Predicting a Good Future

I recently read an article published by a German newspaper which was discussed how our future might look like in 2037. Trying to predict the future is something which has always fascinated me. I think we do far too little of that in comparison with how much of our attention we direct towards the past; just think about how many books are written about history versus those about the future!

Maybe this is just because we have come to realise that predicting the future is too difficult; the world is so complex and moves into seemingly random directions. However, there are broader developments which play out over long stretches; such as the rise of China, the growing population of India or the decline of the political system in the United States. 

I think it would be an interesting exercise to try to identify strong developments in our time which are very likely to continue in the future. If we have a list of those, we could then try to extrapolate from them.

One problem is that, although we know that a development is coming, it is often difficult to predict when it is coming. For instance, I have long been convinced that property in New Zealand and Australia is overvalued and will reduce in value in the future. However, I have absolutely no idea when this is going to happen.

One notable thing about the article which I have mentioned was that they were not just trying to predict a future but to predict a possible good future. This I think is a very good objective for thinking about the future. We will never know with certainty what is to happen; so if we try to adopt an optimistic outlook we might just help realise a better possible future.

I think we can even go a step further and not just try to imagine a good possible future but try to imagine how the future could be if we were to shape it with all our available resources.

Just imagine we would redirect our resources away from the production of luxury goods towards building a more sustainable economy. Image we would abandon our focus on economic growth (both in terms of the economy as a whole and in terms of our personal fortunes) and instead focus on trying to build an environment in which all members of society are given security and the ability to engage in activities which grant them meaningful happiness. Imagine we could build one centralised, peace-loving, just and democratic power which stands above all individual countries. And, it is true, we can realise all these things if just enough of us at the same time decide that we want them to come to pass.

Sadly the article I read was not very concerned with discussing collective well-being. Instead, it focused on the particular life of one person and how technology was used to improve this person’s life. For me, things like being able to send your blood pressure readings to your doctor, having your blinds open automatically when you wake up, having your fridge order your groceries for you just don’t seem all that important. Sure, they are nice to haves but they are not essential in solving the gigantic problems which we are facing; which are a deterioration of our natural environment, overpopulation, individual misery brought about by stress and easily preventable diseases and the always possible calamity of violent conflict. However, the examples given are surely great for the economy; it is all based on things and services which need to be bought by money; just the thing we need more of!

Featured Image: Heinrich Leutemann’s The Oracle of Delphi Entranced

What Is

It seems easy for us to distinguish what exists from what does not exist. If I have a glass standing on the table in front of me, it seems very clear to me that this glass exists. If there is no cup on my table, it is very clear that no cup exists on my table.

My table is of very little relevance in the greater scheme of things but the greater scheme of things fits just as well into our categories of existence and and non-existence. In fact, when looking at the greatest scheme of things possible, the question as what is all that exists taken together, we have a fairly good understanding of what it encompasses.

We know that everything that exists and which we can observe started in a cataclysmic event known as the big bang. Every little piece of matter, which makes up our bodies and the objects and planets around us, originated in the big bang. So goes the theory for now at least.

The first thing to note about everything which exists is that there exists a whole heap of it. You are one of 7.6 billion people on earth. Together we weigh around 300 million tons. The earth weighs around 19 trillion times more than all of us combined. The sun weighs around 330 thousand times more than the earth. In our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are 200 billion suns and the universe has around 100 billion other galaxies. This scale is simply unimaginable for us. We can write down the numbers but we cannot grasps what they mean in our minds.

And so far we have only been looking at things larger than us. We are made up of more than 30 trillion cells and are host to around 100 trillion bacteria. Each one of these cells and bacteria is again a world of its own. Each bacteria contains DNA with millions of base pairs, each made up of dozens of atoms, which in are turn made up of protons, electrons and neutrons.

We have been fairly well equipped to deal with things in the scale which are the most relevant for our lives. We can find our way to the other side of the city. We can remember where we have placed most objects in our home. But we have been poorly equipped to fathom even a fraction of what exists. Through mathematics and advanced instruments we were able to formalise a great deal of what exists in the large and in the small scale. But these scales are nothing which we can grasp fully. We can only take the lesson that there exists so much more than we could ever comprehend and, hopefully, derive a bit of humility from that.

Moreover, it seems unlikely that what science has mapped of existence so far will be the end of it. We do not know what lies in the dark space beyond the galaxies we are able to capture with our telescopes and our understanding of the most elementary particles is still incomplete.

In all likeliness, even looking at existence through the lens of science, we are looking at it from our own biased perspective. Wherein does space exist? What is the beginning of time? In some mathematical equations we can answer these questions but likely these are of far less relevance than we imagine them to be. Probably our space and our time (and our universe as far as we can see it) are just a part of something else. And in the context of this something else, the answers to our questions will seem self-evident. Maybe one day we will gain better understanding of these things but until then, this may give us yet another reason to be humble.

For reasons unknown to me, I do think that we have some spiritual connection to existence as a whole. If we set our mind to it, if we try to wrap it around the scale and depth of everything which exists, we find something holy, wholesome and comforting within our minds. If we are contemplating the hugeness of everything that exist and the dazzling complexity of the world smaller than us, we enter a very special place, and, I think, when we realize that even these things are mere aspects of something else, much grander than our instruments and intellects are able to detect, we might reach a place more special yet.

A Discussion of Professional Ambition

In our modern world, our basic material needs are often met easily. Especially for those which were fortunate enough to obtain a good education. It thus puzzles me why people are often so ambitious in their work.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. For me, working hard and trying our best are treasured values. What puzzles me about peoples’ ambition is not so much that they work hard but what for.

For me, work has a spiritual meaning. I believe that through our labours we can give back to the world which bestowed us with existence. If we are fortunate enough to have talents and skills, we can use them to benefit those among us less fortunate.

However, I don’t think that this is what motivates most ambitious people. I think we have been programmed with a base desire to want what other people have. If there is a step up from your current position and it is held by someone you interact with (and you are theoretically qualified for the position), it is just natural that we would want this position for ourselves. If there are others with more formal power than us, we would want this formal power as well. And who wouldn’t want to be payed equally as much as those earning more.

What does not make sense to me is that if you ask almost anyone what is most important in their lives, they will say that it is their own happiness and the well-being of their family. Accepting a more senior or better paid role often comes at the cost of additional stress and time commitments – neither of which aid in achieving happiness for ourselves or our families. Moreover, once we have attained our goal of finding a better role, we will quickly find a role even more desirable and our joy of accomplishment is set out to be brief – and this is in the event of success; if we fail to attain our goal, we are sure to be miserable, being constantly reminded of our own shortcomings and the general unfairness of the world.

Seeking promotions and advancements follows a pattern which can often be observed when studying our own species. If left to our own devices, we make choices which are against our own best interests (or at least against what we have identified as being important for us).

I think it is important to be aware of these shortcomings of our mind. Often, we do not need a promotion. We do not need to keep a job which brings us nothing but misery. It is our animal desire for prestige and power which drives us to seek that which is not good for us. It is our animal programming to follow the example of those around us. Overcoming our desire and tendency to follow social norms is not easy. We need to be mindful, of a strong mind and full of confidence to follow the path to true happiness and goodness for ourselves and others.

Life Purpose in the Modern World: Beyond Family

We live in an age where there is a short supply of higher purpose. Sure, there are the world religions which might promises us a place in heaven upon proper conduct – but most of the premises these religions are based upon are difficult to take seriously in the 21st century.

Humans can be surprisingly uninsightful at times but generally we are quite smart, and I believe that the erosion of organised religion can be traced back to our collective insight that they just don’t make much sense.

However, I believe our biology programs us to seek purpose. With organised religion being not an option for many of us, we have been looking for purpose in other places.

Firstly there is the hedonistic purpose of seeking happiness for ourselves which is adopted by some. Unfortunately, pleasure seeking is a shaky path for finding true happiness – it seems we can achieve that much better by caring for others. I would say that this purpose is not very popular; sometimes sought out in younger years but often replaced with another purpose, arguably the most widely adopted today. That is the purpose to provide and care for our families, especially our children.

In our collective mind there is little doubt that this is a sensible and morally correct purpose. However, I do think that it is good to question even those things which seem self-evident to us. So the question I want to discuss here is whether this is a good purpose or not.

There are many good things about this purpose, chiefly that it is not about us but about others. I think there is much beauty in our love for our families, and we should embrace
it whenever we have the opportunity. However, we must also be aware that this purpose is rooted in our basic biology – since looking after those genetically closely related to us helps propagate our genes.

So I think an argument can be made that this might not be the best choice for being the leading, single highest purpose of our lives. That is because, not unlikely like the world religious, it does not hold up to deeper scrutiny. It is just biology to love our children – it’s what all mammals do.

That is not to say that it is bad – in the contrary, it is beautiful and holy. This is just to say that it is not more than biology. If our children survive, our genes will pass on. If we teach our children to be good people, they might spread more goodness into the world. But what difference does this make in the context of what we have learned about the
universe? We are a tiny speck of humanity and humanity is a tiny speck in the cosmos. How our genes are fairing and what part of our values live on makes little difference in the greater scheme of things and even for our family: our great-grandchildren will only inherit around one eighth of our genes and probably equally as much – if not less – of our values.

Moreover, with our love for our children comes a danger. What if you have to make a choice between their welfare and that of others. Will we not always choose our children irrespective of what is the fair or good thing to do?

Instead, we can take the love we harbour for our families and use it as a foundation
on which to grow universal love. Love for every human being. Love for every
thing in the universe. Love for what we know about and what we don’t know about.
Love for ourselves.

So we shouldn’t abandon the love for our family – we should just be careful to define the value of our lives based on the welfare of our family. Families cause problems, families break apart. If we do not define ourselves through our families, we can become stronger – in bad times and in good – and give more love to those we care about the most without compromising our ability to open our hearts to an even greater love which encompasses everything there is, has been and could be.

The Economy and Happiness

By many measures, there has been tremendous progress in key well-being indicators for all of mankind. There is less poverty, less hunger, less violence and more prosperity than there has ever been in human history.

We live in times of plenty not just for the few but for the many. To a large degree, this is due to the rise of China; which has managed to bring more wealth and resources to its population.

However it is also in China where some problems with the current state of our world are the most apparent. The rapid industrialisation of China came along with immense environmental destruction, with a dramatic rise in inequality and, most importantly at all, a diminishing of core values which make for a just society where it is a pleasure to life in. For many (not all, of course) Chinese nowadays, money and consumerism have become central values. Western luxury brands such as Gucci, Hermes or Prada enjoy wide recognition. If you are able to buy such items, you are often assured of the admiration and envy of your peers.

Thinking about it, that is just how it is in many places in the Western world and in the rest of the world as well. Sadly, the quest for money and consumerism have been shown to be detrimental to our well-being. I believe that for a good society – that is one where the vast majority of people can enjoy good and happy lives – it is essential that there is a strong feeling of equality and mutual respect.

I have been living for many years in New Zealand and Australia now and here one of the central tenets of culture is that everyone is worthy of your respect and your friendship; no matter of whether you are rich or poor, intelligent or not so intelligent, good looking or not so good looking; you are worthy of having a quick chat with and be given a smile. It is generally not respected to be rude or impolite to others.

I do think it becomes more and more difficult to uphold such values the more economic inequality is created in a country and the more the things one can purchase with money are valued. However, we are bombarded constantly – on the TV, on Facebook, when doing a Google search, when playing a game on our mobile phone – with advertisements of which 98% share a similar message; spend money and your life will be better. Parents, be they poor or wealthy, educated or uneducated preach their children that they should aim to be successful in school; that they should choose to pursue a career which will give them economic independence (by earning money). On big holidays like Christmas or birthdays, one is trained to expect material objects or experiences which can only be bought with money. When you are planning to get married (and you are a man), you are trained that you can express your love through your wallet by choosing the right engagement ring.

Many of these things are accepted into mainstream society without reflection. They are considered to be just as things are, and more than that, they are considered how things should be. But to what end, do I ask? What lives can we build for ourselves when they are based around the simple circle of earning money which is then spent to bring about happiness and to sustain us in order to be able to earn more money. What society will result if our core values are built around this?

Not so long ago, towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century (and even some time before that), some of the most capable and influential minds were very concerned with the idea of public good. Which place does this idea have in our current world?

I think that we have become very successful at creating the world which we think we want; a world where we are free from material needs and where we can live in comfort. Unfortunately, I do not believe that this is the world which can give us deep and lasting happiness. Deep and lasting happiness is based on humility, time spend in a meaningful way, a natural and wholesome environment and constant giving and receiving of kindness and love. The combined economic power of the world is more than sufficient to supply us with the essentials we need for living and with means to engineer an environment which will enable us to find happiness. Nonetheless, we are obsessed with growing our economic power through consumption. Why? It is unnecessary. We should rather focus on channelling the economic power we have already created towards more noble and sustainable goals.

Featured Image: WikiMedia

Struggle and Ease

I think the tension between the difficult and the easy, between that which we can do only with struggle, and that we we can do with ease, is an important dimension to consider for how we design our lives.

We have a natural tendency to seek out the easiest path to accomplish what we need to. If we do an exercise, our body will naturally find a way to do it with the least amount of energy. Our brain has been shown to use shortcuts and approximations to conserve energy. This works well in many situations but, unfortunately, this strategy is often not in our best interest.

The easy way to do an exercise is often the wrong way; following an incorrect form which might diminish the effectiveness of the exercise or even injure us. Our energy-conserving (and thus lazy to think) brain entices us to uncountable bad decisions.

Every athlete knows that in order to make real progress one needs to feel real pain; not to go the path of least resistance but the path where most resistance can be expected. Weight machines are the ironclad embodiment of this principle; they are designed to make it difficult for us to push, pull, press and twist and allow us to gradually increase the difficulty as we progress; ensuring we are very unlikely to ever make the use of the machine in a comfortable way.

But our lives are not athletic competitions. Although I believe we should strive to become better versions of ourselves, we cannot struggle indefinitely. To reach wisdom and enlightenment, we need to achieve balance within us as well as balance between us and the world. Struggle can help us achieve balance but it is a poor instrument to sustain it.

In ease is where arguably our greatest strength lies. If we struggle through a competition, we are probably not doing as well as we could. True champions train with struggle but win with ease.

The same we should aspire to achieve as well. We should seek out struggle in pursuits important to us; but seek this struggle as a way to attain ease, not as a purpose in itself.

Once we have attained ease, we can savour it and use it to find balance and wisdom. However, we shouldn’t expect that once we have attained ease and some moments of enlightenment that all our struggles have passed. It is only natural that struggle returns to us; and when it does we should not shy away from it but embrace it – since it will be the stepping stone towards finding new levels of ease and insight.

I don’t know if it is possible to attain permanent ease and enlightenment as Buddhist teachings suggest. I am doubtful since our inner world and the world around us are chaotic – which makes it difficult to sustain a particular state. If it is possible to reach constant ease, I think it is probably only possible after many cycles of struggle and ease.

Struggle and ease are not two alternatives from which we can choose one or the other. Struggle is the enabler of true ease and our lives can only be rich if we have both, struggle and ease; just like music is bland and boring to listen to if there is no disharmony, our life is bland if we do not struggle from time to time. Just like athletes need to push the limits of their comfort, we need to seek some degree of struggle to achieve true ease and balance in our lives.

We must not follow our natural instinct to strive for comfort and avoid struggle. If there is the potential for struggle in something which is important to us, we should see it as a blessing and engage it eagerly. That way it can be the path which brings us ever so slightly closer to enlightenment.

Featured Image: Perseus Digital Library

Further Reading

Adolescence: How to Help Teenagers Embrace Stress

What to do if a person is not kind

I tend to believe in the inherent goodness of whomever I meet. I believe that each one of us has a desire to bring joy and happiness to others; even if that is to the detriment of others. I also think that most people I have know are kind. They are friendly and try to help wherever they can. Some might act unkindly from time to time but I do not think that means they are not kind in other circumstances.

Unfortunately one encounters people sometimes who seem inherently unkind. They are not friendly. They do not have kind words for others. They are not interested in helping others, they are only interested in advancing their own interests. These are the people who will be nice and obedient to those in positions of higher power but will barely tolerate their peers or those they think lower than themselves.

I think we should grow within us love and appreciation for every human and conscious being. How can we do that if there are those who do not repay our kind acts? Will the way they are affect us negatively on our own paths to greater kindness and love? I feel hurt on an emotional level if someone does something unkind towards me. My natural response is to dislike them and to harbour bad thoughts about them. I think that is not the right response.

I believe what we want to be and what we could be is far more important than what we are or what we have been. No human being exists independently. How we are is not shaped by some magic formula which is intrinsic to us and fully under our control. Instead, we are shaped by our environment, the context in which we exist. If someone is unkind, they might be so now, since they do not care about the feelings of others. It seems like they are exactly what they want to be. However, that is only an illusion. They want to be what they want to be because of various factors which are completely out of their control.

I believe that for every unkind person there is a path to become better, a context in which they will be kind people. Our role is not to hate them or be offended by them but to see how we can be their guide in becoming more caring and kind. Most likely we will not succeed – but sometimes we might. The easiest way to help is to assure we do not become unkind ourselves. Instead we should aim to be wise, enlightened, balanced and kind to set an example which will hopefully inspire those around us. It is a challenge but also an opportunity to become stronger and more wise.

At no point should we fall for the trap of thinking that we are better than those which are not kind. We need not forget humility. Our own flaws are beyond measure. We can try to act as good as we can, but we should never do so in a self-righteous way. Maybe there are other factors which makes us not like a person and we project unkindness onto them without justification. Maybe we ourselves act unkind on more occasions than we would like to acknowledge; thinking of this, we most certainly are. We can only hope than that there is maybe someone else who might help us to overcome our own shortcomings as well.

Featured Image: WikiMedia