Into the Head, Out of the World
In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick asked:
What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?
More and more, we answer this question with: "nothing."
We have moved out of the world and into the head. In America, our lives are more about what we think and feel than what we do. Happiness is feeling happy.
Peter Thiel touches on this with the observation:
In the last 40 or 50 years, there's been a shift from exteriority which is doing things in the real world to the interior world, which can be thought of as a shift from politics to entertainment. (Yoga, meditation, video games, etc.)
The trend has deeper roots than the last 50 years, but Thiel is right about its general direction.
This is not a purely negative change. It's the result of prosperity, compassion, and freedom. Yet, it also sacrifices other values and signals shrinking ambition to change the external world.
A Very Short History of Happiness
What's novel today is the popularity of the idea that happiness is solely a subjective state available at any moment.
The ancient Greeks saw the good life as a matter of virtue and fortune. For some philosophies, like Stoicism, virtue was sufficient. For others, like Aristotelianism, one needed the favor of fortune to live well. United in the conviction that happiness was not a momentary mental state, both held that the virtuous achieved it over a lifetime.
When the rich king Croesus asks the wise statesman, Solon, "tell me whom you consider to be the happiest man in the world?" Solon names three dead men in response. Each achieved happiness because they died honorable deaths. Happiness was about being good, having good things happen to you, and dying well - what could be further from today's vision that happiness is about feeling good?
Early Christians departed even more radically from today's ideas about wellbeing: they promoted the idea that life isn't about happiness at all. Instead, it's about achieving salvation through faith and serving the church. Responding to the ancient Greeks, Saint Augustine said:
Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness. And this happiness these philosophers refuse to believe in, because they do not see it, and attempt to fabricate for themselves a happiness in this life, based upon a virtue which is as deceitful as it is proud.
Rejecting the Christian view, out of either hubris or courage, the Renaissance and Enlightenment resurrected the Greeks' idea that we find happiness in this life. The Enlightenment provided the framework for what we value today. Indeed, prominent philosophers put forth pleasure as the ultimate good in human life and insisted on the liberty necessary to achieve it.
The most salient examples of this were the utilitarians, Jeremey Bentham and John Stuart Mill, who promoted the "greatest happiness for the greatest number." Yet, though the nature of the good was internal, the utilitarian’s recipe for achieving happiness focused on external change. The age brought renewed ambition to shape the world, from accelerating science to provoking political revolution. It was political innovation that enabled "the pursuit of happiness."
Today, the influence from each of these traditions, and many more, of course, is clear. Yet things are different.
Modern culture embraces the concept of bringing heaven to earth. We can feel peace, tranquility, joy, serenity, or immanent bliss. Happiness is here.
Yet unlike the Enlightenment thinkers and their followers, there's less desire to build a paradise today. The focus is on cultivating one alone.
This is a movement of two trends: increased focus on feeling good and the shrinking ambitions of what makes us feel good. It is a change in what we value and a change in what brings us value. We highlight the internal over the external.
The change is evident in several phenomena: media consumption, mental wellness, and politics.
Listening to music has become an internal exercise. Musical production and consumption likely began as a communal activity. Over time it has become less a matter of communal sharing and more about adding a soundtrack to our individual lives. We started by singing together and moved to sharing a radio. From sitting around the radio together, we've plugged in headphones to listen alone.
Technology shaped not just musical consumption but media consumption in general. The town crier fell out of fashion centuries ago. Initially, only 10% of American households contained a television. That number has been hovering around 99% since the 90s. Today, the best (and worst) newspapers, books, and movies are a click away. Each of these changes removed the need to interact with the community. Media is directly available for solo consumption.
In general, technological developments give us more of what we want, faster. Each of the three activities that Thiel mentioned, Yoga, meditation, video games, are powered indirectly and directly by technology. Meditation is the most recent to form a billion dollar market. From Facebook to Google, Amazon to Netflix, the world-shaping companies of this age have made it easier to live in the head, not harder.
But this trend isn't just a function of technological change. The dominant view concerning mental health makes the connection between how we feel and the good life explicit. In one respect, this is progress. The vast majority of human history has overlooked mental health disorders. With more material luxury came the ability to improve our internal worlds and combat the scourge of depression and anxiety. There is a lot of suffering here, and the world is better now that our attitude towards mental health is far kinder.
However, one side effect is to accelerate the move into the head. The quality of our mental life is raised to the status of health.
"Mental wellness" and "mental wellbeing" companies arose to supplement the demand for living mentally well. The idea they promote is the same: reduce stress, find calm. Very few of them focus on the art of dying well, promoting virtue, or serving the church.
Themes like "the power of popular thinking," "the feel-good effect," and "things mentally strong people do" are prevalent in modern self-help literature. Many books sell strategies for managing stress and achieving happiness. They contain: "practical steps anyone can take every day to live a less anxious, more meaningful life." Little by little, our attention has contracted to the internal.
Many of these books don't explicitly advocate pursuing a mental state. Some appear to argue it. Nevertheless, the kinds of exercises they suggest move us closer to the idea that happiness is a subjective state.
Consider this selection of recommended exercises:
- Gratitude journaling.
- Identifying cognitive distortions.
- Priming & power poses.
- Acting as if you're happy.
- Self-care routines.
Each of these activities are done alone. The objective of each exercise is to improve internal emotions in the moment.
Loving-kindness meditations epitomize the trend. During a loving-kindness meditation, one practices bringing to mind different individuals and feeling compassion for them. Typically, you'll start with people who it is easy to love, like yourself and friends, and then move your attention to more difficult cases, from strangers to enemies to all sentient beings.
Of course, instead of sitting down and cultivating a sense of compassion for your mother in 10 minutes, you could call her. Compassion is, if anything, a disposition to act in a certain way - so it's not clear that you're practicing compassion by deciding to sit down and engender a feeling. The movement into the head cements the idea that the feeling is an important and necessary part of compassion. It helps, of course, but it's not needed. One forms habits by doing, not by feeling.
In addition to our entertainment consumption and focus on mental wellbeing, the move into the internal is evident in politics. Thiel called the shift a move from "politics to entertainment." Yet politics too has become a kind of entertainment. This doesn't mean that it is fun. But it is more about stories than the external world. We encounter political differences face to face less often. Instead, screens mediate our interactions. We have more ability to pick and choose what news and media to consume. As philosopher Robert Talisse says:
Contemporary technology has served up made to order worlds, and most people have made the world they inhabit into their image.
Politics itself conforms to this world-building, as more and more political actors come to agree with JFK that "it is the appearance of things that matters." Political scientist and former diplomat Bruno Maçães describes this form of politics as built on the “the Hollywood theory of truth.” It’s about story, meaning, and appearance. In Maçães’s view, American politics is about replacing fact with fiction:
Social and political reality does not represent an external reality. It builds imaginary worlds.
We moved from changing the world to changing our experience.
What We Value
As a way of teasing out what matters to us, Robert Nozick introduced the thought experiment of an experience machine. The idea:
Suppose there was an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences?... Of course, while in the tank you won't know that you're there; you'll think that it's all actually happening... Would you plug in?
The shift to the internal reveals that, yes, many would plug in. Indeed, some may already be in the tank. Today, what ultimately matters is experience, how our lives feel on the inside. In one form, this view asserts that pleasure is the only good. More sophisticated experiences, from inner peace to cerebral thought, have their place as well. But what matters is mental. Value never makes it outside the valuers!
Building Happiness Machines
What explains why more and more people view happiness as an internal state?
Rising rates of anxiety and depression are a candidate. If more people are afflicted with mental disorders, it's easy to see why there's more focus on mental wellness. However, this explanation is unsatisfying since it hasn't been shown that anxiety or depression rates are rising.
The shift towards the internal likely emerges from individualism and prosperity. Well-documented by Joseph Henrich and others' work, western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) people are a historical anomaly. And one feature that makes us anomalous is individualism. For example:
[These] people are particularly biased to attribute actions or behavioral patterns to what's "inside" others, relying on inferences about dispositional traits (e.g., he's "lazy" or "untrustworthy"), personalities (she's "introverted" or "conscientious"), and underlying beliefs or intentions ("what did he know and when did he know it?"). Other populations focus more on actions and outcomes over what's "inside."
Complementing this work, many similar psychological studies allow us to compare Americans, Canadians, Brits, Australians, and Swedes to various Asian populations, including Japanese, Malaysians, Chinese, and Koreans. The upshot is that WEIRD people usually lie at the extreme end of the distribution, focusing intensely on their personal attributes, achievements, aspirations, and personalities over their roles, responsibilities, and relationships.
Several levers drive this difference. Henrich argues that the primary one was marriage norms (reducing incest and increasing monogamy). Whatever the explanation, cultural changes in America continue to move in the individualist direction. The data show this. From the increase of uniqueness in baby naming to the reduction of multifamily households, from the greater number of adults living alone to smaller family sizes, American individualism has grown.
These behaviors aren't just an expression of what we value. They change what we value. When we interact with others, we don't directly share our minds. We share the world and the objects in it. We desire things in the external world and care less about invisible experiences. Less abstractly, we're more inclined to build shared monuments, work in solidarity, and see ourselves as a part of a higher unit. But when we need to coordinate with fewer people, our attention fails to expand beyond the self. The less we focus on roles and relationships, the less we focus on the world shared with others. And the more we focus on what's in our head. Whether that's someone's private relationship with God or their obsession over mental wellbeing is immaterial.
With the rise of prosperity and additional leisure time comes the ability to live in the head. We can choose where we live and what we consume. Each person can access media that is tailor made for them and the targeted niche they belong to. With this consumer power, American's increasingly make the complacent choice, favoring stability, and the experience they know. We move less, change jobs less often, and create fewer startups. Technological development makes staying at home more convenient and pleasant.
A speculative reason for this change lies in the cerebral nature of the age. Employers and culture at large reward abstract thinking and knowledge work in a historically novel way. People with this temperament may value the mental more than the typical person. Another speculative hypothesis is that what we believe matters less than it did in the past. Beliefs are less about navigating the world and making decisions and more about expressing who we are. Our beliefs are more like clothing than functional tools. This, too, may have brought the focus inward.
Whether these explanations or others play a role is an open question. I'm confident that increasing individualism and prosperity primarily power the shift to the internal.
Will the shift change? We cannot completely retreat inward. Eventually, we will run into reality.
The coronavirus has forced this question for some. Not all that matters is in the head, a vast portion of it is in our communities and shared world. Civil unrest hints at significant change. Lower growth rates may eat into prosperity. Individualism may fall as the demographics of Western countries change.
Yet, some indicators point in the other direction. Lockdowns have, in some sense, accelerated individualism through remote work and digital entertainment. Virtual reality and pharmaceutical drugs have the potential to rapidly change how we feel and remove any dependence on an external reality.
And here we are, with the question, what do you value? Will you unplug from the happiness machine?
Thanks to Sachin Maini, Tom White, Donovan Carberry, Dan Stern, James Quiambao, Carolina Perez, Alan Tsen, and Natalie Toren for reading earlier versions of this essay.