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December 10, 2015


Matt Moore

I worry that hugely increased natural lifespan would raise the fear of accidental death to intolerable levels. In my mind, that is a leading contender for why war is on the decline. When you don't expect to live much past fighting age anyway, death or glory seems a good bargain.


An alternative solution is to learn the real lesson of all this, which is that, beyond what it takes to keep body and soul together, you will never find lasting happiness in external things, whether material goods, sensual pleasures or so-called "freedom" (if you're lounging on the yacht thinking about the golf, then you're not free – you're the miserable slave of your thoughts about the golf). Happiness is attitude of mind, and you look for that within and not without. In this sense, socialism and capitalism share the same root delusion.


I think you deliberately present only the most superficial of measurements of achievement. Freedom is not the sine qua non of happiness. If the majority of people are in fear of losing their jobs, how free are they? If opportunity shrinks and humans work just to survive, even if the survival is relatively better than before, how free are they? If the rewards of their work largely goes to the upper classes, are they not still psychologically enslaved? A longer life won't help if the financial means to do what we want aren't there.

Steven Clarke

Since our lives our so path-dependent, we don't just worry about the opportunity cost of what we are doing now, but the opportunity costs of decisions made in the past - it's not just our marginal choices that matter.

A longer life gives you more things to regret.


Another way of having "enough time to do whatever we want" would be not to have to work. Our traveller from the 1840s would find people working in cleaner, safer and more comfortable conditions, but I'm not sure how much shorter the hours are.

An Alien Visitor

I think the argument goes like this,

We need Utopian thinking because the gains of the past 150 years are based somewhat on Utopian visions. So if the Chartist wanted to understand how his Utopias came to pass it is because he imagined the Utopias in the first place.

I don't buy the argument personally.

Also, our Utopia is partly founded on the mass exploitation of overseas workers, who the Chartist would easily recognise as being from his time!


Happiness is aspirational so as long as we have more to strive for we can be happy, but should we lose that, life would become pointless and tedious.

Georg Thomas

Thank you for this thoughtful article and the interesting comments.

I hope my comment is not too long - I am posting it egotistically, as I hope to learn from criticisms and further ideas.

You write:

"The man who's resting on his yacht regrets being away from the golf course; the woman with the well-paid job regrets not spending time with her children."

Well, opportunity cost considerations are universal as are insuperable local dilemmas. And there is an infinite supply of these in any type of society. It would take a lot more assumptions to establish that we have moved into a time where the set of choices open to us has significantly deteriorated compared to earlier periods.

Also, opportunity cost considerations are highly cross-linked, so that the woman's specific regret may well be compatible with a high level of contentment overall or an attitude of voluntary "committed choice" with a strong sense on her part of having created the best balance between the options open to her.

Committed choice may be a higher value than happiness, or it might go into her happiness definition, which would make her happiness definition surely different from those of many other people, which reminds us that interpersonal, inter-temporal or inter-systemic comparisons of happiness are fraught with difficulties.

The main point I wish to make, however, is that man is not "happiness-driven," contrary to our ability to convince us (in situations of cheap talk) of being "happiness-driven."

Constrained by reality, people rather seek

(a) to achieve the absence of or the ability to remove sufficiently strong nuisances, and

(b) conditions in which they are free to follow their preferences.

This is not the same as maximising personal happiness, if by the latter we mean relaxed contentment or even bliss.

Typically, (a) and (b) require a lot of effort, sacrifice and compromise. They require strategic thinking and patience etc. That is, they involve numerous layers and sequences of different emotions and assessments.

Everyone is free to define happiness as she may, nevertheless happiness could be defined as a intermittent summary emotion indicating the extent to which (a) and (b) have been achieved, or the extent to which the person is dissatisfied with the possibilities of (a) and (b).

In their strong propensity to act according to (a) and (b) people subdivide and fragment the world into tractable portions, as opposed to having a holistic idea of the world and the meaning of their being happy vis-à-vis that totality. Ideologues attempt to convince people of such a putatively liberating application of a uniform notion of happiness to the world at large. Unfortunately, sometimes they succeed to rather a large extent.

At any rate, happiness is not a phenomenon that we equally share in such a manner that we can use it as an objective standard measuring the worth of one epoch over another or one social vision over another, unless we persuade ourselves to adopt such a figment.

The idea that there is a uniform notion of happiness is as preposterous as the idea that freedom means the same thing to everybody. And so is the hope to assess the desirability of human arrangements by a fictitiously uniform concept.

Lastly, whatever happiness means to you and me, and it is likely to mean very different things, it will tend to be a derivative concept, involving values, emotions and considerations that are more momentous and better indications of what we truly prefer in life than happiness itself.

People and circumstances make demands on us that deviate from a situation of personal happiness (whatever that exactly means); as most people learn when they are still babies, it is more important to react judiciously and effectively to these demands than to insist on being happy.

If successful in our reactions, we may feel we have engendered outcomes that qualify to be reflected in an intermittent summary encapsulated in a thought-emotion-mix called happiness.

An Alien Visitor

We should also remember that happiness is not an individual concept but is determined socially. For example, if not working makes me happy that means someone else has to work in order that my happiness bears fruit.

Steve Roth

If people could spend more hours in their lives doing what we want to do, rather than doing what they don't want to do, for others, isn't that a pretty good equivalent of living longer?

That would suggest that the 40-hour week -- enforced through onerous government overtime regulations -- is perhaps the greatest innovation of the past century.

Seems like, given the greatly increased prosperity since that innovation emerged, it would be pretty easy to improve on it...

Which Countries Work Hardest?


@An Alien Visitor
"For example, if not working makes me happy that means someone else has to work in order that my happiness bears fruit."

No, on our magnificent planet there is no fundamental need for work.

Food grows on the trees.

Water falls from the sky.


Yes clearly the common people today are spoiled and unrealistic.

They don't need to change things, they just need to accept their place in society and change their attitudes.


Utopian ideas are not about happiness; they are about making things better. Happiness is like enlightenment, it has to be dealt with internally. It is usually a matter of the soul, not a matter of the body. Changing the outside world can make people happier, but that depends on the cause of unhappiness.

The purpose of a utopia is to provide a focus for making things better. In software engineering they call this "the nirvana" as in "... so the nirvana is that the secure token is automatically re-validated". (Honest. That's how engineers talk, at least the ones I used to work with.)

In that example the implication is that there are some real problems making sure that valid tokens are being passed around. In the real world the problem might be hunger, illness, injustice, slavery, prejudice, ignorance, war or some other such ill. Still, opposing an ill is not the same thing as trying to make things better.

Consider hunger. One approach would work towards the nirvana in which humans did not need or want food. Perhaps we could all be engineered for photosynthesis or all dead. A more practical utopia would have food being plentiful and modestly priced or even given away free. The currently freshwater economics utopia, for example, is one in which access to food is constrained by one's utility to the ruling classes.

Unless we never wish to change things, then we need utopias, as asinine as some of them might be.

Future's So Bright I'll Need A Few Thousand Shades

The problem is that we live in the now, so longer life does not spare us from the regret of missed opportunities. The solution is therefore to increase the "nows" that we experience. Some cybernetic enhancement and your brain will be capable of massive parallel processing. One part concentrates on what's right in front of you while another texts silly comments to blogs and another is watching movies, no screens necessary because the video channel is hooked to your visual cortex. The remaining problem is that you have only one body, so you can only enjoy so many fashionable clothes or taste so many wines. Enter cloning and distributed consciousness...

Some might argue this is implausible, people would just copy their minds into machines and abandon biological life. But I think they'd fear regretting that, missing the weird experiences of a biological body. So they're likely to choose both. The cost of maintaining living bodies isn't that high after all.

Andrew Curry

Utopia is an aspiration, an image, not a destination. See Ruth Levitas, Utopia as Method.

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