Imagine that in the future we will have ubiquitous access to miracle technology that is capable of giving us immortality, endless happiness, and super-enhanced intelligence. You do not currently have access to such technology. The lack of this technology is leading to the ubiquitousness of suffering, death, and stupidity. We are essentially living through an epic dystopia caused by the deprivation of such technology.
Yet, someone today may find it unacceptable that they don’t own the latest macbook air. People seem to care more about the deprivation of the latest computer than they do about the deprivation of miracle technology and the subsequent dystopia that emerges from this deprivation. This suggests that people somehow can cope with and even be happy without miracle technology.
Why might this be?
The deprivation of any resource could be termed absolute deprivation. Every person is deprived of the nonexistent miracle technology. Though, many people have the latest macbook and this seems unfair to those who don’t. This is what relative deprivation refers to: the unfairness of being deprived relative to others.
Something like relative deprivation in monkeys.
The miracle technology seems to be impossible to acquire at the moment, so we do not spend much time considering our deprivation of such technology. Yet, the lack of access to such technology is literally killing countless people and leading to global suffering of the most unprecedented kind. Despite this, we are not very concerned about the deprivation of this technology. This reveals that our lack of access to material possessions, technology, and life-saving tools does not necessarily make us unhappy. Instead, the unfairness of the situation that some people have access to these things while others don’t causes us to become upset. The sense that a realistic counterfactual universe in which we have such inaccessible technology is what we really bothers us. The unrealistic counterfactuals do not. This suggests that counterfactuals are implicated in our happiness with access to resources and technology. To imagine that we are missing out on something amazing and great is what is painful, particularly that others have access to this.
A weirder part of the puzzle is whether these counterfactuals are “realistic”. We imagine the acquisition of a new macbook to be fairly realistic, though perhaps for some it isn’t as realistic. The situation is more complicated as it isn’t about a single resource like a macbook, but instead, wealthy people have access to more resources in general. So in some sense, acquiring many resources is impossible for those with lower wealth. Perhaps most people can own the newest macbook, but the poorest classes will have to resort to sacrificing access to other technologies to acquire the macbook.
Another aspect is whether we should base our happiness on such counterfactuals if we are capable of being happy in situations of absolute deprivation, like in the case of our deprivation of miracle technology. If it is possible for us to be happy despite a lack of access to these resources, then maybe we can find happiness by viewing situations of relative deprivation similarly to how we view situations of absolute deprivation. The problem is that this may enable unfair use of resources by more powerful groups. In order to get the best of both worlds, we might be able to find a level of acceptance while also behaving in alignment with attaining ethics of fairness.
If I Could Fly
I often slip into feeling good even when my life appears to be quite bad. The unsolvable problems are forgotten away from my current moment and so what’s left is solvable problems and already solved problems. This experience is mostly pleasant. This strategy is mostly about what I pay attention to. I don’t often pay attention to the kinds of stresses that I am incapable of solving. Since I do not focus on them, I do not sense the stress they would cause. It is almost like they don’t exist.
Whether we consider such behavior as a coping strategy seems complicated. What makes life good or bad is how we feel. Being stabbed is bad because it makes us feel bad. If it did not feel bad or lead us into future bad feelings, then it would not be bad. Focusing on unsolvable problems is painful and leads us into a sense of helplessness. The idea of coping would be that we are ignoring the problem to feel good. In a sense, this might seem like coping but if the problem is based on how the problem makes us feel, then the problem ceases to exist if we do not attend to it.
This can be selfish of course, but as long as one has no capacity to solve the problem, it is not actually that selfish. It might even be unethical to attend to the problem if it is unsolvable because it harms your wellbeing, without bringing anything to the world. Whether or not problems are solvable by you is something that has to be considered and thought out. This isn’t advice to deem most of your problems unsolvable. Perhaps we aren’t even capable of knowing what problems can be solved though.
I usually forget that I can’t fly. Being unable to fly is a very bad or even traumatic realization, as many people die because I cannot fly. If I could fly, I could save many people who are falling off of buildings, or drowning, or various other circumstances in which flying could lead to life-saving actions. Since I cannot figure out how to fly, I forget about this despite that many people’s lives are at stake.
While that sounds absurd, there are things I cannot do that seem more realistic than being able to fly like starting a neuroscience lab. The closer my desires are to reality, the more concerned I become. One very commonly forgotten traumatic realization is that we will eventually die. If this doesn’t bother you, then consider that every single person that you love will die too. These are unsolvable problems that most of us share. By now, you likely realize that you use this strategy of forgetting too.
Even more realistically, we might question whether certain obstacles in our life are solvable problems or not. Financial, material, and other barriers to success might make a problem not worth investing attention to. We can also ask if we need to solve certain problems at all. Does our life collapse if we do not solve the problem? If so, it might be pretty important.
Though, this gets increasingly complicated as we zoom in on more “realistic” problems. How many of these problems are involve solutions analogous to flying and how many are solvable? We might deem solvable problems unsolvable. It seems that depressed people occassionally do this. It may even by why their judgments are often seen as more realistic. To predict a realistic outcome for yourself can often mean predicting the result to be one that manifests from low effort. It is easy for low effort realities to become true so predicting the outcome to be the result of that low effort reality is easier.
This gets more interesting when we question what we should be concerned about. Consider that we are actively on a path to death, along with everyone else we love. Despite this, most of us can live without chronic horror of this reality. I believe we could treat many of our ongoing sources of suffering similarly to how we treat death and our inability to fly. We could minimize our lifestyles rather than chase endless profits and materialism.
We could be happy with almost nothing but instead we choose to seek highly distressing goals because of the way the world taught us to. We are not necessarily stressed that we have not acquired wealth or material possessions, but instead we are saddened that we are failures of the goals we set. This might be close to what some have termed ‘enlightenment‘. Essentially, enlightenment could be described as a focus on maximizing one’s own wellbeing at the lowest cost of resources or harm to others possible. It also entails ideas about becoming aware of how the world and your own mind work and interact.
Maximizing wellbeing is often times more about minimalism than acquiring more materials. This is partly because acquiring materials is a painful process and we become numb to the ownership of possessions. Wanting a yacht will often hurts us far more than wanting a new video game. Having the yacht won’t necessarily provide happiness that lasts any longer than the video game (debatable actually). There is a pattern in which new things are exciting for a period of time and we develop tolerance to the stimuli and having this becomes our baseline. Knowing this, it seems potentially foolish to chase a reward that we will become so tolerant to if chasing that reward makes us suffer.
What if we optimized our lives for happiness rather than optimizing our lives for what society suggests will make us happy?
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