’t deal with 50 million unemployed, and the economy will not create 50 million new jobs. Why?

In the current economy people trade labor for money. But without enough work, people won’t be able to earn money. What then? Brain argues that we should then provide free housing and a guaranteed income. But whatever we do, we had better start thinking about the kind of societal structures needed in a “robotic nation.”

Robots in 2015” 

OUTLINE

We Will Replace the Pilots – and then
Robots in Retail – but we won’t
Create New Jobs – which implies
A Race to the Bottom – so
Where Do We Want to Go?

If you went back to 1950 you would find people doing most of the work just like they do in 2000. (Except for ATM machines, robots on the auto assembly line, automated voice answering systems, etc.) But we are on the edge of a robotic nation, where half the jobs will be automated in the near future. Robots will be popular because they save money. For example, if an airline replaces expensive pilots, the money saved will give them a competitive advantage over other airlines. Initially we’ll feel sorry for the pilots, but forget about them when the savings are passed on to us. Other jobs will follow suit. What about new jobs creation? After all, the model T created an automotive industry. Won’t the robotic industry do the same? No. Robots will assemble robots, and engineering and sales jobs will go to those willing to work for less.

The robotic nation will have lots of jobs—for robots! Even now our economy creates few high paying jobs. (For which there is intense competition.) Instead, there will be a “race to the bottom.” A race to pay lower wages and benefits to workers and, if technologically feasible, to eliminate them altogether. Robots will make the minimum wage—which has declined in real dollars for the last forty years—irrelevant; there will be no high paying jobs to replace the lost low-paying ones. So where do we want to go? We are on the brink of massive unemployment unknown in American history, and everyone will suffer because of it. How then do we want the robotic economy to work for the citizens of this nation?

Robotic Freedom

Overall Summary

The Concentration of Wealth – is accelerating bringing about
A Question of Freedom – why not let us be free to create
Harry Potter and the Economy – which leads us to
Stating Goals – to increase human freedom using
Capitalism Supersized – an economy that provides for all and has
The Advantages of Economic Security – which is better for
Everybody – because even high-skilled jobs are vulnerable.

We are on the leading edge of a robotic revolution that is beginning with automated checkout lane, and the pace of this change will accelerate in our lifetimes. Furthermore, the economy will not absorb all these unemployed. So what can we do to adapt to the catastrophic changes that the robotic nation will bring?

People are crucial to the economy. But increasingly there is a concentration of wealth—the rich make more money and the workers make less. With the arrival of robots, all corporate income will go to the shareholders and executives. But this automation of labor—robots will do almost all the work 100 years from now—should allow people to be more creative. So why not design an economy where we abandon the “work or don’t eat” philosophy?

This is a question of freedom. Consider J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books. Amazingly she wrote them while on welfare and would not have done so without public support. Think how much human potential we lose because people have to work to eat. How much music, art, science, literature, and technology have never been created because people had to work to eat. Consider that Linux and Wikipedia were created by people in their spare time. Why not create an economic model that encourages this kind of productivity, one where we don’t have so many working poor, or people sleeping in the streets? Brain argues that robots give us a chance to transform the human condition.

He also argues that we shouldn’t ban robots because that leads to economic stagnation and lots of toilet cleaning. Instead he states these goals:  raise the minimum wage; reduce the work week; and increase welfare systems to deal with unemployment. What need to completely re-think our economic goals. The primary goal of the economy should be to increase human freedom. We can do this by using robotic workers to free people to: choose their own creative projects, and use their free time as they see fit. We need not be slaves to the sixty hour work week, which is “the antithesis of freedom.”

The remainder of the article offers suggestions (supersize capitalism, guarantee economic security) as to how we would fund a society in which people are free to actualize their potential to be creative without the burden of wage slavery. Now if all this seems unrealistic consider how fanciful our world would be to the slaves and serfs that populated much of human history. Brain says we are all vulnerable to the coming robotic nation, so we should think about a different world. Hopefully it will be one where robotic workers give us the time and the the freedom we all so desperately desire.

Robotic Nation FAQ

Question 1 – Why did you write these articles? What is your goal? Answer – Robots will take over half the jobs by 2030, and this will have disastrous consequences for rich and poor alike. No one wants this. I’d like to plan ahead.

Question 2 – You are suggesting that the switchover to robots will happen quickly, over the course of just 20 to 30 years. Why do you think it will happen so fast? Answer – Consider the analogy to the automobile or computer revolutions. Once things get going, they proceed rapidly. Vision, CPU power, and memory are currently holding robots back—but this will change. Robots will work better and faster than humans by 2030-2040.

Question 3 – In the past technological innovation created more jobs, not less. When horse-drawn plows were replaced by the tractor, security guards by the burglar alarm, craftsman making things by factories making them,  human calculators by computers, etc., it improved productivity and increased everyone’s standard of living. Why do you think that robots will create massive unemployment and other economic problems? Answer – First, no previous technology replaced 50% of the labor pool. Second, robotics won’t create new jobs. The work created by robots will be done by robots. Third, we are creating a second intelligent species which competes with humans for jobs. As the abilities of this new species improves, they will do more of our work. Fourth, past increases in productivity meant more pay and less work, but today worker wages are stagnant. Now productivity gains result in concentration of wealth. This may work itself out in the long run, but in the short run it is devastating.

Question 4 – There is no evidence for what you are saying, no economic foundation for your proposals. Answer – Just Google ‘jobless recovery,’” for the evidence. Automation fuels production increases, but does not create new jobs.

Question 5 – What you are describing is socialism. Why are you a socialist/communist? Answer – Brain responds that he is a capitalist who has started three successful businesses and written a dozen books—he is pro-market. Socialism is the view that centralized governmental planning produces and distributes goods. But Brain argues that by giving consumers a share of the wealth—which they won’t be able to earn with work—we will “enhance capitalism by creating a large, consistent river of consumer spending,” and at the same time provide economic security to all citizens. Communism is usually identified by the loss of freedom and choice, whereas Brain wants people to have “economic freedom for the first time in human history…”

Question 6 – Why do you believe that a $25,000 per year stipend for every citizen is the solution to the problem? Answer – With robots doing all the work, we will finally have an opportunity to do this, which is better for everyone.

Question 7 – Won’t your proposals cause inflation? Answer – Tax rebates, similar to his proposals, don’t cause inflation. Neither do taxes, social security or other programs that redistribute wealth.

Question 7a – OK, maybe it won’t cause inflation. But there is no way to give everyone $25,000 per year. The GDP is only $10 trillion. Answer – Brain argues that we should do this gradually. Remember $150 billion, about what the US spent on the Iraq war in 2003, is $500 for every man, woman, and child in the US. At the moment our government collects about $20,000 per household in taxes each year and so a stipend in that range is feasible.

Question 7b – Is $25,000 enough? Why not more? Answer – “As the economy grows, so should the stipend.”

Question 8 – Won’t robots bring dramatically lower prices? Everyone will be able to buy more stuff at lower prices. Answer – True. But current trends show that most of the wealth will end up in the hands of a few. Also, if you have no wealth it won’t matter that prices are low. For every citizen benefit from the robotic nation, we must distribute the wealth.

Question 9 – Won’t a $25,000 per Year Stipend Create a Nation of Alcoholics? Answer – Brain notes this is a common question since many people assume that if we aren’t forced to do hard labor we’ll just do nothing or drink all day. But he has no idea where this fear comes from (probably from philosophical, moral, and religious ideas promulgated by certain groups.) He dispels the idea with examples: a) he supports his wife who works at home; b) his in-laws are retired and live on a pension and social security; c) he has independently wealthy friends; d) he knows students supported by loans; and e) many receive free education and training. None of these people are lazy or alcoholics! 

Question 9a – Yes, stay-at-home moms and retirees are not alcoholic parasites, but they are exceptions. They also are not productive members of the economy. Society will collapse if we do what you are talking about. Answer – Everyone participates in the economy by spending money. Unless there are people with money there’s no economy. The cycle of getting paid by a paycheck and spending it at businesses who get the money from customers is just that—a cycle—which will stop if people have no money. And giving a stipend won’t stop people from trying to make more money, create, invent or play. Some people will become alcoholics though, just as they do now, but Brain thinks we’ll have less lazy alcoholics if we provide people with enough to live decent lives.

Question 10 – Why not let capitalism run itself? We should eliminate the minimum wage, welfare, child labor laws, the 40-hour work week, antitrust laws, etc. Answer – Because of economic coercion. This economic power is why companies pay wages of a few dollars a week in most parts of the world. Better to have a universal basic income.

Question 11 – Why didn’t you include the whole world in your proposals—why are you U.S. centric? Answer – Ideally, the global economy would adopt these proposals.

Question 12 – I love this idea. How are we going to make it happen? Answer – We should spread the word.

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1. These articles in their entirety can be found here.