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Life Is Just a Game

Does humanity need to exist? No. If we disappeared, nobody would be around to notice. But since we’re here, why not make the most of it?

The first step is to keep ourselves alive and healthy. We feel better when we’re not sick or dying. This might seem self-evident, but there’s a reason why dying feels bad: Without an aversion to death, humanity would not have survived.

Things start to get interesting when we move past basic physical health. Every aspect of human physiology, psychology, and culture exists because it’s related to something that supported human survival in some capacity. As I’ve mentioned before, even our sense of justice and morality ultimately exists for this reason.

The second step is to engineer an existence for ourselves that’s as fun, exciting, and stimulating as possible. This entails recognizing which of our natural instincts are compatible and incompatible with that goal. We can then develop workarounds for any harmful behavior.

For example, sugar tastes sweet because we evolved in a world where calories were extremely scarce. Sex feels good because children are the continuation of humanity. Work seems important because, throughout much of history, we benefited from having more labor. But in modern times, we have artificial sweeteners, birth control, and hobbies.

If we act wisely, we can harness human nature to help everyone achieve happiness and fulfillment. Ideally, we should want to ensure that people feel a sense of meaning, purpose, and dignity in their lives. On July 5th, our Boston Basic Income discussion group explored the concept of human purpose.

In particular, we discussed people’s desire to contribute to society as well as their expectation that others contribute too. A question I’ve written about previously is what happens to people when their contributions are no longer needed.

In today’s world, joblessness causes suffering. But does it have to? To what extent is the suffering a result of our culture punishing people for not having jobs?

When the economy doesn’t actually need the labor, what is the appropriate response to joblessness? Is make-work the answer? Should we create useless jobs to manufacture purpose for people? Should we do it as an excuse to give them money? Should we trick workers into believing that they’re contributing to society? I don’t think so.

If there’s valuable work to be done, we should absolutely pay for it. But we’d be paying only because we actually want the output of the labor.

The bad news is that the nature of modern jobs—even useful jobs—is often divorced from the types of activities that humanity is biologically adapted to enjoy. This is part of why we need to pay people to work in the first place.

The good news is that we still have ways to activate those biological adaptations. That’s what hobbies and sports are for. These activities mimic the kind of work that actually feels good to us.

We can considerably improve human well-being by replacing unnecessary work with more fun and stimulating activities. Understanding this to be true, I was dismayed when the following Ram truck TV commercial aired during this fall’s NFL season.

Which sport is America’s game? None of them. The one we were born to play, is work. This game means something more. America’s game is work.
—America’s Game | Built to Serve | 2019 Ram 1500

Yikes. This is a problem. America’s game might be work and America’s food might be sugar, but that’s hardly a good thing. Then again, if needlessly driving a pickup truck isn’t an apt metaphor for the wastefulness of working at a useless job, then I don’t know what is.

There’s a reason why I didn’t title this post, “Life Is Just Work.” Humanity will be better off once we stop forcing ourselves to spend our time performing unnecessary labor. Bertrand Russell said it best in 1932.

Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle. Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen instead to have overwork for some and starvation for others.
—Bertrand Russell | In Praise of Idleness

There’s a whole physical and intellectual universe for us to explore. Let’s not allow work to hold us back from reaching humanity’s full potential. Life is the ultimate game. We should be playing to win.