The labor, leisure, and happiness game: Psychology, praxeology, and ethics

Philosophers, economists, and psychologists have variously attempted to define the ultimate abstract goal or “end” of human action. Is there something that can characterize, in general, what it is that people seek by acting?

Aristotelians, Objectivists, and other philosophical schools speak of ends in a moral “ought” context, and that is the most common context in which such things have been spoken of throughout history—by philosophers. Some schools of psychology have similarly proposed differing versions of a central underlying motivation: power, sex, growth, insight, needs hierarchies, etc. Religious traditions each offer somewhat different accounts of the ultimate role or destiny of humankind.

The praxeological revolution in action theory was precisely to define the ends of action in a way that was definitional, and not moral, psychological, or spiritual in any such way. This definition was to be unqualified by any moral specification or particular account of central psychological motivations.

The only surprising result would have been controversy not ensuring. As one example, Objectivists accused economists of the Austrian school of amoralism, due to their seemingly amorphous and anchorless “subjective” theory of value.

Well, yes. Action theory makes non-moral statements about the nature of the concept of action. These are is, or more precisely, must be/cannot be otherwise, statements rather than ethical ought statements or empirical may be, let’s investigate statements. That the definition of the concept of action consists of employing means in the pursuit of ends (any ends whatsoever) is all that praxeologists can legitimately claim on the subject.

Nevertheless, within economic theory, attempts to formulate the ultimate ends of action against the backdrop of various philosophical traditions in which their authors were also steeped have played into controversies. One case of this is in presentations about the nature of “labor” and “leisure” in relation to “happiness” or some other version of a purported ultimate end to action.

What is this universal end of all human action exactly? Is it seeking happiness in general, happiness as “rationally understood,” or eudemonia (“human flourishing”)? Is it acting to remove states of dissatisfaction and uneasiness in search of an elusive ultimate state of rest (Ludwig von Mises at times)? Is it eliminating the root causes of recurring disappointment and suffering (Buddhism)? Or something else?

Each such formulation seems to paint the relative value of “labor” and “leisure” in a somewhat different light. One should not expect to find such differing implications in a universal definition. Negative definitions seem to favor rest, positive ones activity, and some spiritual ones a steady equanimity regardless of the particular varying conditions of temporary activity or rest.

This leaves another possibility. Is there any need, for the purposes of praxeology, for the concept of one ultimate end? Actual actions are many and discrete, each consisting of specific means/ends structures in particular contexts. These many ends may or may not have to all be packageable under any such single ultimate characterization. A bout of removing uneasiness, for example, could come right after a day of pursuing human flourishing (a Miseseso–Rothbardian tag team), all done by a Zen master relatively unattached to the particular outcomes of any and all such ephemeral pursuits.

How are we to make progress in sorting out these issues? Is there any empirical psychological research that could contribute? Under what conditions do people actually find themselves either more or less happy? To look into this question, an important article by professor Roderick T. Long on Objectivist ethical theory and Austrian school subjective value theory, taken alongside two books on research into the psychology of happiness, may conspire to shed some light.

From Mises to Rothbard

In “Praxeology: Who Needs It?” (2005; PDF), Professor Long quotes Murray Rothbard on his differences with Ludwig von Mises’s “removing uneasiness” criteria. This is what Mises set out early in Human Action (1949) as one of his main descriptions of the abstract general end of all action. In fairness, I note that Mises also uses striving for happiness on the same pages. However, he also kept returning to the negative formulation of removing uneasiness, and this negative formulation also shows up in his characterizations of the purported relationships among labor, leisure, and (dis)satisfaction.

Long wrote: “Rothbard…describes how, in his economic treatise Man, Economy, and State (1962; MES), he took care to revise precisely this Misesian doctrine (310).” In correspondence quoted in Joseph Stromberg’s introduction to MES (p. xl), Rothbard had written:

The revision purged [Mises’s] original formulation of its definite philosophical pessimism, of the idea that human beings are constantly in a state of dissatisfaction and that man could only be happy in a state of inactive rest, such as in Paradise. Such a philosophical view is contrary to the natural state of man, which is at its happiest precisely when it is engaged in productive activity.

Long explained that:

Rothbard acknowledges the possibility of “satisfaction in the labor itself,” and so grounds the “disutility of labor” not in labor’s being inherently distasteful, but in the fact that “labor always involves the forgoing of leisure,” which is also a value…The fact that leisure has value for us explains why we prefer to economize on labor, thus allowing Rothbard to draw all the essential conclusions for which Mises thought he needed the mistaken Nirvana premise. (311)

Rothbard’s view that people are happiest “precisely when…engaged in productive activity,” (as opposed to when idle in paradise) also seems to be an empirical psychological claim, rather than a universalizable praxeological statement. As such, however, it finds substantial support in empirical psychological research on self-reported happiness. One qualification that will emerge, though, is that his use of the word “productive” could lead to an unwarranted emphasis on the categorization of activity types.

Get into the flow

According to the research on tens of thousands of participants in different cultures described in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, higher degrees of self-reported happiness were found to result from engaging in self-chosen, goal-directed activity structured with an optimal relationship between challenge and capability. Self-reported degree of happiness was higher the better acting persons were positioned to 1) dynamically select and revise their own goals and 2) dynamically adjust the challenge/capability balance toward a moving zone the researchers labeled “flow.” This word and its definition were derived from phenomenological patterns in research subjects’ descriptions of “optimal experiences.” In contrast, activity type categorizations such as “work” or “leisure” were found to play little direct role once these other factors were accounted for.

Adjusting challenge can be relatively straightforward through choice of goal and choices of performance criteria (quantity, quality, time, outcomes, etc.). Adjusting capabilities upward might involve taking the time to invest in capital (tools) or human capital (abilities) to increase effectiveness before engaging further with the task. For example, cutting down a large tree with a dull hatchet could become frustrating. Taking the time to buy or borrow a chainsaw before starting to cut may turn into a more enjoyable overall experience. Moving right along to managing a major logging operation with no experience in either managing or logging would most likely quickly lead to frustration if not disaster.

In a hobby context (though hardly ever in a work context) one can also choose to decrease capabilities in pursuit of the flow zone. For example, golf, bowling, and some games have “handicap” competitive scoring options, enabling more skilled players to compete more meaningfully with less skilled players. This helps reduce both boredom for the more skilled and frustration for the less skilled in a single adjustment.

Of relevance to the relationships among labor, leisure, and happiness, the flow research found that how activities were classified by types, such as labor, work, play, hobby, or leisure, did not seem to impact the degree of happiness reported during those activities. Boredom, both at work and on vacation, showed up when capabilities were too far above challenges. This might take the form of looking forward to finally having “nothing to do” on a vacation and then getting bored from having nothing to do. Frustration, both at work and in leisure or hobby activities, likewise showed up when challenges were too far above capabilities.

Both at work and at leisure, research participants reported higher degrees of happiness during activity situations in which they had set their own goals. Even for goals that had originated elsewhere, say, in the person’s organizational leadership or as a client request, flow effects could still be found if the person proactively invested themselves in such goals, “made them their own,” as opposed to acquiescing.

In sum, higher-happiness flow states, or optimal experiences, were found in an ever-moving balance area between zones of frustration and zones of boredom in any context of self-chosen action, regardless of its categorization as labor or leisure. The book’s final chapter discusses the long-term development of thematic life meanings, perhaps pointing back toward the issue of ultimate ends or at least thematic ends (from a psychological perspective) playing a role in coordinating discrete actions over time.

Although Csikszentmihalyi went in some other directions with his subsequent interpretations of the flow research, I have from my first exposure to it when it appeared in 1990 considered it to be supportive of individualist and libertarian orientations. The single common element that was found to support higher degrees of self-reported happiness was each person having the final say on his or her own activities over both long-term strategic and short-term tactical time scales.

This appears to recommend a specific set of social conditions: individual-level autonomy, flexibility, and discretion in goal-setting, resource use (not having to “apply for permission” to anyone else to take action), and group-participation/non-participation decisions. The only social institution capable of assuring such individual discretion and autonomy of action for all people in parallel is a consistent respect for rights of first appropriation and autonomous, mutually consensual transfers of property titles from party to party. Every possible alternative that does not begin by respecting these fundamentals, must, by definition, entail some people in some configuration commanding and forcing the actions of others.

The typical popular counter to such allegedly “atomistic” principles is that people are “social” creatures. However, this claim makes no progress toward justifying the implied use of violence to bring about non-consensual human relationships. Nor does it explain what is “social” about the advocacy and implementation of such violence. Actually being social would appear to require first of all committing to not advocating or implementing any such initiations of threats or violence.

Got game?

From another angle, according to Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World (2011) by Jane McGonigal, good games are designed to capture the above dynamics by enabling the player to self-adjust challenge levels and cultivate rising capabilities (having first self-selected which game to play, when, and, where applicable, with whom). This takes forms such as deciding how long to wait in a puzzling game process before turning to a help clue or asking a question; scaled difficulty levels that rise with experience and achievements; selecting from novice, moderate, and advanced modes; or selecting which campaign or on which server to play next. Additional factors include clear and adaptive feedback on progress toward clearly defined goals including markers of incremental accomplishment. These are each elements that modern computer game designers have raised to high levels of refinement.

The popularity of gaming helps illustrate the motivational power of each person being able to seek flow states through dynamic self-selection of goals and self-modulated challenge/capability balancing. McGonigal’s central theme is that games have come to be designed to tap into the structure of human motivation in a way that is vastly superior to typical motivational (and demotivational) structures found in institutions such as schools and corporations, and that numerous lessons for institutional improvement could be derived from the study of game design.

Moreover, if we are concerned with young people being obsessive about gaming and very uninterested in school, an early place to look would be the extent to which goals are self-selected and the challenge/capability balance is continuously and individually adjustable. The answer is unlikely to be far behind: very much in most games and very little to not at all in most conventional mass-produced education systems and other bureaucratically oriented organizational contexts.

Promoting interest in the non-virtual real world could begin by increasing the range of autonomy that young people can practice in it, for example, by re-enabling them to engage in real-world work. Why will they work ingeniously and for unending hours for in-game gold? In gaming, they can work with whom they chose and keep the gold they earn, which contrasts with the more and more artificially constrained “real world” on offer in modern interventionist economies.

Psychology, ethics, and praxeology: The distinctions revisited

When borrowing insights from multiple fields, it is important to work to keep the fields distinct in terms of methods, data, validity criteria, and applicability. Yet trying to keep fields distinct is not the same as avoiding relevant insights that could emerge from any one of them. Case in point, the above psychological research can help us remove extraneous implications from past attempts to formulate universalizable praxeological descriptions of the ultimate ends of action (leaving aside whether any such characterization at all is required for the purposes of praxeology).

The distinction between praxeology and psychology should be clearly maintained. One is logical and universal in method, while the other is empirical and interpretive. The particular action recommendations of a given ethical system are likewise yet another separate matter. Psychology says, “we observe, notice, and hypothesize.” Praxeology says, “it is/must be so by definition.” Ethics says, “one should act this way rather than that way.”

In this context, it is helpful to turn to Long’s clarification of the nature of “rationality” as used in praxeology, including which claims praxeology can legitimately make. When a praxeologist claims that all action is rational, it is a claim that actors employ means to the attainment of ends, by definition. However, an ethicist’s or psychologist’s definition of “rational” must specify some narrower distinctions or be meaningless for their purposes as non-praxeologists. Those wearing psychologist or philosopher hats might well be interested in whether people deceive themselves in their judgments or make poor judgments, but such distinctions must be left behind when donning the praxeologist’s peculiar, and historically speaking brand-new, style of hat. Long writes:

In a sense, then, it is true that agents always act rationally; but the only sense of this claim to which Mises is [praxeologists are] entitled is that agents always act, not necessarily in a manner appropriate to their situation in all the ways they actually see it, or even in the most justified of the ways they actually see it, but rather in a manner appropriate to their situation in the way of actually seeing it that is constitutive of their action. (309–310).

This third praxeological formulation finally leaves no room for distinctions among various “rational” (as contrasted with “irrational”) qualities of particular actions, as judged by any narrower ethical or psychological criterion. Instead, the meaning of “rationality” for praxeologists (to the extent it is useful at all in that role), is a universal-definitional one. As such, it is most likely of no use to psychologists or ethicists who would naturally require some narrower and more qualified definitions to work with.

This third formulation helps refine the dividing lines between psychological interpretation, ethical advice and judgment (“this is rational, that is not”), and universalizable statements about the nature of action as such. Only the third formulation is undeniable for all cases of action without any need for further inquiry into specifics of motivation, thought processes, or value scales. Only the third statement is/must be so in every case as a logical implication of what the concept of action itself means. The rest is up to the other fields.