The literature of psychology is filled with poignant terms, but the most poignant of them all may be this one: miswanting. Coined by social psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson, the word describes our all-too-human tendency to desire things that make us unhappy and shun things that fulfill us. We're not very good at anticipating how our choices will end up affecting the way we behave and feel. And so, again and again, we eagerly set off in pursuit of disappointment.
The affliction of miswanting may seem far removed from today's world of smartphones, robots and artificial intelligence. But it explains a lot about our rush to automate our lives -- to hand off to computers tasks we used to do ourselves. In our personal lives, we look to software to direct us from one place to the next, to recommend which movie to watch and which person to date. At work, we're quick to offload even very sophisticated skills to robots or algorithms, rendering our own jobs more routine and less challenging. We expect that automation will free us up for more meaningful and satisfying activities, only to find it has the opposite effect.
Shortly before writing his celebrated 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi conducted a study that revealed how miswanting distorts our sense of the value of work. Working with his colleague Judith LeFevre, he recruited a hundred employees from businesses around Chicago. Over the course of a week, the workers filed detailed reports on their lives, documenting the activities they engaged in, the talents they exercised and the emotions they experienced.
We're actually happiest when we're absorbed in a difficult task, one that challenges us not only to exercise our talents but to stretch them.
The researchers were surprised by what they discovered. When people were at work, they were happier and felt more fulfilled by what they were doing than during their leisure hours. In their free time, they tended to feel bored and anxious. And yet they didn't like to be at work. When they were on the job, they expressed a strong desire to be off the job, and when they were off the job, the last thing they wanted was to go back to work.
"Needless to say," Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre concluded, "such a blindness to the real state of affairs is likely to have unfortunate consequences for both individual well-being and the health of society." As people act on their warped perceptions, they will "try to do more of those activities that provide the least positive experiences and avoid the activities that are the source of their most positive and intense feelings." That's hardly a recipe for the good life.
We're actually happiest when we're absorbed in a difficult task, one that challenges us not only to exercise our talents but to stretch them. We become so immersed in the "flow" of our work, to use Csikszentmihalyi's term, that we tune out distractions and transcend the anxieties that plague our everyday lives. Our usually wayward attention becomes fixed on what we're doing. "Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one," explains Csikszentmihalyi. "Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
Such states of deep absorption can be produced by all manner of effort, from singing in a choir to racing a dirt bike. You don't have to be earning a wage to enjoy the transports of flow.
All too often, automation frees us from that which makes us feel free.
And yet, given the opportunity, we'll eagerly relieve ourselves of the rigors of labor. We'll sentence ourselves to idleness. Relieved of challenge, our discipline flags and our mind wanders. We get lazy. And then we get bored and fretful. Disengaged from any outward focus, our attention turns inward, and we end up locked in what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the jail of self-consciousness.
Our bias for ease over effort makes us particularly susceptible to the seductions of automation. By offering to reduce the amount of work we have to do, by promising to imbue our lives with greater comfort and convenience, computers appeal to our eager but misguided desire for release from what we perceive as toil. In the workplace, automation's focus on enhancing speed and efficiency -- a focus determined by the profit motive rather than by any concern for people's well-being -- often has the effect of removing complexity from jobs, diminishing the challenge they present and the engagement they promote.
Automation can narrow people's responsibilities to the point that their jobs consist largely of monitoring a computer screen or entering data into templates. Even doctors, investment bankers and other highly trained professionals are seeing their work circumscribed by artificial-intelligence systems that turn the making of judgments into a data-processing routine.
The apps and other programs that we use in our private lives have similar effects. By taking over difficult or time-consuming tasks, or simply rendering those tasks less onerous, the software makes it even less likely that we'll engage in efforts that test our skills and give us a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. All too often, automation frees us from that which makes us feel free.
How do you measure the expense of an erosion of effort and engagement, or a waning of agency and autonomy, or a subtle deterioration of skill?
The point is not that automation is bad. Labor-saving technologies have been progressing for centuries, and by and large our circumstances have improved greatly as a result. Deployed wisely, automation can relieve us of drudge work and spur us on to more fulfilling endeavors. The point is that we're not very good at thinking rationally about automation or understanding its implications. We don't know when to say "enough" or even "hold on a second." The deck is stacked, economically and emotionally, in automation's favor.
The costs are harder to pin down. How do you measure the expense of an erosion of effort and engagement, or a waning of agency and autonomy, or a subtle deterioration of skill? You can't. Those are the kinds of shadowy, intangible things that we rarely appreciate until after they're gone, and even then we may have trouble expressing the losses in concrete terms. But the losses are real, and as they mount, they begin to drain our lives not only of effort but of meaning.
Automation is not an event but a process. As technology advances, we are continually called on to renegotiate the division of labor between ourselves and our machines. As a society and as individuals, we can make these decisions wisely and attentively to the sources of human flourishing -- or we can make them rashly, thinking only about what computers can do for us. The danger in taking the latter course is that we may end up creating a world in which we don't want to live.