Posts tagged Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Research Summaries: Costs and Benefits of Consuming

I am toying around with a new idea of providing research summaries for a few select articles that I read and find interesting. Do let me know if you find them useful. The idea is that one could read the research summary to get a good idea about the paper and then decide to dig deeper into the original source if one’s interest has been piqued sufficiently. The research summaries would be short and neither a substitute for the original article nor a copy n paste of the abstract.

So here is the first of the research summaries. The paper is Costs and Benefits of Consuming by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and you can read it here.

English: The Good Work Team: William Damon, Mi...

English: The Good Work Team: William Damon, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Howard Gardner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The big ideas:

  1. Most consumer behavior, like eating a steak, creates some entropy in the world. The world moves from more organization (energy captured in creating and processing steak) to less organization (waste products after the steak has been digested). This entropy increase is directed at, and matched by, fulfillment of the needs of the consumer. However the energy/entropy gained by consumer, by satisfaction of needs, is typically less than the energy/entropy lost by objects of consumption; hence the need to assess and balance the costs and benefits of consumption.
  2. If the entire world consumed at levels of that found in US/ Western Europe, it will take two more earth sized planets to fulfill those energy needs; hence the importance of the issue at hand.
  3. Consumer needs can be classified into two buckets: those that are existential in nature and arise from basic needs common to all humans, which need to be fulfilled; and experiential needs which are related to ‘killing of time’ or filling the void of doing nothing, by consuming and thus focusing consciousness on something external.
  4. Existential needs can be further broken up based on Mas low’s hierarchy of needs. While survival and safety needs may be essential for proper functioning and thus justified; love and belonging needs of ‘keeping up with Joneses’ or self-esteem needs satisfied by having material possessions like a Ferrari car are more questionable. Self-actualization needs, by emphasizing growth and mastery, may not lead to much consumer behavior.
  5. Experiential needs arise form a need to keep consciousness focused on a goal directed activity; around 30 % of the time , college teens spend time in a zone where they have ‘nothing to do’. Rumination, and depression/ despair can set in if the consciousness turns inwards and cannot find a suitable external goal to focus on (an idea I am uncomfortable with)- consuming behavior, like shopping, may be one way out of the situation.
  6. There are many negative relations between money and happiness; one such is if you are consuming an energy rich object (like a magazine) as compared to a less-energy object (like a book) you are more likely to be happier reading a book (less energy product) than a magazine (a high energy product); there is a strong negative relation between energy consumption and happiness among women.
  7. He exhorts us to move towards an economy characterized by people consuming less and still maintaining the complexity like a chef, poet, musician etc. He also reiterates the research showing how material consumption does not lead to happiness.

Overall a pretty good morning read. I found this passage particularly resonating and beautiful:

Craftspersons, chefs, athletes, musicians, dancers, teachers, gardeners, artists, healers, poets—these are the workers creating goods that increase human well-being without degrading the complexity of the world. Is it impossible to develop an economy based on a majority of workers of this kind? Where consumption involves the processing of ideas, symbols, and emotional experiences rather than the breakdown of matter? Let us hope this transition is not impossible, because otherwise the future looks grim indeed. And if the transition does come about, the Journal of Consumer Research will be filled with articles about music, art, poetry, and dance—the creative energy of the new economy.

And this passage is timely reminder indeed, and the reason I am writing this post is to disseminate widely the costs of rampant consumerism, without the corresponding hypothesized benefits:

We already know that material possessions alone do not improve the quality of life. We know that excessive concern for material goals is a sign of dissatisfaction with life. We know that trying to avoid the mental chaos of everyday life by resorting to acquisitions and passive entertainment does not work very well. Yet we insist in the vain hope that we can achieve happiness through consumption—regardless of consequences. Certainly one of the greatest services that consumer research can do for humankind is to document these realities, and diffuse them to as wide a public as possible.

Hope you liked the summary; you can read the full text here.

Self-reflective Consciousness and Existential Concerns

I am currently reading ‘A life worth living‘ and found the introductory chapter by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi quite stimulating and inspiring.

Cover of "A Life Worth Living: Contributi...

Cover via Amazon

In that chapter, Mihaly claims that human brains are unique in lieu of their ability to give rise to self-reflective consciousness (I believe that many primates and some other animals may also have self-reflective consciousness, but that is tangential to our discussion here).  This self-reflective consciousness in turn leads to some interesting psychological effects.

To begin with, the self-reflective consciousness gives rise to a sense of individuality– a sense that one is an individual separate from the nature/ environment. This sense of individuality leads to an anxiety about death. In Mihaly’s own words:

Selfishness and cruelty, which formerly existed mainly as tools for biological survival, now have become extended to protect the psychological needs of the self, for the metabrain cannot help but conclude that its own existence is the most precious thing in the world, and all other goals pale in importance compared to its preservation. The terror of nonexistence, the fear of death, has become one of the ruling motives of humans.

This fear and reality of death is one of the first and foremost existential concern. The second concern that one typically encounters in existential texts is the fear and reality of freedom or choices. Again in Mihaly’s words:

Paradoxically, self-reflection also ushers in the possibility of self-doubt. As humans realized that they were independent individuals with a short lifespan, the question of what choices would lead to a meaningful life became increasingly urgent.

The third reality and fear of isolation is also apparent from the dawning of self-reflective consciousness and a sense of individuality.

The realization of individuality brought about a sense of isolation and finitude, but it also gave the impression of autonomy and freedom.

For understanding the last existential reality and fear of meaninglessness, we need to understand how self-reflective consciousness makes us question the implicit meaning of living and makes us seek for external frames of meaning. For an (non self-reflective) animal, the question of whether life is worth living simply does not arise.

After all, if the spark of consciousness only lasts a few heartbeats in the cosmic darkness, is there really any point in hanging on to life, when so much of it involves suffering? To answer this question, our ancestors—freed and unmoored from the implicit meaning provided by biological existence—had to come up with credible reasons that life was indeed worth living. The myths, religions, and philosophies of every culture have been in large part directed toward answering that question.

With science and reductionist thinking eating up on any semblance of meaning we may derive from earlier systems like myth, religion etc its imperative to ground meaning in new secular and non-mystical terms.

I am sure when Mihaly was writing these paragraphs, existential thinking was not on top of his mind, but isn’t it great to see how even in early days existential thinking and concerns were coupled with a positive psychology focus and PP2.0 is not all that new!

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