The swinging Pendulum
The great German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said:
“Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.”
The discovery of this pendulum is one of the great insights about the human condition: we are inclined to flee pain with all we’ve got, yet the more we flee, the more we approach a state of convenience - and slowly turn into victims of boredom.
The workings of the pendulum are timeless and independent of specific surroundings. It always swings back and forth, oblivious to age, nationality, gender and so on.
Prolonged states of pain and boredom are of course both undesirable.
A good philosophy of life would aim to find the perfect swinging rhythm of the pendulum, so that we neither end up in pain nor boredom for too long.
In psychology this state is called flow. It is a state of constant flux, a mental zone, where people feel energized and 100% focused. They completely lose track of time and space.
With Schopenhauer, you could say, that it’s a constant and perfectly attuned ping pong of pain and boredom. When people are in flow, they act upon a challenge that is neither too easy, nor too hard. It always threatens to derail either into pain or boredom, but never actually does. It is one of the most satisfying and healthy mental states you can be in.
But pain has an additional attribute that boredom misses: If a challenge is especially painful, the sense of accomplishment tends to be much bigger.
Imagine climbing the Mount Everest. It is incredibly painful, but the resulting sense of accomplishment takes your life experience to another level. The view you get on top by going through all the pain has a depth of meaning and satisfaction that pales everything else.
Now imagine you could beam up to the top of Everest and enjoy the same view. What would you feel? You would feel awe, sure, but would you feel a sense of accomplishment? Highly unlikely. If you would stand next to someone who just did the painful ascent, I promise you, that you would envy him. You would yearn to feel what he feels. The exhaustion, the numb muscles, the burning lungs. You would have the nagging feeling that you’re missing out. That your experience is inferior and superficial.
Pain of this sort is something to treasure, because it increases satisfaction. No pain, no gain.
And yet humans are prone to skip the pain wherever they can. They search satisfaction without the effort. They want the gratification of arrival without the journey.
In short: people have a powerful drive to fulfil their desires as fast and as effortless as possible.
This is also an expression of conserving as much energy as possible. This may have evolutionary reasons. We appear to have a lot of the genetic heritage of our hunter-gatherer forebears in us. But their lifestyle was completely different to ours. They expended energy in short outbursts when hunting prey and they always had to be ready to flee predators. In addition, they were always threatened by food scarcity. So they had two powerful reasons to conserve energy: to always be ready for hunting or escaping and to survive times of scarcity in low-energy mode.
It’s a common cultural joke that if hunter-gatherers had supermarkets, they would have the same obesity pandemic as we have today. This is probably true, but at least we have modern medicine and antibiotics and they didn’t. So there’s that.
But the deeper point here is that hunter-gatherers didn’t have the means to immediately satisfy their desires. Only very few would want to trade places with their life of hardship, of course, but to some extent this lack might have been a benefit. Why is that?
Desire and the hedonic treadmill
All major schools of thought in human history, from Buddhism to Stoicism, had the fundamental insight, that desire is a curse. It is a devil in disguise, promising us fulfilment and sweet visions of happiness, but behind our backs, it turns us into slaves.
We always search for new ways to fulfil our desires and once we satisfy them we turn to even more grandiose desires we seek to fulfil. Be it our dream job, a pay raise, a new car, the new Iphone or whatever. We always think that the next fulfilled desire will finally make us happy.
Of course this is an illusion. Today, every one of us lives the perfect life we desired yesterday and yet we don’t live in perfect bliss, but have the same shitty dissatisfactions as always. We adapt to our surroundings no matter how many desires we satisfy and always return to our personal happiness set point.
This frustrating phenomenon is called the hedonic treadmill: the constant struggle to fulfil our desires, but never actually arriving at lasting happiness.
That is why the Buddhists and the Stoics advised us to seek happiness and tranquillity not by feeding into our desires like a hedonist would, but by trying to extinguish desire itself.
As Seneca, the Roman Stoic said:”The greatest wealth is a poverty of desire.”
This is one of the wisest ideals for personal enlightenment and a life well lived, and yet only the most dedicated reach it.
Connecting the dots: digitalization increases dissatisfaction
What has this to do with digitalization?
By creating ever-expanding convenience, digitalisation turns into a major stealth attack on our happiness and satisfaction.
When it comes to consumers, the core modus operandi of digitalization is making things seamless and easy. Every digital service and product innovation is based on the promise of more convenience.
This promise is often packaged with the allure of spending more quality time on things that really matter: no new digital service comes without the allure of liberating you from wasting time. This is the great Mantra of Digitalisation.
And it’s true: Every service innovation in itself feels great. Would you want to miss online banking? Isn’t Amazon Fresh better than going to the supermarket after work?
Don’t you want the robotic vacuum cleaner so you can skip the annoying house work? What about instant drone delivery? Uploading pictures to Instagram instead of showing them in person? Whatsapp instead of visits? Or autonomous cars, so you don’t even have to skip Netflix on the road?
Digitalization hi-jacks our natural tendency to conserve energy, avoid pain and fulfil desires as fast as possible.
What it slowly promises to do, too, is swing the pendulum of life ever so slowly towards boredom. Less and less things require effort. The flow of everyday life gets too smooth. And thanks to the hedonic treadmill we naturally adapt to the convenience.
Missing out on life
But what happens when total convenience turns into the baseline condition? When the gap between desire and satisfaction of desire gets smaller and smaller? When the journey gets skipped and you get instant arrival all the time? When you adapt to a world of total abundance with no more room to improve?
You get the shallow feeling that you’re missing out on life. Like the guy beaming up to the top of Everest. Everything is slick. Nothing has friction. There is no pain, no resistance. Life turns into a smooth operation, and yet we suffer dissatisfaction.
The thing that suffers most from this is the quality of our memories. When everything is seamless and convenient, nudged by predictive algorithms, the No. 1 requirement for great memories is lost: overcoming painful challenges that sometimes come out of nowhere.
The net result of all this is a creeping unhappiness most people can’t even pinpoint. Because every new digital service in itself feels great, but the sum of all parts slowly takes the spice out of life.
A very real development
The current mental health crisis of Generation Z, the first generation growing up with the smartphone, is a major indicator for the eroding effects of digitalization.
No generation before has been as physically safe and lived in conditions of such abundance of goods and services. And yet, Gen Z appears to suffer from increased rates of dissatisfaction, isolation and depression. Though not conclusive, there is evidence linking this development to the advent of the smartphone: the prime enabler of convenience and instant gratification.*
This suggests that digitalization needs to be upgraded in a major way to guarantee human flourishing and prevent the erosion of our peace of mind. It will require that we solve the obvious problems of digitalization, like job-automatization and finding ethical rules for artificial intelligence.
But it will also require that three more fundamental questions will be answered, that are much closer our human essence:
What can we do to bring back pain and resistance into our digital lives?
How can we move forward with digitalization without sabotaging our ability to enjoy?
- How can digitalization help us to resist desire to increase satisfaction - and still create valuable business?
To answer these questions, we need to create awareness for the increasing imbalance of digitalization and its subtle eroding effects on human well-being. We need to stop thinking of abundance and convenience as the holy grail of human existence. We need to find ways how to design digital services and products that avoid falling into the trap of instant satisfaction. And we need to surprise people with solutions that are superior not despite but because they are inconvenient.
This will be a challenge and that is why we as diffferent are searching our ambitious collaboration partners between Science, Strategy, CX & Digital Innovation to create a path that leads us to a more balanced digital age.
Get in touch.
Author: Christopher Topp
*„Igen“, the recent book by Psychologist Jean M. Twenge, offers a comprehensive analysis