How Do You Determine the Right Level of Suffering?
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In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints the first Sunday of every month is the fast and testimony meeting. What this means is that anyone can stand up from the congregation, walk up to the pulpit and say whatever they want. They are strongly encouraged to talk about their belief in Jesus Christ, but it’s basically an open mic, and people have used it as an opportunity to air grievances against the church.
This last Sunday during our fast and testimony meeting an older lady got up and expressed how grateful she was that, when she was raising her kids, they were relatively poor and consequently couldn’t give their kids everything they wanted, particularly at Christmas time. Because if they had been wealthy they probably would have, the temptation being hard to resist, but if they had, it would have been worse for the children because they wouldn’t have learned to go without.
This is not an uncommon sentiment. I think adults have been accusing kids of being spoiled since possibly the time of ancient Greece, but I encountered two unusual forms of the argument just recently. The first place I came across it was The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt.
“Coddling” is mostly about the current generation of college kids, which the subtitle, “How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure”, makes clear. The generation in question is variously call iGen or Generation Z. The authors prefer iGen, after yet another book by Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy--and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood--and What That Means for the Rest of Us. This is the generation after Millennials, which is normally defined as everyone born since the start of the millennium, but Twenge noticed a surprisingly sharp generational discontinuity beginning with people born around 1995 and who then went on to enter college around 2013. Lukianoff and Haidt also noticed a change starting in 2013, and, in fact, it served as the genesis of the book. It’s not clear if they noticed it independently of Twenge (or vice versa) but they both feel something significant changed on college campuses starting in 2013.
One change in particular was an obsession with safety, and not merely physical safety, but emotional safety as well, leading many to believe, according to Twenge, “one should be safe not just from car accidents and sexual assault, but from people who disagree with you.” I don’t think this has progressed to the point of also demanding safety from the disappointment on Christmas morning we started with, though recent stories about protesting in-class presentations would seem to indicate that we may be headed in that direction.
“The Coddling of the American Mind” blames all of this on the idea that there are three great untruths which have spread far and wide through the education system. This desire for safety stems from the first of these three great untruths:
The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.
On the contray, Lukianoff and Haidt argue, college students (and humans in general) are antifragile. Meaning that exposure to stress and suffering make them stronger. But this stress and suffering is exactly what the various campus movements are trying to eliminate.
That’s the first argument for the benefits of stress, the second comes from last week’s post. You may recall that I mentioned an explanation for Fermi’s Paradox called the “Galactic Stomach Ache” and said I would be talking about it “next week, though perhaps not in the form you expect.” It should hopefully be obvious now where I’m headed, but the core of the Galactic Stomach Ache argument is the same as the argument Lukianoff and Haidt are making, that an obsession with safety and reducing harm is paradoxically causing harm. Here’s how it’s explained in, The Great Silence, the book I reviewed last week:
Having removed most of the stress due to our physical and biotic environment, we have with it removed low-level beneficial stress (known as hormesis). Already, the exponentially growing economic costs of maintaining health in the face of these degenerative disorders are huge in comparison to investments in space research and exploration, not to mention utilization of extraterrestrial resources. If such treads continue and are typical, humanity could end up in a state in which almost all material resources and all creative energy are expended on the maintenance of a comfortable lifestyle free of external stressors, leading to a plateau in the development of cognition, and its subsequent diminishing.
Similar to Lukianoff and Haidt, though on a much larger scale, we once again have an argument that at a certain level stress is beneficial, and that the push to eliminate it entirely, while having certain short term benefits, will in the end, on the balance, be harmful. “Silence” doesn’t mention antifragility, but once again that’s the domain we’re in.
As longtime readers of this blog know, I am a huge advocate for antifragility, and thus it doesn’t take much to convince me of both the danger of the “Untruth of Fragility” or the strength of the “Galactic Stomach Ache” explanation. There are certainly arguments to be made about whether Lukianoff and Haidt are exaggerating things or whether they’ve left some things out. And even better arguments could be made about whether “Galactic Stomach Ache” is the explanation for Fermi’s Paradox, but I intend to proceed based on the assumption that both of them describe something that is actually happening, even if the eventual consequences are unclear. If that’s too much for you, then I would hope, at least, that we can proceed under the assumption that humans are antifragile and that stress is important for our development. If you’re still not on board then there’s probably not much point in reading the rest of this post and I would instead direct you to some of my previous posts, or, if you have the time you should just read the books of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the person most responsible for the idea of antifragility.
If we’re all on the same page about the importance of antifragility then the next question I want to address is, “Why is it a problem now?” Certainly technology has allowed us to reduce suffering and stress from the moment hominids mastered fire. Why should it suddenly reach a tipping point five years ago? Lukianoff and Haidt’s answer is that it’s something of a perfect storm. It all starts with paranoid parenting. This front runs into a blizzard of increased polarization. All of that is bad enough and has been going on for awhile, but then coming in from the south, we have the lifestyle hurricane that is social media. This last item is the proverbial straw (to really mix metaphors) and the kids dealing with all three of these factors first arrived at college starting in 2013.
As I said Lukianoff and Haidt could be overstating how sharp this dividing line is, or how bad the problem is in general, and it’s not my intent to dive into the specifics of their argument. Also, this is just the “Coddling” side of things. The increase in degenerative diseases has been going on for a lot longer than five years. But it’s not hard to imagine a common process behind both of those, and an underlying push which gets us both paranoid parents and the rising costs of dealing with degenerative diseases.
This urge to diminish suffering and stress has been around forever, but it’s only recently that we’ve truly been close enough to eliminating it entirely that it began to seem realistic, if not ideal. Where, in other words, people began to expect it. In part this is due to the increasing power of technology, but we’ve also experienced a period of unprecedented peace and affluence as well. In the past when a mother may have lost at least one or two children to infant mortality, it’s hard to imagine that parenting would ever be so paranoid. And if granny had already lived to be 80, it’s equally hard to imagine that a family who was barely getting by as it was would want to spend any money, let alone thousands of dollars keeping her alive to 85. But at some point these expectations changed, and it had to be relatively recently. I think for a lot of things it happened so subtly that we didn’t notice it. What makes Lukianoff and Haidt’s tipping point remarkable is not that it happened, but that it was so stark when it did.
When speaking of the harm caused from eliminating all stress, and recent evidence thereof, everyone, including Lukianoff and Haidt bring up the hygiene hypothesis, which has already made at least one appearance in this blog. The theory is that in the “olden days” children were exposed to enough pathogens, parasites and microorganisms that their immune system had plenty of things to keep it occupied, but that now we live in an environment which is so sterile that the immune system, lacking actual pathogens, decides to overreact to things like peanuts. In all these cases we see evidence of harm caused by the elimination in low-level stress. The lack of hormesis mentioned in the Stomach Ache explanation, and the embrace of fragility mentioned by Lukianoff and Haidt.
Putting all of this together, the answer to the question of “Why now?” Is that we’re seeing the culmination of several trends which may have started decades ago, but have only recently become problems as a generation reached maturity, or as the impact reached a critical mass of people, or as the trend was finally translated into an expectation. There’s also the element of multiple trends all peaking and coming together at the same time, and probably feeding off each other. As I said we have been using technology to reduce suffering for hundreds of thousands of years, but only in the last couple of decades has it reached the point where it’s reasonable to expect that we can finally eliminate suffering entirely. And probably more than anything else it’s this gap between our expectations and reality which is causing most of the problems. Whether it’s college campuses or healthcare spending.
The next question is, “What should we be doing about it?” If I’m right, and the problem is essentially one of expectations, then our focus should be on changing these expectations. That’s largely the direction of Lukianoff and Haidt’s recommendations. But that may end up being a lot harder than it sounds.
One recommendation they make is for municipalities to implement “free range parenting” laws, like Utah. Obviously I’m always pleased to see a reference to my home state. And I’m in complete agreement that this is a good law, but I’m not sure it will have much of an effect. The big problem is that the law is unlikely to create more free range parents, it just offers protections for the ones who were already so inclined. For example, is there any mother out there who currently walks her kids to school, who will look at this law and decide, “Oh, I guess I should let them walk themselves to school. I was obviously being too paranoid.” I guess there might be a few, but I think the trend has already have gone too far and is too entrenched, for a new law to change the expectations of parents for how much effort they should put towards ensuring the safety of their children.
Once again, I think zeroing in on expectations is key here, and this is where being able to connect the separate instances of fragility comes in handy. Because one of the key drivers of the rise of healthcare costs has been a rise in expectations. Now this is not the only thing increasing costs, but it may be the biggest. As I already pointed out, it was not that long ago that people expected high infant mortality, and a life, that, on average, ended around 55, with anything past 70 as gravy. As technology got better expectations changed and along with them the cost of meeting those expectations. People have been worried about these rising costs since at least the time of Hillarycare, and yet of all the factors that go into rising costs, perhaps the least effort has been spent on changing expectations. Why? Probably because it’s the hardest factor to address. The small efforts which have been made have not merely been unsuccessful they’ve been spectacularly unsuccessful. There’s no quicker way to lose an election than to threaten to cut government spending on Medicare. You might also be familiar with “Death Panels”? Another example of a very strong negative reaction to the suggestion that reducing healthcare costs might entail reducing the amount of care someone actually expected to receive.
Some people may argue at this point that it’s not healthcare costs that are going to ultimately doom us, it’s the fact that we’re all turning into the overweight, hover-chair bound humans of Wall-E. And that the expectation we can eat whatever we want while being sedentary is easier to change than the expectation that we should be kept alive as long as possible regardless of the cost. The amount of effort we spend on changing these expectations certainly seems to indicate that we think this is a more pliable problem, but despite all that effort there’s no evidence of that trend reversing either.
Some people may dismiss all of the foregoing as the typical rantings of curmudgeonly old people against the dissipations of youth, and further argue that rising healthcare costs are a temporary problem, and certainly not representative of any long term existential crisis. And if that’s the case, there’s nothing I can say in this short post that will change your mind, and in any case, ultimately, that’s not the point of the post. No, ultimately, my purpose is to examine what it looks like if we decide the world needs a certain amount of suffering. And to argue that if we do decide that, it’s going to be very difficult to pull off. Let me give you an example of what I mean:
When I was young the start of the wilderness was a couple blocks from my house, and one of my favorite things to do was to set off towards the mountain. I was frequently accompanied by two of my cousins. Both were younger than me, one by a few months and one by a couple of years. We would be gone for hours on these excursions. A favorite destination was Eagle’s Cave. I don’t recall if you had to do any climbing to get there, but we did engage in climbing while we were out. At one point while we were climbing the older of the two cousins fell, and I have a distinct memory of him falling past me, and into the arms of his brother, who was also climbing but somehow didn’t get knocked off. I don’t know what to make of that memory at the remove of nearly forty years, but I talked to the cousin who fell recently and he remembered it exactly as I did. The “nearly forty years” is a hint, but guess how old I was. 15? 12? No the oldest I could have been was 8 because I moved from that house shortly after my 9th birthday.
This is basically exactly what Lukianoff and Haidt are advocating for right? What the advocates of the free range parenting movement are hoping for as well? You might argue that “suffering” is the wrong word to use for what I just described and what those groups are advocating for. And perhaps it is, perhaps “stressors”, or “challenges” is better, but if you don’t think my aunt would have suffered if my cousin had been injured in that fall or worse yet died, then you don’t know my aunt very well.
Some will argue that letting kids wander into the wilderness is fine, but 8 (or in the case of my younger cousin, 6) is too young. Or that walking to school is one thing, climbing rock walls is quite another. And I totally see their point, but how do we know where to draw the line? How do we know when we have introduced enough suffering into the environment to avoid the harms Lukianoff and Haidt describe or the more theoretical crisis of the Galactic Stomach Ache? If someone says that 8 is too young they’re not basing it on some comprehensive longitudinal double blind study of outcomes based on childhood activities. They’re saying that they aren’t comfortable with 8 year olds wandering aimlessly through the wilderness, it doesn’t match what they expect, but targeting our expectations at our comfort level is exactly how we ended up in this spot.
In a sense, and this just came to me, otherwise I would have brought it up earlier, this whole problem is a supernormal stimuli problem. Evolution has programmed us to worry about our kids, and to extend our lifespan as long as possible, and to eat as much sugar and fat as we could get our hands on, because nature was such that even if we tried our best, kids were still going to undergo a lot of stress, and people were still mostly going to die young, and we were never going to eat too much sugar. But now technology has allowed us to remove most of the countervailing pressure and scarcity, so that now we can keep our kids too safe, or prolong our lives much longer but at great cost, in the same way that we can now eat way too much sugar. And of course while we can make some guess at how much sugar we should be consuming, it’s a lot more difficult to decide how much suffering we should be experiencing (do we end up setting a daily recommended allowance?)
To return to my example, I assume that today most parents would be appalled at the idea of an 8 year old wandering around in the mountains for hours, however much they were on board with the idea of free-range parenting, or providing kids with more challenges. And yet, it’s not as if this experience made me into some kind of superman. I’m still, at best, only half the man my father is (I don’t have time to get into his childhood stories, but if you think mine was appalling...) And he’d probably tell you he’s only half the man his father was. All of which is to say, if people like Lukianoff and Haidt are indeed correct about what’s happening, I’m unconvinced that a small amount of stress, or a few challenges, or a small course correction is all that’s required to fix the problem. In fact, once you combine the scale of the problem with the difficulty of reversing people’s expectations, it starts to look completely intractable. It may be best to hope that I’m wrong, and that the world doesn’t need more suffering.
If, on the other hand I’m right, then we’re really only left with one question: We’ve demonstrated the power to eliminate suffering, do we also have the wisdom to bring it back?
There is definitely a dearth of wisdom in the world, and this blog is no exception. But I have a plan to create more wisdom, if you’d like to invest in that plan (think of me like an early-stage startup) then consider donating.