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Retraining Our Desires: How to Be Happy in the Coming Robot Age

We will need a good dose of healthy stoicism if we are to survive in the world after work. 

We will need a good dose of healthy stoicism if we are to survive in the world after work. Luxury items will be significantly reduced in the world we’re imagining. Stoics like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca recommended that we adjust our desires to simple, reliable pleasures, like fresh water, decent bread, modest clothing, and good friends. Luxury pleasures are rare and unreliable so we suffer more when they fail to materialize.


But chocolate cake is delicious and diamonds are beautiful. When Plato sketched a Spartan lifestyle in the Republic, his friends accused him of designing a city for pigs not humans — and they demanded that he add spices and luxury to the imagined utopia. While I’m sensitive to this worry, I hasten to point out that many Americans are currently, and by their own initiative, downsizing their sense of the good life. The contemporary “tiny house movement” — which builds elegant housing around 1/10th the size of average homes — is already the kind of stoic adjustment that Americans will need to make when we’re all unemployed

When we’re all unemployed, we might reconnect with the people we have pushed to the margins of our work-dominated lives.

Refinement of social arts is also a crucial aspect of intangible culture. When I lived in China, I glimpsed a post-labor world. Since the 1950s, Chinese men have been able to retire at age 60 (sometimes 55) and women can retire at age 50. What do all these able-bodied pensioners do with their free time? They gather daily in the local parks — spending time together, trading stories, singing in impromptu choirs, dancing, smoking, playing musical instruments, doing calligraphy, drinking tea, and enjoying the rich social currency of friendship. They have adapted well to life after work. Their pleasures are cheaply bought, but richly savored.

When we’re all unemployed, we might reconnect with the people we have pushed to the margins of our work-dominated lives. We’ll need to cultivate the arts and rituals of friendship — “grooming” each other again, like our primate cousins, but with language and gossip, coffee, and wine. We will have to do more than press “like” buttons on our Facebook “friend” pages. 

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Stephen T. Asma is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia College Chicago, where he is also Senior Fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture. He is the author of ten books, including The Evolution of Mind and Against Fairness and writes regularly for The New York Times, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Skeptic magazine. Asma is also a blues/jazz musician who has played onstage with many musical artists, including Bo Diddley and Buddy Guy. His website is www.stephenasma.com.

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