Improve your life: Quit resenting inequality and hierarchy

"Life is brutal, and becoming resentful about your relative position is a way to make it more brutal," says Jordan Peterson.

Jordan Peterson: If you don’t have anything to look up to, you don’t have anything to do, right? A lot of the meaning that people find in their lives is purpose driven. And in order to put effort into something, to work towards something, you have to assume axiomatically that what you’re working towards is better than what you have. Because why else would you do it?

And there’s a relationship, like, if it’s way better than what you have, it’s obviously proportionally difficult. So you try to balance difficulty with positivity, let’s say, something like that. But you’re always aiming up if you’re aiming. And if you’re not aiming then you don’t really have any purpose, and that deprives your life of meaning, and that’s not good because if your life is deprived of meaning then what you’re left with is the suffering. It’s not neutral, right, it’s negative.

So now the problem with having to aim up is that produces a hierarchy, because if you posit and aim then everyone arrays themselves along a hierarchy of “better at it” to “worse at it”.

And it doesn’t matter—if you create basketball as a game, 100 years later you create people who are hyperspecialized at basketball and they’re great at it, and virtually everyone else is bad. So it doesn’t matter. As soon as you produce a value proposition, you produce a hierarchy.

The problem with a hierarchy is it produces inequality. The problem with inequality is it produces resentment. Right, but you can’t get rid of the damn hierarchy just because they produce inequality and resentment, because then you don’t have anywhere to go. So that’s not an answer.

Okay, so let’s say you’re trying to deal with the fact that you have to put up with a hierarchy if you’re going to have any values. Well, how do you escape from the resentment trap? And the answer is you do an intelligent multidimensional analysis of your life.

It’s like, by the time you’re 30, I would say, you’re a pretty singular person. You’re unique and particular and your life has multiple dimensions. And you’re more or less successful—or not—along many of those dimensions.

But it’s a completely ridiculous game to pick someone else arbitrarily, who’s doing much better than you on one of those dimensions, to assume that you’re a failure because of that, or that the world is unfair because of that, without knowing in full detail all of the rest of the elements of their lives. I mean, look, we’re absolutely awash in stories of unhappy celebrities mired in interminable divorces or in affairs or in addictions. And that’s par for the course.

It’s not helpful. It’s helpful to have a goal. It’s necessary to have a hierarchy. It’s not particularly useful to compare yourself to other people. But it is useful to compare yourself to yourself. That’s the right baseline, right? That takes everything else into account.

And it’s really practically useful. And I’ve done this in my clinical practice very frequently. It’s like okay, let’s take stock of where you are and then let’s hypothesize about where you would like to be. It’s a complex conversation because we want to figure out what’s not so good about your present situation—exactly, precisely—and then come up with a hypothesis about what your life would look like if it was better. And then we can work on incremental improvement.

And the idea would be there’s some step you could take, that you would take, that would make today or tomorrow fractionally better than yesterday. And then you can iterate that. And that’s actually unbelievably powerful. You hit the effect of compounding interest, let’s say, very, very rapidly if you do that.

So there’s real utility in incremental progress. And you don’t have to improve your life much in increments to start hitting the effect of compounding interest. You make one thing slightly better, and that increases the probability that you’ll make the next thing slightly better—as well as having its positive side effects.

And so even if you make small steps forward and you do that regularly, that can turn your life around very rapidly over a one- to two-year period. I mean, that’s a long time, one to two years, but it’s not a lifetime. And it certainly beats the hell out of going downhill precipitously, which tends to be the alternative. It’s better and it keeps you out of the resentment, you know.

It’s also more realistic because it’s not like everyone else doesn’t have their problems. You know, we have these fictitious, successful people that it’s easy for us to compare ourselves to detrimentally and to become jealous and bitter about that, but also to be very hard on ourselves because we’re not successful. If you talk to successful people, let’s say—and I’m not trying to say that there’s no such thing as genuine accomplishment because obviously there is—but even people who are successful have lives that are very difficult, and they have an ill family member or aged parents or they’re suffering from some serious illness themselves which is very, very common. Or they have a psychological problem that’s not trivial or they have traumatic past. It’s like—life is brutal. And becoming resentful about your relative position is a way to make it more brutal. It’s not helpful to you, and it’s not helpful to anyone else.

Criticized by the left and claimed by the right, Jordan Peterson's ideas are a defense of traditional morality and leading a purpose-driven life. The Canadian psychology professor has become a YouTube and IRL sensation, garnering tens of millions of views seemingly overnight. His claim that hierarchies help individuals create goals for themselves (and that goal-setting is a good life skill) seems to deprioritize equality—at least equality of outcome—as the primary goal of society. Such counterintuitive ideas run throughout his newest book 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

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Image source: David Williams/NASA
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In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
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  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

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