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

[Revised for improved clarity and readability on 30 July 2018].

Philosophers, economists, and psychologists have sought to define the ultimate 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. That is the most common context in which such things have been spoken of throughout history. Schools of psychology have proposed central underlying motivations behind human behavior. These vary: power, sex, growth, insight, needs hierarchies, etc. Religious traditions each offer somewhat different accounts of the ultimate role or destiny of humankind, which has been divinely placed.

Against this backdrop, the arrival of Misesian action theory was revolutionary. It defined ends in a way that was free of moral, psychological, or spiritual qualifications. Ends were logically necessary characteristics of what action is. Any moral evaluation of particular ends or accounts of central psychological motivations or spiritual purposes were all separate and additional matters. A level exists at which action can be considered as such, separately from all such add-on differentiations.

The only surprising result would have been controversy not ensuring. Objectivists accused economists of the Austrian school of amoralism due to their anchorless “subjective” theory of value that provided no moral compass.

Well, yes. Providing a moral compass is not the purpose of the analysis. Action theory makes non-moral statements about action. These are must be statements rather than ethical ought statements or empirical maybe/let's check statements. All that Misesian action theory (praxeology) can legitimately claim on this matter is that action consists of employing means in the pursuit of ends—any ends.

Nevertheless, praxeological economists still attempted to comment on ultimate ends, the attempts reflecting their wider philosophical leanings. This crept in in discussions of “labor” and “leisure” in relation to “happiness” or other versions of a purported ultimate end.

Is there some universal end of all human action and if so what? 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)? Is it eliminating the root causes of recurring disappointment and suffering (Buddhism)? Or something else?

Each formulation seems to paint the relative value of “labor” and “leisure” in a different light. Yet this raises suspicions. One should not expect to find such differing implications from versions of a supposedly universal definition. Negative definitions of labor seem to favor rest, positive ones activity, and some spiritual ones equanimity regardless of particular conditions of activity versus rest.

This leaves another possibility. Is there any need for praxeology to carry a concept of one ultimate end at all? Actual actions are many and discrete, each consisting of specific means/ends structures in particular contexts. These many ends do not have to all be packageable under a single 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 unattached to the particular outcomes of any and all such ephemeral pursuits as labor and leisure.

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 the psychology of happiness, shed 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 the abstract general end of all action. Mises does also use striving for happiness on the same pages. However, he most often returns to the negative formulation of removing uneasiness. This shows up in his discussions of the 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)

Yet Rothbard’s view that people are happiest “precisely when…engaged in productive activity,” as opposed to when idle in paradise, is also an empirical psychological claim. As such, however, it does find support in psychological research on self-reported happiness. One qualification that will emerge, though, is that Rothbard's use of the word “productive” could lead to an unwarranted emphasis on the categorization of activity types, such as work versus hobby.

Get into the flow

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi presents the results of research on tens of thousands of participants in different cultures. It found that higher degrees of self-reported happiness were associated with engagement in self-chosen, goal-directed activity structured with an optimal relationship between challenge and capability.

Self-reported happiness was higher the better persons were positioned to 1) select and revise their own goals and 2) dynamically adjust the balance between challenge and capability toward a moving zone the researchers labeled “flow.” Adjusting challenge can be relatively straightforward through choices of goal and performance criteria (quantity, quality, time, outcomes). Raising capabilities might involve taking the time to invest in capital (tools) or human capital (abilities) to increase effectiveness before further task engagement.

For example, cutting down a large tree with a dull hatchet could become frustrating. Taking the time to buy or borrow a chainsaw before cutting may turn into a more enjoyable overall experience. Moving right 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 might lower capabilities in pursuit of the flow zone. Gamers, for example might sometimes choose to play with inferior in-game equipment, which would effectively raise their challenge level compared to selecting the best available equipment.

Golf, bowling, and some games have “handicap” scoring options. This reduces or evens out score gaps, enabling more skilled and less skilled players to more meaningfully compete in the same match, reducing boredom for the more skilled and frustration for the less skilled.

The flow research found that how activities were classified by type, such as labor, work, play, hobby, or leisure, did not impact the degree of happiness reported. Boredom, both at work and on vacation, showed up when capabilities were too far above challenges. One might look forward to finally having “nothing to do” on vacation—and then get bored with nothing to do. Frustration—both at work and in leisure or hobby activities—showed up when challenges were too far above capabilities. The challenge/capability balance influenced happiness. Categorizations of activities, such as labor versus leisure, did not.

Both at work and at leisure, research participants reported higher degrees of happiness when they had set their own goals. Even for goals that had originated elsewhere, such as with organizational leadership or a client, flow effects could still be found if the person made the decision to make those goals their own, as opposed to merely acquiescing and going along with orders.

The common element 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 scales. In my view, this recommends a set of social conditions that support individual-level autonomy, flexibility, and discretion. Individuals should be able to chose their own goals and how to pursue them. This includes minimizing the need to “apply for permission” before taking action, as well as maximizing individual discretion on which groups to join or leave. The only social institution capable of assuring such individual discretion and autonomy is one with consistent respect for rights of first appropriation and mutually consensual transfers of property.

The typical popular counter to such allegedly “atomistic” principles is that people are “social” creatures. However, this claim cannot justify the use of violence to orchestrate non-consensual relationships. It does not explain what is “social” about the advocacy and implementation of such violence. Actually being social entails not advocating, approving of, or implementing initiations of threats or violence.

Got game?

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 as challenge levels rise. Even prior to this, the player first selects which game to play, when, and with whom. Gaming entails a wide range of autonomous dynamic decisions that influence the challenge/capability balance. What difficulty level does the player select? How long does the player work on a puzzle before turning to a help clue?

Games themselves are also designed to dynamically adjust this balance. Difficulty and strength of opponents typically rise as the player gains achievements, levels, rank, and equipment. Games also often provide adaptive feedback on progress toward clearly defined goals. These are each elements that modern game designers have raised to high levels.

The popularity of gaming helps illustrate the motivational power of each person being able to seek flow states through dynamic autonomous goal selection and challenge/capability balancing. McGonigal’s central theme is that games have come to be designed to tap into motivation in a way vastly superior to typical (de)motivational structures found in schools and corporations. 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 uninterested in school, we should naturally want to examine the extents to which goals are self-selected and the challenge/capability balance is adjustable individually in gaming versus school. The answer is near. Most good games offer high degrees of player autonomy and masterful challenge/capability balancing. Most schools are abysmal in both areas.

Promoting interest in "the real world" could therefore begin by increasing the range of autonomy that young people can practice in that real world, for example, by enabling them to engage in work again.

Why will kids 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. This contrasts with the more and more artificially constrained real world in modern interventionist economies, which increasingly outlaw young people from working at all. The message to young people is: if you want to work, earn, and create, it must be in the virtual world or not at all. The analysis of action from a praxeological standpoint applies just as well to in-game action as to out-of-game action.

Psychology, ethics, and praxeology: The distinctions revisited

The psychological research from Flow and the analysis of gaming can help remove extraneous implications from past attempts to formulate descriptions of the ultimate ends of action. Relationships among labor, leisure, and happiness do not exist. Happiness is influenced by self-chosen challenge/capability balance without regard to labels such as labor and leisure.

The distinctions between praxeology, ethical philosophy, and psychology should be clearly maintained, yet valid insights from each should not be ignored either. Praxeology says, “it is/must be so by definition.” Ethics says, “one should act this way rather than that way.” Psychology says, “we observe, notice, and hypothesize.”

Meanings of "rationality" also play into this topic and clarifying this is also helpful. Long clarified the nature of “rationality” as used in praxeology, including which claims praxeology can legitimately make regarding it. When a praxeologist claims that all action is rational, it is a claim that actors employ means to the attainment of ends. This only states an implication of what action is.

However, an ethicist’s or psychologist’s definition of “rational” must specify some narrower distinctions or be meaningless for their purposes. Those wearing psychologist or philosopher hats might well be interested in whether people deceive themselves in their judgments or make poor judgments. However, such distinctions must be left behind when donning the praxeologist’s peculiar new 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 formulation finally leaves no room for distinctions among “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 is a universal-definitional one. As such, it is of no use to psychologists or ethicists who require narrower definitions to work with. Indeed, it is not especially useful to praxeologists at all and might be better abandoned as a relic from a time when this distinction was not yet clear enough.

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