Saturday, December 14, 2002

The Problem with Life

Part 2

How Happy does Evolution want us to be?

If we’re controlled by the feelings we experience… what does that say for our chances of living happy lives?

If we’re slaves, working hard to satisfy our genetic masters… will they ever allow us to be particularly happy?

Part 2 is an attempt to get a better understanding of happiness....

- the nature of happiness.

Not - ‘How do I get to be more successful?’ Or “What are tonight’s winning lottery numbers?”

But more like “How does happiness work? What’s the purpose of happiness?”

- If we can get a better understanding of how happiness works from a biological point of view, will it give us a better chance of understanding whether we’re going the right way about trying to get happier?

Or, indeed, whether it's possible to be any happier….

** Happiness doesn't work the way we think it does

We've all got a list of things that would make us happy:

Call it our Happiness Wish List:

- more money
- a good relationship
- world peace
- better hair...

Of course, making a list is never the problem...

... the problem is making the list happen: the world, after all, is a difficult place to control.

But the reason we keep going, the reason we keep trying every day, is the firm belief that if we really could get all the things in our list, we 'd end up being substantially happier than we are now.

And what's more, we'd stay happy...

- we'd remain at that elevated state of happiness until something in our circumstances changed... like we lost our job, got cancer or our mum died.

But what if happiness doesn’t work like that...?

So if happiness is a mechanism, rather than an automatic result... where does that leave our happiness wish-list?


We’re all brought up with the idea that happiness is achievable. We’re taught that if we work hard at school, if we have a great family, if we earn money and the respect of the community…we’ll be happy. It’s what ‘happily ever after’ is all about: every book and film is based on this simple assumption.

And yet, one of the world’s greatest religions was formed 2500 years ago by a man that wasn’t convinced.

Buddha was an Indian prince. According to legend, he was a wealthy and important person. He had money, power, popularity. But he still wasn’t content.

In search of ‘more’ out of life, he sat down under a tree and tried to work out what was going wrong. He sat under that tree for a long time, before finally came to the conclusion:

“Life is inherently unsatisfactory.”

- Whatever you achieve, whatever you have in life - be it material possessions, a loving family, respect of people around you - it 's never going to be enough to make you content.

This is bit shocking to the 21st Century Western mind: the thought that millions of people base their spiritual beliefs on the idea that being rich, successful and loved won't actually improve your life seems bizarre.

Being born 2500 years ago, Buddha had very little science. Although he had an observation, he didn’t have an explanation. So what can 2500 years of scientific knowledge add to Buddha's observation? Could it be human nature that we're never satisfied…? Not in an “old wives’ tale” kind of way, but in a biological way? Could it be “human nature” in the same way that it’s a lion’s nature to kill antelopes? Could there be a scientific explanation why the grass is always greener? A scientific explanation why life is inherently unsatisfactory?

How our instincts mislead us about happiness.

Personal experience Number 1: The Pleasure Fader

The Man with one music album

There's a man in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who owns just one music album. It's by Johnny Cash... but that’s not important. What is important is that, unlike the rest of us, this man doesn't get bored with this one recording. He just plays it over and over again.

His friends say to him "How can you possibly play those same tunes over and over again, Bill?"

And Bill just smiles, and says "How come you can't?"

OK - he's fictional. And he'd have to be, wouldn't he? After all, that's frankly inhuman. However good the music, however talented the performer - to be able to listen to just one album, over and over forever - it’s not normal.

But why do we get bored? Why is it that we can play a record ten, maybe even twenty times over, loving it every time.... and then, ever so gradually, the songs become too familiar, and we start to get bored?

- Nothing changes in the music: we don't wear it out by overplaying it, like we might wear out a pair of our favourite shoes.

- Nothing changes in the outside world: the sound waves don't hit our eardrums in a different way…

And yet... we get bored. For some reason, our own brain decides to take the pleasure away from us and make us go out and buy another record.

And, it all seems so normal.

"That's just the way it is."

Personal Experience Number 2: The expectation-adjuster

The Christmas Bonus

Two employees receive a $5000 end-of-the-year bonus. One of them flips burgers for a living, and the other works on Wall Street. Mr Burger Flipper is delighted with his $5000… while Mr Wall Street is mortified. Last year, Mr Wall Street made $200,000 in bonuses, and he was expecting pretty much the same this year.

These two men’s reactions are entirely dependent on their expectations of life.

They both experience exactly the same event – a $5000 bonus… but one brain converts the information into “delight” while the other brain converts the information into “misery”. And once again it all seems so normal… of course the Wall Street man should be upset with his $5000 - he’s worth much more, he’s capable of much more…

But hold on - surely success should make us happier?

- The Wall Street trader is "successful". He’s the one that people on a lower wage are supposed to aspire to be. And yet, he's the one that's unhappy.

If happiness works the way we think it does, shouldn’t we be happy if we do well - regardless of what we already have? If happiness is a reward for “success” in life, 'how good we feel' shouldn’t depend on our expectations of our success... it should depend on our success. Full stop.

- Mr Wall Street should feel equally happy with the $5000 bonus as Mr Burger Flipper does.

- And if he gets the $200,000 he was expecting, then he can be even more happy.

But of course it doesn’t work that way. If we think we’re capable of a big bonus, we get upset if we don’t get it.

We know the Pleasure Fader and the Expectation Adjuster so well, that we don’t even question them. They are so much a part of our lives that we blame the world we live in, not the world inside our heads.

And yet, without them, how wonderful - how perfect - our lives would be.

The explanation for the pleasure fader and the expectation adjuster

Until we realise that we're genetic slaves, we don't even look for an explanation. We’re content to blame the world we live in or our inability to perform as well as we’d like to in that world. But as we now realise, the world we live in isn't responsible for how we feel at all: our evolutionary-programmed minds are responsible for how we feel: entirely responsible. They have complete power to choose.

So, is there an evolutionary reason for the pleasure fadaer and the expectation adjuster? Would it make sense that our brains manipulate us so that we are continually pushing to be the best, continually trying to improve our situation in life… and we’ll never be satisfied, regardless of how much we've already achieved?

Would evolution have wired our brains up that way?

Imagine you’re evolution....

You've been working hard for the last few billion years, and recently launched your greatest creation so far, Mr Homo Sapiens…

Things are going well. Your new machine is beginning to throw its weight around the planet to great effect:

- with his new agriculture project, food shortages are rarely a problem any more; with his new tools, he's successfully defending himself against all the nasty animals that are trying to eat him; and with his new-found ability to harness fire, it's warm and cosy at night and he's learning how to cook.

Indeed, your new creation is becoming so successful that his circuits are overloading with feel-good chemicals. It's one great big holiday for Homo Sapiens. He's working an hour or two a day, and the rest is just... well, sitting around smiling.

He's gone from wanting… to having. And it's changed everything. The state of mind that made him get things done, take risks, push for results... has gone. He's lost his motivation.

Which means there are problems coming.

Surviving in the natural world is like surviving in business: however successful you might already be, there's always someone trying to steal your market. If you sit back, holding on to your old methods, your old prices and your old technology, pretty soon some young upstart is going to start offering a cheaper, faster, greener service.

In business, you don't have time to enjoy your past successes. And it's the same in the natural world. There's always some other animal trying to take your food, there's always some distant relative trying to steal your mate.

So, if you’re evolution, and you’re trying to program your machine to be as successful as possible, it looks like you need a rethink:

You’ve motivated your new machine so that it would work hard in pursuit of happiness....
...but you didn't work out what was going to happen when it got happy.

How do you make sure that your favourite creation is always pushing for more? How do you make sure that happiness doesn’t take away his desire to succeed, his desire to improve things...? And how do you program the machine so that it will always achieve the maximum that it's capable of achieving?

Firstly, you've got to make the pleasure fade.

And secondly, and just as importantly, you've got to make sure those little dog biscuits of pleasure are relative to previous achievements: you can’t be congratulating a child that’s just crawled across the room… if it’s already capable of walking.

Your machine can't feel good whenever the situation is 'good'...

... it can only feel good when the situation gets better.

And how do we experience such a mechanism? As an adjustment of our expectations.

Every time we achieve something… our expectations increase with it.

** The Expectation-Adjuster

… in golf…

What makes a sport such as golf endlessly entertaining is that you’ve always got the chance to improve. It’s a continual challenge: no matter how good you are, there’s always an opportunity to get better. Which is, of course, where the satisfaction comes from: when you play better than you thought you were capable of.

And even though you keep thinking “If I could just sort out my putting… I’d have this game mastered…” the truth is that ‘fantastic’ golfers don’t get any more satisfaction from the game than ‘good’ golfers. Every golfer gets to feel good relative to how much he’s improving, not to how good he actually is. Which is why it’s a game that’s equally absorbing for the beginner and the expert.

And equally frustrating:

If you don’t play as well as you expected, you feel the pain of failure. And there are no freebies: unless you’re upset when you lose… you don’t get pleasure when you win.

…for breakfast…

Imagine waking up this morning to find that the only breakfast available was a piece of stale bread and a glass of not-so-clean-looking water. The chances are that you wouldn’t be too happy with life: where’s my fresh orange juice, where’s my vitamin-laden energy-giving cereal? But what if you’d spend the last two days marooned on a desert island – no sign of rescue and no food or water for two days? Suddenly that bread and water is looking like salvation. Suddenly it’s the finest, most rewarding breakfast you’ve ever enjoyed…

Everything we do in life is subject to an adjustment of our expectations: from the bonus we get at work to the cereal we eat for breakfast: satisfaction is dependent on whether we exceed our expectations.

Such a simple solution, such a simple device to make sure a Conscious Robot is always achieving the most it’s capable of.

And what other way could evolution have set us up? It couldn’t use an absolute measure of success:

- Evolution didn’t know whether we were going to be born in a penthouse on Fifth Avenue, or in a slum in the Third World.

- Evolution didn’t know whether we were going to find life a complete breeze… or whether it would be like walking into a Force 10 headwind.

So, it had to come up with a mechanism that kept us motivated regardless of our situation.

And what could it do, other than simply to ignore our actual situation?

Success Mountain

Imagine you live on the side of a mountain. Success Mountain.

How high up the mountain you are depends on how ‘successful’ you are.

‘Successful’ doesn’t necessarily mean your career or how much money you have. It also means love, family, religion etc. 'Success' is whatever matters to you. Make up your own list. How close you are to the combination of things you feel you need to make you happy determines how high up the mountain you are.

Each morning when you get up, you look around you and enjoy the view. You look at the people lower down the mountain than you, and you feel a shiver of relief that you don’t have to live like they do. And then you look upwards at the lucky few above you - and you feel a little stab of envy… and you start dreaming of the things are going to move you up the hill.

Every day, you try to work your way up the mountain in pursuit of lifelong happiness… and you assume that the higher up the mountain you are, the happier you’ll be. After all, the more successful you are, the more happy you'll be. Right?

But how happy you are doesn’t depend on….
how high up the mountain you are.

How happy you are depends on……
which direction you’re moving.

If you’re going up, you’re happy. If you’re going down, you’re unhappy. If your situation in life is improving, evolution rewards you. If your situation in life is falling, you feel pain.

But the pleasure or pain only comes while you’re moving. As soon as you’ve moved up, as soon as you’ve reached that higher level, although you’re more successful, you’re actually no happier than you were at the lower level.

And before you ask - no, you can’t get to the top. And you can’t get airlifted off either.

Little things as well as big things.

To achieve the big things in life, you need to make all the little things happen.

Most of the time, we stay at roughly the same height on the mountain. But we’re always going up or down a little bit. Indeed, anything that gives us pleasure or pain is a move up or down the mountain.

The Fresh Milk Example

When you get up in the morning and find fresh milk in the fridge you feel no emotion. It’s neither an up nor a down - you were expecting fresh milk to be there… and there it was.

But when the sour smell hits you as you start to pour the milk, you move down the mountain. You feel pain as you realise you won’t be having your regular bowl of Super Sugar Shorties this morning. You’re irritated, grumpy and you kick the cat.

But no! Joy of joys! Suddenly you notice the spare pint that your thoughtful partner left at the back of the fridge….and the pleasure and relief hits you as you climb back up the mountain to the same height you were at when you first opened the fridge.

Here’s what happens when we get a successful run up the mountain.

You work in sales. On a normal day, you expect to make 30 calls, and break 5 sales. Suddenly you hit a purple patch. You break ten new customers each day for three days in a row. Your manager loves you. Your bank manager loves you.

Next day, you only break 8.

Suddenly, 8 sales is a bad day. 8 sales used to be a good day! But now you’ve got used to your new position higher up the mountain. You’ve taken your pleasure and enjoyed it - and now, not only does 10 sales per day no longer give you any pleasure, you’re getting upset with 8.

Supporting a sports team

If you are used to seeing your team lose week-in, week-out, you don’t expect a much from them. You certainly don’t get upset if they don’t win any trophies this year. In fact, you can even get happy when they lose: provided they’re playing the top team and they don’t lose too badly. Dog-biscuits of pleasure everywhere.

But what happens if you support the best team in the competition? What happens if you’re the favourite? Now the pressure’s on. Suddenly, winning isn’t the same anymore. Winning is what you’re expecting. And when they do win, it’s more like relief you experience, than pleasure. You need a big win to get much pleasure – you need your team to do better than you expected.

The expectation-adjuster has kicked in.

It doesn’t matter how well or how badly your team is doing, you’re still able to create an expectation of how well you expect them to do this week. And that expectation allows you to enjoy the game just as much if your team is great… or lousy.

It’s why teams that aren’t doing so well still have supporters. These supporters still get just as much pleasure watching their team as anyone else does.

Why the expectation-adjuster is so important to how much we enjoy our lives.

If our expectations didn't adjust every day:

- we’d wake up each morning happy to be alive
- we'd wake up each morning happy with our jobs
- we'd wake up each morning happy with our relationships

…because in comparison to all the awful situations we could find ourselves in... most of us are doing rather well. Certainly, anyone with the time and energy to read a book like this is doing better in terms of their ‘survival chances’ than most of world’s inhabitants.

Haven't we done enough now? Aren't humans successful enough to satisfy our genes? Isn't it time we could all lead happy lives?

Unfortunately, the expectation-adjuster has never been programmed out of us, so we keep on building faster cars, taller skyscrapers, smaller mobile phones... all in an endless attempt to get more satisfaction than we got when we were cavemen.

But are we really any happier than our ancestors?

Imagine you lived 100 years ago…

You get up in the morning… and it’s cold. Freezing cold! Has the central heating failed? Oh, no - there isn’t any central heating. There’s also no hot shower. Oh yes, and the toilet’s at the bottom of the garden.

Never mind, once you get into the car, you’ll warm up and it’ll be nice and cosy at work. But of course, there’s no car, and you’ve got to walk to work, and it’s no warmer at work because you work in a field.

The only thing left to look forward to is getting home and putting your feet up in front of the TV…

Most of the things we take for granted in the 21st Century didn’t even exist 100 years ago. Can any of us seriously countenance a life without cars, TV, good hospitals, fridges, fast-food…? It’s almost impossible to believe that so many of the things that we rely on for our happiness today… weren’t available at all to our great-grandfathers.

But did that mean they were miserable all day? Did that mean their lives were barely liveable? Of course not - they were probably just as happy as we were - they weren’t used to the luxuries, they didn’t have subconscious expectations of the luxuries, so they didn’t miss them.

What have we gained with this relentless pursuit of making things better than they are? We live longer, for sure. But are we happier?

And do we need this expectation-adjuster that seems to affect everything we do, everything we dream of?

Wouldn’t we be so much better-off without it?

But surely everything isn't subject to the Expectation Adjuster?

You can answer this for yourself by digging out your Happiness Wish-List.

If any particular item on your wish-list could change if your circumstances change, then that wish is dependent on the expectation adjuster.

Like 10 million dollars... surely 10 million dollars would always have a place on your list?

But not if one day you were to inherit a billion dollars… It's hard to think that for someone worth a billion dollars, $10 million can make much of a difference.

**But what happens if it all goes wrong?

- What about failure? Surely if we're right down at the bottom of the mountain, it must make us unhappy?

We humans have a lot of fear. It’s one of evolution’s best ideas. One of our most profound fears is that if life ‘goes wrong’, we'll be unhappy. We’re terrified of the misery that we’ll have to endure if disaster strikes.

It’s why being disabled and confined to a wheelchair holds so much horror - it’s a situation we cannot retrieve. Although we might somehow become reconciled to our disablement, we’ll never be as happy again: happiness will be permanent unless our circumstances improve.

But is that really the case? Let’s look at this conclusion from an evolutionary point of view: does “permanent unhappiness” make sense, given what we know about evolution?

At first sight, yes it does.

Presumably, if you’re really unhappy you’ll be even more motivated to succeed than you normally are. The more you suffer... the more motivated you’ll be to make changes, to improve things and get back what you had before.


That relies on the assumption that unhappiness is a more motivating state than happiness. And that’s simply not possible. Because if unhappiness really were more effective than happiness ….we’ d be unhappy all the time. Evolution would make sure of it.

How we know that being unhappy can’t be more effective than being happy:

Evolution picks the best. And the best humans are the ones that are the most motivated to spread their genes. Which would mean that if unhappiness were the most effective state to be in… we would all have evolved to be unhappy all the time. We wouldn’t just be unhappy when things went wrong… we'd be unhappy when things went right as well.

Which is clearly not the case for most of us…

So, given what we know about evolution, we can conclude that

unhappiness cannot last.

- Our own brains must be able to adjust our happiness levels (or, rather, our unhappiness levels) so that we pretty soon find ourselves no longer unhappy. Automatically. Regardless of what happens in “the real world”. It’s not up to us to ‘fight our way out of it’… However badly we do, our brains will automatically stop us feeling unhappy after an appropriate period.

- Life isn't just inherently unsatisfactory...

.... it's also inherently satisfactory.

Evolution doesn’t want us to give up, however bad things are.

And if it doesn’t want us to give up, it still needs us to be functioning at our best. So it needs us to be able to recognize good things and bad things. If you’re really unhappy, how can you notice when things get worse? How can you notice the day-to-day bad things? You need to feel good when things go well. You need to be made happy by little things that go well. And you need to feel bad when little things go wrong.

The human that keeps trying regardless of how dreadful the situation will be more likely to survive.

The most successful human will be the one that is always pushing, regardless of how successful or unsuccessful it is.

Make it better:

Regardless of how successful we are.

Regardless of how unsuccessful we are.

This remorseless drive for success means that evolution appears to be very demanding - it will never allow us to be satisfied. It is unremitting and relentless.

But by the same token, it is also very forgiving - it forgives our failures by resetting our happiness to neutral. Not because evolution is ‘nice’ or because it ‘cares about us’, but so that in future we will be at our most efficient and therefore most likely to do a good job of maximizing our genetic chances.
** The Future is all that matters

We think we’ll be unhappy for ever if disaster strikes and we’re confined to a wheelchair.

But what would be the point of that?

Evolution is only interested in the future.

Evolution only looks forward - the past is gone.

Evolution gives us pain so that we can learn not to do something again. It only punishes us in order to teach a lesson that we can use in the future.

Evolution will only ‘look back’ for training purposes, and not for ‘punishment’. The only reason we will feel pain is to improve our future performance.

And it’s very important that the training doesn’t get in the way of doing well in future.

The expectation-adjuster must work both ways: if our situation gets worse and we fall down the mountain, we don't have to climb back up as high as we were before if we want to feel good again.

Why we think we’ll be happier… or unhappier.

Why is it that we’re so convinced that we can create permanent happiness… or permanent unhappiness if we get it wrong?

It’s because we’re focused on solving our current problems.

For most people, many of their current problems would be solved by more money.
- the disagreement with the boss would be solved if we didn’t have to go to work again.
- the need to clean the windows would disappear if we had enough money to pay someone else to do it.

Our problem is that we just can’t believe that any other problems would arise if we solved our current problems. We forget how all the problems we had when we were kids have disappeared now we’re adults. We forget how many problems we’ve had in our lives that were so important to us at the time, that consumed our minds… but that have now been replaced by completely different problems. We forget how there’s always a problem to be sorted out. We don’t realise that our minds are programmed to go looking for problems - because that’s the only way to improve, the only way to make things better than they already are.

However wonderful our lives… there will always be some way in which we can improve.
** The most motivating state

So, if unhappiness isn’t our most-motivating state - what is the most-motivating state for us to be in, then?

Neither happiness nor unhappiness are good states for humans to be in for any long period of time. We're much more effective - from evolution's point of view - if we’re somewhere between the two - the mood which scientists call ‘neutral’, and everyone else calls….

…. “not bad”.

“Not Bad” is a very special mood for humans. Although it’s not that exciting for us as individuals, it’s something that works very well for evolution.

The great advantage of “Not Bad”, is that it allows us to be very sensitive to success and failure.

If you’re going to be effective, you have to be able easily to recognise good from bad. You have to be able easily to distinguish between things that are helpful to survival and things that are dangerous.

- If you’re continuously in pain, it’s not particularly easy to recognise more pain.

- If you're constantly happy, it's less obvious when things have improved.

You need contrast.

- If you spend your life in misery, do you really care when you get a new problem?

- If you spend your life deliriously happy… how are you going to be able to spot the next victory?

“Happy – unhappy… not bad.”

It’s the human condition.

It’s the state evolution wants us to be in. It’s the state evolution has selected for us. It’s what’s made us most successful.

“Happy - unhappy - not bad” is what made humans great.

“Happy - unhappy - not bad” is what put us on the moon.

“Happy - unhappy - not bad” is not only the way it is…

…but the way it’s always going to be.

It’s a zero sum game

If we’re always fluctuating about the same state of ‘not bad’, continually adjusting our expectations to reflect how ‘successful’ we are currently, we’re stuck for life in a ‘zero-sum game’. It doesn’t matter what we do, the total amount of pleasure and pain will always be constant from one year to the next.

** Some humans are more equal than others.

We assume that everyone has equal rights, that we all have the same opportunities in life.

It’s a “fundamental human right”, after all.

But how equal are we really?

Nature doesn’t appear to give us the same talents at birth -

- Not everyone is fast enough to be an athlete.
- Not everyone is smart enough to be a brain surgeon.
- Not everyone is beautiful enough to be a model.

So in what way are we born equal? Doesn’t nature believe in our “fundamental human rights”?

If we’re born equal in anything, it must be in our ability to achieve happiness.

Surely? If there’s any justice in the world, we must all have the same chance of being happy.

Well, you’d have thought so, wouldn’t you?

But maybe not.

Some people are born more equal than others.

When people are asked in questionnaires how happy they are, the answers are interesting in three ways.

Most people report that they are slightly happier than ‘neutral’. If we think of neutral as being the point at which we are neither happy nor unhappy, most people feel that, on average, they’re a bit happier than neutral.

This average seems to be remarkably constant for each individual. They consistently report the same average over long periods of time. If they’re ‘fairly happy’ one year, they seem to be ‘fairly happy’ every other year.
This agrees with our theoretical concept of happy - unhappy - not bad; regardless of our circumstances, the expectation-adjuster will make us feel a constant level of happiness on average.

This level is not the same from one individual to the next. Although most of us are slightly higher than neutral, we don’t all have the same average level. We each have our own personal base level of happiness, and it’s a level which varies from one individual to the next.

So what’s going on? What can this research tell us about our own personal chances of happiness?

The evidence suggests that our average happiness level is set at birth.

In other words, the level of happiness that our mood automatically returns to is determined by our genes.

In the same way that our genes decide what our face is going to look like, and what the colour of our skin will be, they also decide our average level of happiness.

Scientists call this average level of happiness the ‘set point’.

This doesn’t mean that our genes have decided how happy we’re going to be on any particular day, or in any particular week, but they have decided what our average will be. They've decided what level of happiness we will keep returning to over and over again throughout our lives.

And some people are born with a higher average happiness than others.

Some of us are born happy. And we stay that way

Some of us are born unhappy. And we stay unhappy. For the rest of our lives.


Can life really be so unfair?

Well, of course it can. We like to like to believe that all humans are born equal, evolution isn’t about equality. It’s not about fair and unfair. Evolution is about random chances, and then letting nature pick the best of those random chances. And one of the randoms that evolution seems to use is ‘average happiness level’: continually experimenting to see whether slightly happier works better than slightly unhappier.

And that’s the real lottery in life.

Not whether you’re born intelligent, talented or into a wealthy family.

- None of these things will necessarily affect how happy you’re going to be.

The real lottery is whether you're born with a high happiness set point.

Despite our best efforts to get more out of life, despite our struggles to be the best, the most important factor could well be who our parents are.

The Lazy Dolphin

When I was a kid, my mum took me to a Safari Park for my birthday. It was back in the days when it was OK to be entertained by wild animals performing tricks and I laughed and screamed at the Chimps' tea parties and the Elephant's bath time.
But what really excited me was the dolphins: leaping through hoops, splashing the audience with back flips, playing with footballs. They even towed me around the pool in a little dinghy because it was my birthday.

And after every trick, the keeper would throw each of the dolphins a fish.

When I went home at the end of a long day, I remember worrying about this. What, I wondered, would happen if one of my dolphin friends suddenly forgot how to do the tricks? Or got an ear infection and couldn't hear the instructions? No fish for that dolphin. Would it starve? Would the keeper send it off to bed without any tea while the other dolphin gorged all the fish. Quite upsetting for a nice kid like me.

And then my mum explained that it wouldn't make any difference how many tricks the dolphins performed. At the end of the day, she said, the keeper would make sure that each of the dolphins had eaten exactly the right number of fish for their perfect calorie-controlled diet. Apparently the dolphins were very valuable animals (even if they didn't do any tricks at all), so the keeper had to be very careful that they each got exactly the right amount of food every day to keep them as healthy as possible.

It made no sense.

Why did the dolphins bother doing any tricks at all?

Why didn't they just swim around doing what they wanted all day?

25 years later I began to feel a bit like one of those dolphins myself.

As I wrestled with the problem of how to get more fish out of my own little swimming pool, I wondered 'Was I performing the wrong tricks, or just not doing them well enough?'

Then I remembered the dolphins.

And I began to suspect that it didn't really make any difference how many tricks I performed....

....I was going to end up with the same number of fish regardless.

Are we humans are on a similar strictly controlled diet? Not of fish, or chocolate or whatever else it is that we like to eat, but of something even more fundamental and important to us than food.

Is our strictly controlled diet our feelings?

For the last million years, we have been concentrating our considerable intelligence and efforts on performing better tricks for our evolutionary masters.

And while most of us will continue swimming round the pool, a few of us are going to start wondering “How do we get out of this pool and get to where the fish are kept?” Because until we do that, the only things benefiting from all the effort we put in will be our keepers.

And the future of mankind is going to be very different from the way most of us think it's going to look.

And the sooner that happens, the better for all of us.

Summary Part 2

1) Happily Ever After?

Evolution won’t let us have too much of a good time, because we've got work to do on behalf of our genes. (And we're just robots, after all.)

How the mechanism works: we can see from our own personal experiences that we’ve got very little chance of living happily ever after. The Expectation-Adjuster alone is enough to make sure life is never the bed of roses we expect it to be.

2) Miserably Ever After?

Although evolution has no intention of letting us live lives of satisfied bliss, it’s also got no interest in leaving us languishing in the depths of despair. However much of a mess we make of our lives, we can be reasonably confident that we’ll be dragged back out of the misery... automatically.

3) ‘Not Bad’ Ever After - the human condition.

It turns out that “Yeah, I’m OK - not bad, thanks” is the way we’re designed to be.
- Because ‘not bad’ is the most efficient state of existence for a Robot that’s designed to take over the world.


Anonymous said...

This may sound like a strange question but where's Part3? There's no link for it... or is that the point?

dan from said...

Why is it that virtually everybody I know responds, "I'm great" every time they are asked how they are doing? And why is it that I get weird looks when I say, "I'm okay, I guess"?

Anonymous said...

Were fucked. Can't get out of the cycle unless we upload our brains and rewrite our software. Live eternally in bliss without a reset button for our happiness level. Come on Technological singularity.