Suddenly, a taste of freedom

So a few days back, I mentioned that after getting rid of my subconscious idealized assumptions of what a relationship “should” be like, I stopped being so desperate to be in a relationship.

And some time before that, I mentioned that I’d decided to put the whole “saving the world” thing on hold for a few years and focus on taking care of myself first.

As a result, I’ve suddenly found myself having *no* pressing goals that would direct my life. No stress about needing to do something big-impact. No constant loneliness and thinking about how to best impress people.

Just a sudden freedom to do basically anything.

I’m still in the process of disassembling various mental habits that were focused on making me more single-mindedly focused on the twin goals of saving the world and getting into a relationship. But starting to suspect that even more things were defined by those goals than I suspected.

For instance, my self-esteem has usually been pretty bad, probably because I was judging myself and my worth pretty much entirely by how well I did at those two goals. And I didn’t feel like I was doing particularly well at either.

Now I can just… Live a day at a time and not sweat it.

It’s going to take a while to get used to this.

Finding slices of joy

Three weeks ago, I ran across an article called “Google’s former happiness guru developed a three-second brain exercise for finding joy“. Yes, the title is kinda cringe-worthy, but the content is good. Here are the most essential five paragraphs:

Successfully reshaping your mindset, [Chade-Meng Tan] argues, has less to do with hours of therapy and more to do with mental exercises, including one that helps you recognize “thin slices of joy.”

“Right now, I’m a little thirsty, so I will drink a bit of water. And when I do that, I experience a thin slice of joy both in space and time,” he told CBC News. “It’s not like ‘Yay!”” he notes in Joy on Demand. “It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of nice.’”

Usually these events are unremarkable: a bite of food, the sensation of stepping from a hot room to an air-conditioned room, the moment of connection in receiving a text from an old friend. Although they last two or three seconds, the moments add up, and the more you notice joy, the more you will experience joy, Tan argues. “Thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere… and once you start noticing it, something happens, you find it’s always there. Joy becomes something you can count on.” That’s because you’re familiarizing the mind with joy, he explains.

Tan bases this idea on neurological research about how we form habits. Habitual behaviors are controlled by the basal ganglia region of the brain, which also plays a role in the the development of memories and emotions. The better we become at something, the easier it becomes to repeat that behavior without much cognitive effort.

Tan’s “thin slice” exercise contains a trigger, a routine, and a reward—the three parts necessary to build a habit. The trigger, he says, is the pleasant moment, the routine is the noticing of it, and the reward is the feeling of joy itself.

Since then, I have been working on implementing its advice, and making it a habit to notice the various “thin slices of joy” in my life.

It was difficult to remember at first, and on occasions when I’m upset for any reason it’s even harder to follow, even if I do remember it. Still, it is gradually becoming a more entrenched habit, with me remembering it and automatically following it more and more often – and feeling better as a result. I’m getting better at noticing the pleasure in sensations like

  • Drinking water.
  • Eating food.
  • Going to the bathroom.
  • Having drops of water fall on my body while in the shower.
  • The physicality of brushing teeth, and the clean feeling in the mouth that follows.
  • Being in the same room as someone and feeling less alone, even if both are doing their own things.
  • Typing on a keyboard and being skilled enough at it to have each finger just magically find the right key without needing to look.

And so on.

Most of these are physical sensations. I would imagine that this would be a lot harder for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in their body. But for me, a great thing about this is that my body is always with me. Anytime when I’m sitting comfortably – or standing, or lying, or walking comfortably – I can focus my attention on that comfort and get that little bit of joy.

In the article, it said that

“Thin slices of joy occur in life everywhere… and once you start noticing it, something happens, you find it’s always there. Joy becomes something you can count on.” That’s because you’re familiarizing the mind with joy, he explains.

I feel like this is starting to happen to me. Still not reliably, still not always, still easily broken by various emotional upsets.

But I still feel like I’m making definite progress.

Relationship realizations

Learning experiences: just broke up with someone recently. Part of the problem was that I had some very strong, specific and idealized expectations of what a relationship “should” be like – expectations which caused a lot of trouble, but which I hadn’t really consciously realized that I had, until now.

Digging up the expectations and beating them into mush with a baseball bat came too late to save this particular relationship, but it seems to have had an unexpected side effect: the thought of being single feels a lot less bad now.

I guess that while I had that idealized vision of “being in a relationship”, my mind was constantly comparing singledom to that vision, finding my current existence to be lacking, and feeling bad as a result. But now that I’ve gone from “being in a relationship means X” to “being in a relationship can mean pretty much anything, depending on the people involved”, there isn’t any single vision to compare my current state against. And with nothing to compare against, there’s also nothing that would make me feel unhappy because I don’t have it currently.

Huh.

Software for Moral Enhancement

We all have our weak moments. Moments when we know the right thing to do, but are too tired, too afraid, or too frustrated to do it. So we slip up, and do something that we’ll regret.

An algorithm will never slip up in a weak moment. What if we could identify when we are likely to make mistakes, figure out what we’d want to do instead, and then outsource our decisions to a reliable algorithm? In what ways could we use software to make ourselves into better people?

Passive moral enhancement

One way of doing this might be called passive moral enhancement, because it happens even without anyone thinking about it. For example, if you own a self-driving car, you will never feel the temptation to drink and drive. You can drink as much as you want, but your car will always be the one who drives for you, so you will never endanger others by your drinking.

In a sense this is an uninteresting kind of moral enhancement, since there is nothing novel about it. Technological advancement has always changed the options that we have available to us, and made some vices less tempting while making others more tempting.

In another sense, this is a very interesting kind of change, because simply removing the temptation to do bad is a very powerful way to make progress. If you like drinking, it’s a pure win for you to get to drink rather than having to stay sober just because you’re driving. If we could systematically engineer forms of passive moral enhancement into society, everyone would be better off.

Of course, technology doesn’t always reduce the temptation to do bad. It can also open up new, tempting options for vice. We also need to find ways for people to more actively reshape their moral landscape.

A screenshot from the GoodGuide application.

A screenshot from the GoodGuide application.

Reshaping the moral landscape

On the left is a screenshot from GoodGuide. GoodGuide is an application which rates the health, environmental, and societal impact of different products on a scale from 1 to 10, making it easier to choose sustainable products. This is an existing application, but similar ideas could be taken much further.

Imagine having an application which allowed you to specify what you considered to be an ethical product and what kinds of things you needed or liked. Then it would go online and do your shopping for you, automatically choosing the products that best fit your needs and which were also the most ethical by your criteria.

Or maybe your criteria would act as a filter on a search engine, filtering out any products you considered unethical – thus completely removing the temptation to ever buy them, because you’d never even see them.

Would this be enough? Would people be sufficiently motivated to set and use such criteria, just out of the goodness of their hearts?

Probably many would. But it would still be good to also create better incentives for moral behavior.

Software to incentivize moral behavior

Sutter Health/California Pacific Medical Center.

This six-way kidney exchange was carried out in 2015 at the California Pacific Medical Center. Sutter Health/California Pacific Medical Center.

On the right, you can see a chain of kidney donations created by organ-matching software.

Here’s how it works. Suppose that my mother has failing kidneys, and that I would like to help her by giving her one of my kidneys. Unfortunately, the compatibility between our kidneys is poor despite our close relation. A direct donation from me to her would be unlikely to succeed.

Fortunately, organ-matching software manages to place us in a chain of exchanges. We are offered a deal. If I donate my kidney to Alice, who’s a complete stranger to me, then another stranger will donate their kidney – which happens to be an excellent match – to my mother. And as a condition for Alice getting a new kidney, Alice’s brother agrees to donate his kidney to another person. That person’s mother agrees to donate her kidney to the next person, and that person’s husband agrees to donate his kidney… and so on. In this way, what was originally a single donation can be transformed into a chain of donations.

As a result of this chain, people who would usually have no interest in helping strangers end up doing so, because they want to help their close ones. By setting up the chain, software has made our interest for our loved ones align together with us helping others.

The more we can develop ways of incentivizing altruism, the better off society will become.

Is this moral enhancement?

At this point, someone might object to calling these things moral enhancement. Is it really moral enhancement if we are removing temptations and changing incentives so that people do more good? How is that better morality – wouldn’t better morality mean making the right decisions when faced with hard dilemmas, rather than dodging the dilemmas entirely?

My response would be that much of the progress of civilization is all about making it easier to be moral.

I have had the privilege of growing up in a country that is wealthy and safe enough that I have never needed to steal or kill. I have never been placed in a situation where those would have been sensible options, let alone necessary for my survival. And because I’ve had the luck of never needing to do those things, it has been easy for me to internalize that killing people or stealing from them are things that you simply don’t do.

Obviously it’s also possible for someone to decide that stealing and killing are wrong despite growing up in a society where they have to do those things. Yet, living in a safer society means that people don’t have to decide it – they just take it for granted. And societies where people have seen less conflict tend to be safer and have more trust in general.

If we can make it easier for people to act in the right way, then more people will end up behaving ways that make both themselves and others better off. I’d be happy to call that moral enhancement.

Whatever we decide to call it, we have an opportunity to use technology to make the world a better place.

Let’s get to it.