Meaningfulness and the scope of experience

I find that the extent to which I find life meaningful, seems strongly influenced by my scope of experience [1, 2].

Say that I have a day off, and there’s nothing in particular that I need to get done or think about. This makes it easy for the spatial scope of my experience to become close. My attention is most strongly drawn to the sensations of my body, nearby sounds, tempting nearby things like the warmth of the shower that I could take, the taste of a cup tea that I could prepare, or the pleasant muscle fatigue that I’d get if I went jogging in the nearby forest. The temporal scope of my experience is close as well; these are all things that are nearby in time, in that I could do them within a few minutes of having decided to do them.

Say that I don’t have a day off, and I’m trying to focus on work. My employer’s website says that our research focuses on reducing risks of dystopian futures in the context of emerging technologies; this is a pretty accurate description of what I try to do. Our focus is on really large-scale stuff, including the consequences of eventual space colonization; this requires thinking in the scale of galaxies, a vast spatial scope. And we are also trying to figure out whether there is anything we can do to meaningfully influence the far future, including hundreds if not thousands of years from now; that means taking a vast temporal scope.

It is perhaps no surprise that it is much easier to feel that things are meaningful when the scope of my experience is close, than when it is far.

My favorite theory of meaning actually comes from a slightly surprising direction: the literature on game design and analysis. In Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define meaningful play in a game as emerging when the relationships between actions and outcomes are both discernable and integrated into the larger context of the game. In other words:

The consequences of your actions in a game have to be discernable: you need to have some idea of what happened as a result of your actions. If you shoot at an opponent and the opponent dies, that’s pretty clear and discernable. If you press a button and a number changes but you have no idea of what that number means or why it’s relevant, that’s not very clear nor discernable. If you don’t know what happens as a result of your actions, you might as well be randomly pressing buttons or throwing down cards.

The consequences of your actions have to be integrated into the larger context of the game: they need to affect the game experience at some later point in the game. If you move a piece in a game of chess, then that move will directly shape the whole rest of the game, making the moves deeply integrated. But if every game of chess included three opening moves after which the board was reset to the initial position, throwing away everything that happened during those three moves, then those moves would not be integrated to the gameplay. People would just make some moves at random as fast as possible, to get on with the actual opening moves of the game.

As Salen & Zimmerman write: “Whereas discernability of game events tells players what happened (I hit the monster), integration lets players know how it will affect the rest of the game (If I keep on hitting the monster I will kill it. If I kill enough monsters, I’ll gain a level.).”

My own model is that regardless of whether we’re playing a game or living our ordinary lives, our minds will automatically keep looking for actions whose outcomes are discernable and integrated, relative to the current scope of experience.

When the scope is close, it is easy to find such actions. Taking a shower, making a cup of tea, going out for a jog; the consequences of these actions will manifest as concrete and enjoyable bodily sensations, clearly discernable both within the temporal and spatial scope. And because the scope is so close, almost everything I do will affect the whole scope, so it will feel tightly integrated.  I imagine getting a taste of tea, and think no farther out in time; thus, getting up from bed, going to the kitchen, preparing the tea, and sitting down to drink it, feels like a tight chain of actions where each step gives rise to the next, culminating in the warmth of the tea cup pressing against my lips, the sensation of taste on my tongue.

When the scope is far, it is much different. What action could one even think of, whose consequences were discernable on a scale spanning entire galaxies? Or whose consequences could be traced out for tens, maybe hundreds of years? It’s hard to imagine anything. An intellectual analysis may suggest things that could plausibly result as a consequence of our actions, but unless one can really visualize those and translate them into emotional terms, it’s still going to feel hard to connect them to the small-scale things happening in our daily lives.

I find that my mind will automatically look for objectives that makes sense within a given scope. When my scope is relatively close, things like finding a romantic partner and maybe having children feel strongly appealing; they would have a strong impact within the entire scope. When my scope gets more remote, such things seem to lose their appeal: what is one more family going to matter? It is highly unlikely to change the course of history. Better to ignore those things, as my chances to make a lasting impact are remote already; better to concentrate on finding something that would inch those chances ever-so-slightly upwards.

The naive implication of this would be, “keep your scopes close, and you’ll be happy”. But of course, it’s not that simple.

For one, most of us can’t just focus on small pleasures and not worry at all about things like earning an income, what we’ll be doing next year, or whatever it is that we need to think about at work. The necessities of everyday life force us to think long term and in a larger context, which forces us to attend to a broader scope of experience.

Even if we did have the opportunity to keep our scope small, the effect would be to make ourselves happy by ignoring everything else that’s going on in the world. It’s easy to be happy, if you can just the ignore the suffering of your neighbor; a small scope easily gets very self-centered. (Of course, a large scope can be centered on the self as well; it’s just that it’s big enough to also contain other beings, regardless of who happens to be in the center.)

Even if you widen your scope to contain family and friends, that scope will only contain a small fraction of everybody who exists. You don’t necessarily want to only think about what happens to those you personally have reason to care about, if it means neglecting the well-being of everyone else.

Of course, it also makes no sense to burden yourself with things that you realistically can’t affect. Better to exclude those from your scope.

Except… how certain are you of not being able to affect them? The only thing that guarantees that you can’t knowingly affect somebody, is if you make the decision to never think about them. If you do keep them in your scope, even only occasionally, then you might come up with something that lets you help them after all.

So the right thing is not to stick with a certain scope, but to learn to adjust the scope if needed. Draw it closer when you are feeling overwhelmed, or when you are at risk of neglecting yourself or your loved ones; broaden it out when you have the resources to deal with the larger scope, and its demands. When you are operating in a larger scope, see if you can find ways to visualize your impact in a way that makes your current actions feel more integrated to the whole context, so as to experience their meaningfulness.

It’s easier said than done.

Exercise: see if you can consciously manipulate the scope of your experience. Try pulling it close, both spatially and temporally: focus only on your immediate surroundings and let your attention be drawn to things that you could be doing right away. Then try gradually expanding the scope, maybe all the way up to the level of galaxies and multiverses and millions of years, but also stopping at more intermediate points: e.g. your own life in a few years, or your country or your planet in the same time. How do those changes make a difference to what you feel, and what you feel like doing?

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