Does life flow towards flow?

Robin recently described how human brain ‘uploads’, even if forced to work hard to make ends meet, might nonetheless be happy and satisfied with their lives. Some humans naturally love their work, and if they are the ones who get copied, the happiness of emulations could be very high. Of course in Robin’s Malthusian upload scenario, evolutionary pressures towards high productivity are very strong, and so the mere fact that some people really enjoy work doesn’t mean that they will be the ones who get copied billions of times. The workaholics will only inherit the Earth if they are the best employees money can buy.

The broader question of whether creatures that are good at surviving, producing and then reproducing tend towards joy or misery is a crucial one. It helps answer whether it is altruistic to maintain populations of wild animals into the future, or an act of mercy to shrink their habitats. Even more importantly, it is the key to whether it is extremely kind or extremely cruel for humans to engage in panspermia and spread Malthusian life across the universe as soon as possible.

There is an abundance of evidence all around us in the welfare of humans and other animals that have to strive to survive in the environments they are adapted to, but no consensus on what that evidence shows. It is hard enough to tell whether another human has a quality of life better than no life at all, let alone determine the same for say, an octopus.

One of the few pieces of evidence I find compelling comes from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi research into the experience he calls ‘flow‘. His work suggests that humans are most productive, and also most satisfied, when they are totally absorbed in a clear but challenging task which they are capable of completing. The conditions suggested as being necessary to achieve ‘flow’ are

  1. “One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals. This adds direction and structure to the task.
  2. One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her ownperceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.
  3. The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.”

Most work doesn’t meet these criteria and so ‘flow’ is not all that common, but it is amongst the best states of mind a human can hope for.

Some people are much more inclined to enter flow than others and if Csíkszentmihályi’s book is to be believed, they are ideal employees – highly talented, motivated and suited to their tasks. If this is the case, people predisposed to experience flow would be the most popular minds to copy as emulations and in the immediate term the flow-inspired workaholics would indeed come to dominate the Earth.

Of course, it could turn out that in the long run, once enough time has passed for evolution to shed humanity’s baggage, the creatures that most effectively do the forms of work that exist in the future will find life unpleasant. But our evolved capacity for flow in tasks that we are well suited for gives us a reason to hope that will not be the case. If it turns out that flow is a common experience for traditional hunter-gatherers then that would make me even more optimistic. And more optimistic again if we can find evidence for a similar experience in other species.

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