(Originally posted by Pat in 3/2012)
Have you ever noticed how cats will play with the same toy again and
again? It's difficult to bore them, though not impossible. Throw a toy
past them, and they will hunt their prey, pounce upon it, then release,
so that it might be thrown again. There's something Sisyphusian about
the whole affair; how come they don't just catch it and hold it there
forever? Why don't they try to eat it—after all, that is what those
instincts evolved to achieve?
Are we humans wiser? It's not apparent to me that we are. In fact, in studies of happiness, striving—what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow—plays an extremely central role. Having things done is not a recipe for happiness; doing things
is. This is why a video game can be less fun because it is “too easy”;
if it requires no striving, the success brings no feeling of reward. So
it begins to seem that maybe the cats are doing it right; do the same
thing over and over again, never achieving anything, and you will be
seems a bit wireheaded, doesn't it? It seems like the sort of thing
that might well achieve subjective happiness as an emotion, but doesn't
actually accomplish the sort of eudaimonia that we're really going for when we speak of making the world a happier place. It's like having a hallucination of a good life and a happy family, instead of actually having one.
One possible escape was suggested by Max Florka some time ago: Part of striving seems to imply striving for something—that unless you actually want to have done something at some point in the future, you're not really doing something at all, you're just going through the motions of doing.
like this answer in certain cases; indeed, it is what I say as a
scientist to people who say that we take the mystery out of life. It's
true: We do solve mysteries, most definitely. Why do we do this? Well,
because we treat them as mysteries! That's what you do with
mysteries, isn't it? You start at “I don't understand” and move to “Now I
understand”? If you're not doing that, you're not really treating it
like a mystery at all—you're treating it like something beautiful to
Yet it seems incomplete somehow. First of all, why is it
that we are happier when striving? Is that a good thing? If we could
change it, should we? Maybe that is one of the upgrades the transhuman
future will bring: Remove our desire to strive for things, and instead accept what we already have. Perhaps they will run out of places to go and instead decide to stay where they are. (This
seems vaguely Buddhist. The biggest difference is that the transhumans
will have at their poorest more wealth than our billionaires and at
their dumbest more knowledge than our geniuses, and so coming to accept
what they have makes a good deal more sense.)
Or maybe we will
always want to strive. Maybe we will decide that we always want to have a
destination to point to—and then we have to ask, should it be one we
can actually expect to reach? Is it better to strive for an attainable
goal, or one that is completely impossible? Is it enough to want to actually achieve it, or must you actually have some chance of doing so? How great a chance?
I don't have the answers. But I think we need to be asking the questions.