If Positive Psychology Aims for 51% of the Human Population to Flourish, We’ll Need to Take Technology Seriously

The Aim of Positive Psychology

Positive Psychology’s founder Dr. Martin Seligman has undertaken the “moon-shot” endeavor to have 51% of the human population psychologically flourishing by 2051. It’s an audacious goal intended to unite positive psychology’s forces in making the grandest impact on the whole of humanity, though some might argue it is an impossible aim.

Along positive psychology’s march to it’s goal, technology has been seen as a useful aide. Dozens of new apps help people integrate habits of well-being into daily life (https://www.happier.com/home), and UPENN’s own positive psychology graduates are developing their own companies around proliferating some of this science’s biggest findings. Positive Psychology founder Martin Seligman himself addresses technology’s important influence on human fulfillment in his well-known 2004 TED talk.

I argue that technology ought not simply be seen as an aide to positive psychology’s efforts, but as a direct influence on the nature of happiness and wellbeing itself – an augmentation of the human psyche itself – and, as such, a force that positive psychology cannot afford to ignore.

While technologies such as the iPhone or the internet might indirectly influence happiness by spreading knowledge or providing real-time updates and feedback, future technologies in brain-machine interface will actually be able to induce, enhance, and even extend the visceral, sentient feelings associated with happiness, as well as 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 life of meaning, will be made malleable by the technologies of the coming few decades.

Today, positive psychology aims to remold psychology into a means to more than “fixing” people. Since the second World War, psychology has been concerned with taking people from -10 to 0 (on a scale of their function or their happiness), while positive psychology aims to go beyond 0, towards +10 on the same representative well-being scale. In other words, positive psychology is concern with going beyond addressing limitations and taking ameliorative measures, into developing the further reaches of potential.

While sharing that goal, I argue that technology will make this exact same transition from “fixing” obstacles to human well-being, to permanently enhancing our affective experience – and bringing us beyond any present notions of well-being or happiness that we have today.

The Vessel is Flawed

The future intersection of technology and psychology will have the most astronomical ethical impact of anything yet known to humankind. If “tonnage of human happiness” is what we are to measure our impact by (as Seligman alludes to in his TED talk), then technology which directly alters the human emotional state (possibly well beyond the present emotional range) would seem to be the most ethically relevant developments of all time. If the richter scale of ethical relevance is measured in conscious experience, we are moving toward a world where we can manually move that needle itself – as opposed to “indirectly” impactive emotions through other forces and conditions.

The issue with executing on Seligman’s idea of increasing the “tonnage of human happiness” (a utilitarian phrase that I happen to like), is:

“For when he saw that almost all things necessarily required for
subsistence, and which may render life comfortable, are already
prepared to their hand, that men may abundantly attain wealth,
honour, praise, may rejoice in the reputation of their children, yet
that, notwithstanding, every one has none the less in his heart and
home anxieties and a mind enslaved by wearing complaints, he saw
that the vessel itself was in fault, and that all good things which
were brought into it from without were spoilt by its own
imperfections.”—Lucretius, vi. 9., De rerum natura

The vessel itself is at fault. Just as our bodies aren’t suited for flight, and so technologies must be developed to permit it – so with happiness – which also clearly isn’t what we were made for. There is no set of movements or incantations that allows humans to fly through the sky on their own accord, and there are no habits, virtues, or patterns of worship that sustain happiness (see: World Health Organization data on suicide rates in the first world).

This may be the most profound aspect of the problem of evil itself, but in coping with it – in rationalizing it, in having nothing to do but bear it or distract ourselves from it, we usually don’t see the pervasive anxiety and suffering of our condition as a problem via invasive means.

It is this control over affective experience that I argue should be humanity’s paramount concern, given the ethical weight of its implications. I argue that positive psychology – the study of human well-being itself – aught be involved in defining and assessing these new frontiers of technology and psychology.

In the Coming Decades Technology Will Define “Well-Being,” Not Merely Aid it

As a student of Seligman himself at the University of Pennsylvania’s Masters program in Applied Positive Psychology, 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 will be most desperately needed. That is, to guide and help direct the technological developments that will mold the future of consciousness. A look at some of the technologies that directly interact with sentience will clarify my point.

Thus far, most of technology’s “influence” on human well-being has been indirect. The happiness app on our iPhone (there are plenty of them) 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 and calibrate my 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, and all the conceivable constituents of fulfillment.

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, and 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 without 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 (Seligman’s happiness “types”), and when one or more of these is available in a bottle, or via a surgery, there’s reason to believe that society will 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 her thought alone. She had been completely paralyzed for over 10 years before the surgery, and was willing to do anything – to regain some degree of the control, volition, and communication she had enjoyed (and like you and I, probably taken for granted) 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, and it landed stories in Nature, 60 Minutes, and more. You can see videos of this application (and more brain-machine interface applications) in my longer article titled “Tinkering with Consciousness – The Great Ethical Precipice We Face“.

In the future, if Cathy is able to control a fully-functional robotic body, 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 – like the twisted metal of a car wreck. It’s safe to say that other people would want the same kind of enhanced body – and that at some point of the technology’s progress, not only the paralyzed would be interested in it’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 their devices with thought alone? “Enhanced” financial traders might control and monitor a dozen screens without the limitations of keyboards and mouse, and workers of all types will be able to take “multitasking” to entirely new levels. Could the un-enhanced then have any role of importance in the workplace?

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 (see 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 with a blindfold (https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn25008-natural-sense-of-touch-restored-with-bionic-hand.html#.U_SMQ7xdVt8). 

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 it’s little blue planet, we will push beyond our present senses and mental capacity once technology allows for it. Even though 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, and for over a decade there’s been talk of a transhuman transition beyond biological limitations.

Three factors may surprise you about the “enhancement” stories above. One is that human beings (like you, like me) are getting wires and sensors jammed into their skulls in the first place. The second is that these implanted devices have allowed for astounding increases in the functioning of the patients – breakthroughs that most of us have never heard of. Third is that even Dianna’s and Cathy’s seemingly “futuristic” procedures are hardly breaking news, now being nearly a decade old at the time of this writing.

These technologies could not be said to “indirectly” influence well-being – or some kind of outside factor that may hold sway over happiness if we study it closely enough. These are technologies that wield direct influence over sentience itself, and directly recreate human potential and the human experience. 

Positive Psychology and the Future of Wellbeing

(I have written much more on the notion of post-human happiness, and this merely article scratches the surface. See my article on “Fulfillment Beyond Man” on Positive Psychology News for a deeper exploration.)

So what can positive psychology do now? Though awareness is useful, action is needed. The technologies developing now will be those that mold, enhance, and possibly re-define consciousness and well-being as we know it. 

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 / positive emotion (Seligman himself states both points in this presentation), then it would seem that we’d want to be part of the committee that determines the direction and uses of technology that will be able to alter sentience itself.

First, positive psychology can – with the other disciplines involved (including but not limited to cognitive science, neuroscience, and machine learning ) – help to define the horizons for research that could yield the most important findings for human happiness. Defining our explorations toward these new horizons will undoubtedly have a massive impact on the end results.

Second, positive psychology can help to assess the impact and implications of brain-machine interface and neuroscience studies that are underway today – and into the future. 

If these technologies aim to improve human life, it would seem that they’d be open to  the perspectives of Positive Psychology, a science designed to understand human fulfillment and well-being. Having a positive psychologist in the room when technologies are being developed to alter emotion or mental conditions would seem a must for any research that aims at aggregately improving well-being. What if the developments in cognitive enhancement acted wholly without a strong grounding in what would be conducive to human happiness?

Neither the defining or direct guiding of research needs to imply rare or nearly inaccessible technologies. 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 much of a contribution, and too many major shifts will be underway. 

As more an more immersive virtual reality experiences are developed to facilitate gaming, hold meetings, or even interact with loved ones thousands of miles away – shouldn’t positive psychology contribute it’s perspective on how this developments might impact relationships and well-being?

As non-invasive brain-machine interface (EEG) caps and open-source EEG-reading software allows 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 (research is already well underway on other mammals), will it not be critical to monitor both their short-term and long-term effects on human well-being?

Especially as more and more procedures are developed to directly impact human emotion (more refined brain stimulation, optegenetics, smarter drugs), doesn’t it make sense that positive psychology would inform these direct attempts at improving well-being?

Technology is isn’t simply a “conduit” for  spreading positive psychology, it will be one  force that  re-shapes and augments our very notions of the human experience, and of well-being itself. Positive psychology cannot afford to be a technological bystander if it wants to bring about it’s desired aim that 51% of the human population flourishes  by 2051 – it will have to be part of those important conversations at the intersection of technology and psychology.

Seligman’s determination to improve the “tonnage of human happiness” is an aim that all toiling scientists and researchers who claim they’re working to “make the world a better place” seem to share. More important than whether one shares positive psychology’s goals is the fact that its expertise is needed – more than ever – in a world where happiness and the means to it are redefined and altered by technology itself.  We need to have the perspective of positive psychology helping to guide this transition, lest we have no place for the science of happiness at the table of tomorrow.


The abbreviated version of this very article was first published on Positive Psychology News with the editing help of Kathryn Britton.

Header image credit: A photo from the day before graduation day for my UPENN MAPP graduating class.