A few years ago (back when I used an AOL email account over a dial-up connection) I stumbled across a mailing list called "Authentic Happiness Coaching". I don't remember exactly how I got involved, but it turns out that it was the early emergence of Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania. His work, which has provided a foundation for a new branch of psychology called Positive Psychology, is a look at the optimization of human performance. Different from the predominant approach of psychology (and medicine, for that matter), Positive Psychology doesn't aim to fix problems by applying solutions. It instead provides a scientific insight into the ways that people achieve lasting happiness. While still young, this research already provides a useful framework: move beyond transient Pleasantness, and focus on achieving a Good and Meaningful life.
I thought that this theme deserved some additional attention after it has come up repeatedly in my recent reading and my present travels, as well as the basis for several new startups. I am currently visiting San Francisco for a month-long trip with my team from BuildingLayer. In addition to the excellent advantages for work (we've been able to meet with two of the biggest players in indoor maps while out here), I have been pressed further to answer a question posed by Kevin Kelly: what should the future look like?
One of the great insights of Kevin Kelly's book "What Technology Wants" is that the Amish, a people known for their abstention from many forms of modern technology, seem to have achieved a type of happiness that exceeds that of their tech-adopting peers in society. Why, with all the latest gadgets to make our lives easier and more fun, are we less happy? While this comfort may be pleasant, it is not happiness.
My friends at StartupDigest shared an article last week in which the author discusses the top three life lessons for entrepreneurs. His third lesson: "Don't fake happiness - it's impossible". The same sentiment is a core theme of Donald Miller's book, "A Million Miles in a Thousand Years". In it, Miller points out the difference between comfort and happiness. Those who achieve comfort have found Fool's Gold in the search for happiness.
To demonstrate this, Miller proposed a thought experiment in which there is a machine that allows us to experience the positive emotions of scoring the winning run at the World Series, heroically saving someone from a burning building, or actually going on a date with that attractive woman you saw at the supermarket. The limitation of this machine is that you would retain the knowledge that all your actions are not real. The realism is like in the movie Inception, but the dreams are not shared. They are lonely escapes where it's just you and your emotions. It turns out, happiness is not an emotion, but something more.
Miller's mythical machine, it appears, is more than just a figment of his imagination. Today's smartphones, filled with social features and game mechanics can induce feelings of comfort and pleasure in the brain. Good stories, as told by books, movies, music, and art have been doing this for centuries. They allow us to escape into a generated reality. But what they cannot do is generate happiness for the consumer. Miller refers to Viktor Frankl's perspective in "Man's Search for Meaning", which says that true happiness comes from having a purpose. And often purpose comes from overcoming something difficult. Sitting and watching a 2-hour film is not difficult. Miller also cites marriages where couples seek to maintain an eternal honeymoon period, only to realize that what they're seeking is a sure way to achieve emptiness. Real conflict and struggle should not be avoided, but enjoyed. While they make life less comfortable, they also make it more meaningful.
With these lessons of positive psychology, what if we embrace the theory that true happiness does not stem from comfort or pleasure, but can only be realized through a valiant struggle?
If we seek to build a future in which more people can achieve happiness, shouldn't we aim to ensure that more people can engage in a worthwhile struggle? Past generations have found meaning through war, frontier exploration, and moving up the social ladder. I don't think we have much runway left on these struggles, at least not in the Western world. Our wars are heading into an era where they're fought entirely through information and by robotic proxy. I doubt that when a Predator drone gets shot down that fellow soldiers are united in grief. As for discovering Earth, we have mapped and colonized the entire globe. While there are opportunities to go deeper into the oceans or to build colonies in space, I think they will remain niche activities (while it took many millions of people to settle continents, only thousands worked on space missions, and only 12 humans have walked on the moon). As for upward economic mobility, it appears that our middle class has hit its peak, at least from a salary standpoint. Members of Generation X are earning less than their parents did. To this, I contest that it's time we start optimizing for a better metric: happiness.
My hope for the future is in unleashing creativity. The act of making stuff is the closest feeling to being one with God that I've ever experienced. That's why I'm an engineer and entrepreneur: this is the daily work that I get to enjoy.
Taking an idea and turning it into a reality, whether it's art, music, food, or software, then living with the consequences and responsibilities of that idea incarnate: that's my best guess at the purpose of life. Even friendships, marriages, businesses, and countries are human creations. The most basic of our creations are simple: fleeting moments that become enduring memories. This is how we show love. By creating things that take the unique essence of each one of us and allow it to be shared unselfishly with others. And that's what I think the future is all about, in part because we have spent our past squelching creativity. Tom Kelley of Ideo recounts a series of interviews with school children. The children are asked, "Do you consider yourself an artist?" Starting in Kindergarten, nearly every kid considers him or herself to be an artist. Retesting each year, the results slowly dwindle until less than a handful of "artists" remain by the time 6th grade arrives. Our education and social systems are brutally effective at killing creativity, and instilling conformity. Our biggest opportunity for the future lies not in expanding outward, but inward.
So, where does this tie back into startups and technology, the conclusion for which you've been looking? The future lies in enabling people to create. By enabling anyone to "create" a hotel out of their spare bedroom, AirBnB did this. Makerbots enable anyone to start their own manufacturing line. Codecademy enables anyone to experience the joy of creating software. My prediction for the future is that companies in these veins (facilitating commerce for creators, selling innovative tools (pickaxes) for creators, and educating creators) will find lasting success and disruptively carry us into the future. I am not as bullish for companies that enable us to better consume. While we are currently addicted to the media firehouse enabled by continuous connectivity, better uses of our time are not far off.
To achieve a happier future, we must all become creators.