Along the march to this goal, technology has been seen as a useful aid. Dozens of new applications (apps) help people integrate habits of well-being into daily life. Seligman himself addresses technology’s important influence on human fulfillment in his 2004 TED talk on the state of positive psychology.
I argue that technology is more than an aid to positive psychology’s efforts because it can have a direct influence on the nature of happiness and well-being itself. Technology can augment the human psyche. It is a force that the positive psychology community cannot afford to ignore.
Technology Opens Up New Vistas of Well-being
While smartphones or the internet might indirectly influence happiness by spreading knowledge or providing real-time feedback, future brain-machine interface technologies will be able to induce, enhance, and even extend the sentient experience of happiness. They can also augment the cognitive capacity to experience fulfillment or meaning in a deep and real way. In other words, everything that comprises Seligman’s notions of the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life will be malleable by the technologies of the coming decades.
Positive psychology takes psychology beyond fixing people towards developing the further reaches of human potential. While sharing that goal, I argue that technology will make this exact same transition from removing obstacles that obstruct human well-being toward permanently enhancing our affective experience and taking us beyond any notions of well-being that we have today.
The future intersection of technology and psychology could have an astronomical ethical impact. Martin Seligman uses the language “tonnage of human happiness” to measure the impact of positive psychology. Technology which may directly alter the human emotional state beyond the present emotional range would seem to be the most ethically relevant developments of all time. We are moving toward a world where we can manually move that needle itself, as opposed to indirectly impacting emotions through other forces and conditions.
As a student of Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, as an extension student at MIT, and as a writer and speaker on the intersection of technology and psychology, my aim is to extend positive psychology’s influence into the larger conversations on human well-being where it is most desperately needed to guide the technological developments that will mold the future of consciousness.
Technology can do more than
warm up your coffee.
Thus far, most of technology’s influence on human well-being has been indirect. The happiness app on our smartphones does not literally make us happy any more than the microwave on our counter does. The app, like the microwave, allows us to attain some end (learn about fulfillment, calibrate habits, or heat up frozen vegetables) in a convenient way, which we hope will be conducive to happiness.
I posit that technologies of the future will, in contrast, directly mold consciousness itself along with all conceivable constituents of fulfillment. I argue that positive psychology, the study of human well-being itself, should be involved in defining and assessing these new frontiers of technology and psychology.
Already Existing Technological Breakthroughs
Let’s look at some technological breakthroughs that have already occurred.
Deep brain stimulation
In 2004, Deanna Cole-Benjamin of Kingston, Ontario bit down hard as holes were drilled into her skull, and electrodes placed in what is know as “area 25” of her brain. Nothing else had worked for her severe and persistent depression, no drugs, no psychotherapies, no electroshock therapies. She hoped that deep brain stimulation would finally help. It did, and for many other depression sufferers, this treatment has transformed their quality of life.
For well over a decade, Oxford philosophers Davis Pearce and Nick Bostrom have spoken and written about the further reaches of what happiness might be accessed with an augmented human mind. Is it rational to assume that such brain augmentation will be a commonplace and highly desired surgery once this procedure of increasing subjective well-being can be performed with acceptable side effects? To answer this question, I might point out that the top-selling drug in America is Abilify, an anti-depressant with $6.46B in sales in 2013 alone. It could be argued that all of our actions are geared toward enhancing our positive emotions, engagement, or meaning. When one or more of these is available in a bottle or via a surgery, will society not jump on it?
In 2005, Cathy Hutchinson went under the knife for an even more experimental procedure at BrainGate. Through a hole bored into her skull, Cathy had a baby aspirin-sized sensor implanted in her motor cortex, allowing her to move a robotic arm and other devices with thought alone. She had been completely paralyzed for over 10 years and was willing to do anything to regain some degree of the control, volition, and communication she had enjoyed before she was paralyzed by a stroke. Her amazing, dextrous control of a robotic arm using her thoughts alone was hailed as one of the most astounding breakthroughs in neuroscience.
If Cathy is able to control a fully-functional robotic body in the future, would it be limited in the way that the human body is now? It would probably not tire out the way our muscles do. It would probably be strong enough to force her out of a dangerous situation such as the twisted metal of a car wreck. It is likely that other people would want the same kind of enhanced body. At some point, not only the paralyzed would be interested in technology’s applications. The same goes for Cathy’s plugged in ability to move a computer cursor or reply to emails. When the technology becomes safe and effective, what modern knowledge worker could afford not to control devices with thought alone? Enhanced financial traders might control and monitor a dozen screens without the limitations of keyboards and mouse. Workers of all types will be able to take multitasking to entirely new levels. Could un-enhanced humans then have any role of importance in the workplace?
Child with cochlear implant
Since the 1970’s, humans have been bypassing their sensory organs to convey sensory input directly to the nerves and brain, starting most prominently with the cochlear implant. More recently, we’ve seen bionic eyes bypassing damaged or degenerated cornea. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne, a hand amputee was fitted with a prosthetic arm connected to electrodes implanted in the nerves that once controlled his hand. The device was able to send sensory signals to the man’s brain through the prosthetic device, allowing him to grasp and distinguish between soft, hard, round and angular objects even when blindfolded.
The future, however, will not be limited to attaining vision as usual, hearing as usual, or other senses and abilities as usual. Just as positive psychology aims to go beyond the absence of mental illness, and humanity aims to go beyond its little blue planet, we will push beyond our present senses and mental capacity once technology allows for it. Even now cognitive implants are being developed to help people with Alzheimer’s disease. There is already talk about enhancing regular human memory (Where did I leave my keys, again?). Similarly, technology to restore senses may provide the ability to go beyond present senses. For over a decade there’s been talk of a trans-human transition beyond biological limitations.
Three factors may surprise you about the enhancement stories above.
- That human beings are getting wires and sensors jammed into their skulls in the first place
- That these implanted devices have allowed for astounding increases in the functioning of the patients
- That even Dianna’s and Cathy’s seemingly futuristic procedures are hardly breaking news, now being nearly a decade old.
These technologies do not indirectly influence well-being via some outside factor that may hold sway over happiness. These technologies wield direct influence over sentience itself and directly recreate human potential and the human experience.
Role of Positive Psychology in This Future
So what can positive psychology do now? Though awareness is useful, action is needed. The technologies developing now will mold, enhance, and possibly redefine consciousness and well-being.
If increasing all human well-being is the metric of success we’d like to impact, and if technology can be a conduit to engagement, meaning, and positive emotion, then it would seem that we’d want to be part of the committee that determines the direction and uses of technology that can alter sentience itself in the following ways:
- Positive psychology can help other disciplines such as cognitive science, neuroscience, and machine learning define the horizons for research that could yield the most important findings for human happiness. Envisioning these horizons can have a massive impact on the end results.
- Positive psychology can help to assess the impact and implications of brain-machine interface and neuroscience studies.
Having a positive psychologist in the room when technologies are being developed to alter emotion or mental conditions is important for any research that aims to improve well-being. What if the developments in cognitive enhancement acted wholly without a strong grounding in what is known to be conducive to human happiness? I’d argue that if positive psychology waits until invasive brain-machine interface procedures are commonplace before it gets involved, it will be too late to make an appropriate contribution.
For example, as more and more immersive virtual reality experiences are developed to facilitate gaming, hold meetings, or interact with loved ones thousands of miles away, shouldn’t positive psychologists help study the ways these developments impact relationships and well-being?
As non-invasive brain-machine interface (EEG) caps and open-source EEG-reading software allow us to tie brain activity to emotions and control our devices with thought, might positive psychology itself be informed by these new findings?
When experiments with memory and perception make it possible to enhance human memory, or even selectively remove or implant memories, will it not be critical to monitor both their short-term and long-term effects on human well-being?
As more and more procedures are developed to directly impact human emotion, such as more refined brain stimulation, optogenetics, and smarter drugs, doesn’t it make sense that the science of positive psychology would inform direct attempts to improve well-being?
Technology is Not Just a Conduit
Technology isn’t simply a conduit for spreading positive psychology. It will be one force that reshapes and augments our very notions of human experience and of well-being itself. Positive psychologists cannot afford to be technological bystanders if we want 51% of the human population to flourish by 2051. We will have to be part of those important conversations at the intersection of technology and psychology.
We need to work toward the inclusion of positive psychology in this transition, lest we have no place for the science of happiness at the table of tomorrow.