Once upon a time there was a universe…

Stories matter.  The stories we tell over our lives affect our health and happiness (Tomasulo & Pawelski, 2012).   Stories can be about specific individuals, but likely the more powerful ones are those which apply to big groups or time periods (meta-narratives or “big stories”) which invite us to play a small part in world-size drama.

Major religions get this–successful churches make people feel like they are a part of God’s plan of redemption.  Great movements of philosophy have this–Descartes started the modernist project by saying that we can base everything on unquestionable truths and eventually create a perfect society.  Successful politicians get this–Marx wrote a story that inevitably ended in revolution and the rule of the working class.

Postmodernism itself is often defined by (Middleton and Walsh for example) as “incredulity towards meta-narratives.”  Postmoderns think that all ‘big stories’ are bullshit, so its stupid to be Democrat or Republican, Buddhist or Christian, or a part of any tradition at all.

Descartes wanted to establsih the modern project on the axiom, "I think, therefore, I am."

Descartes tried to establish the modern project on the axiom, “I think, therefore, I am.”

But there is some evidence that being story-less is not healthy.  Humans have reason to want the meta-narrative.  Positive psychologists define meaning as being a part of something bigger than yourself and have found that meaning defined in this way is a key pillar of deep and lasting happiness (Seligman, 2011).  We crave a deep sense that life has order and direction.  This passion often motivates the historian in each of us.  We want to know who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

A skeptical moment from Calvin & Hobbes by Bill Watterson

We know that endings matter.  Psychologists have found a phenomenon they call “peak-end theory” which maintains that the last few moments of an experience or human life (Rozin & Stellar, 2009) tend to define the entire experience (e.g. Kahneman & Wakker, 1997).  In other words, you never get a second chance to make a last impression.  One of the reasons why our meta-narratives are so important is because meta-narratives tell us the end of the story.  Then we create meaning “pro-retrospectively” (looking forward to look back).

But all this stuff about story, endings, and meta-narrative was not on my mind this summer.  For my masters thesis, I was just trying to figure out what judgements of the universe helped people live happier lives (full text here and non-academic summary here).  I called these judgements “universal assessments” (UAs) and found 13 of them that seemed particularly good for increasing people’s strengths and positive emotions.  Only after I finished the analysis did I realize that one of those 13, the following UA, is really all about the story people tell over existence:

The world is getting better vs. the world is getting worse.

Where are we headed?  Where are we going?  Will the world be renewed, or does it decay and die?  Unlike the other 13 UAs , this one has handy-dandy terms that are already in use.  A meliorist believes that the world is getting better (think bambi-eyed believer).  The pejorist believes the world is getting worse (think grumpy old man).  Together, these two positions represent the two major possible story-lines: is the universe a tragedy or comedy (as in Dante’s Divine Comedy rather than Comedy Central)?

Wether it be heaven, utopia, or just a kinder humanity, the meliorist believes that the world is getting better and the world will "...live happily ever after."

Wether it be heaven, utopia, or just a kinder humanity, the meliorist believes some variation of “…and they all lived happily ever after.”

Of course, many meta-narratives are too complex for these simple categories.  For example, many Christians believe that the world is presently declining, but God will come back and the universe will end well (e.g. Romans 8:20-21).  Other people might believe in human progress and look at how in the last decade 350 million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty (International Fund of Agricultural Development, 2011), but still believe that humans will eventually destroy themselves in nuclear holocaust.  However, for the time being, this UA is meant to encompass both ideas.  First, it is concerned with present trajectory.  Even if down the road the world is renewed, what is the trajectory now?  Second, it is asking if the story ends with “happily ever after” or “and then they all died.”

Pejorism, perhaps?

A pejorist vision, perhaps?

Out of the 24 strengths in the CSV, I found 18 that could potentially be encouraged by meliorist stories and eight by pejorist stories.  Also, out of 10 positive emotions identified by researchers, 9 might be encouraged by meliorism, and 3 by pejorism.  Here’s an example of one connection between meliorism and strength:

Hope is an important psychological strength.  It keeps people motivated and moving, even in dark times.  Empirical studies indicate that those with lots of hope tend to say certain things that sound similar to meliorism.  They include “I expect the best,” “I always look on the bright side,” “despite challenges, I always remain hopeful about the future,” and most strikingly, “I believe that good will always triumph over evil.”  Believing that the world is getting better might be tied to being a hopeful person.  Likewise, believing that the world is getting worse may make hopefulness elusive.

And here is an example of one connection to pejorism:

People who have strengths in humor can sometimes develop it as a coping skill.  Thinking that “the world is going to shit” might push some people to be light-hearted about tragedy and pursue novelty and fun in the moment.  This could be the thinking behind the popular paraphrase of Isaiah 22:13b: ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.’

Future research is needed to know for sure, but I expect that, overall, a beleif that the universe is improving helps us live better lives.  In addition to developing strengths and increasing positive emotions,  those with positive meta-narratives may enjoy other benefits too, like more close friendships, less depression, greater coping skills, and even higher incomes.  But, first things first, I need to develop an assessment tool that captures what stories people have for existence and see if it correlates with life outcomes.  Where do you fall on this UA?  I’d love to know.  Is the world getting better or worse?

I recently got to visit my brother's family in Hong Kong and meet Daniel, my nephew, for the first time.  What brings this UA home for me is the very simple question: will Daniel inherit a world which is worse or better than my own?  Politicians

I recently got to visit my brother’s family in Hong Kong and meet Daniel, my nephew, for the first time. What brings this UA home for me is the very simple question: will Daniel inherit a world which is worse or better than my own? My own personal intuitive answer: probably slightly worse.  I’m not sure though.  I have to think about it more.

What is so fun about this is that I know I have a damn good hypothesis.  Hopefully, in a few years, I’ll be able to let you know for sure about wether I am right or wrong about meliorism having good effects on human life.  Either way, it will definitely be interesting!    It will be fascinating if I am wrong! : )

This post concerns one of  13 universal assessments that were identified in my masters thesis as being possibly critical for the ‘good life.’  An abstract and full download of the capstone project at the University of Pennsylvania is available here on scholarly commons.  A non-academic summary (with pictures and bad puns) can be seen here.  Also, this is the second UA I have elaborated on.  The first was “the world is bad vs. the world is good” that I talk about in the post “Is my WIFE good, and does it matter?”  

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About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

6 responses to “Once upon a time there was a universe…

  • Yellow

    I don’t see the world as becoming better.
    Hmm, it’s complicated actually.

    I think, and according to my faith (Islam) people are born good. But then people can do wrong and it *feels* like the society around me is generally getting worse not better. But I believe there’s always good people around who spread positivity.

    Again according to my belief, as we approach the end of times the world will get worse and worse until Jesus comes back and spread peace, righteousness, truth. So that’s how I view the world. Well no, I don’t actually think of it/my life in relation to the end of times because I could and probably will die before then.

    So I just focus on my life. I’d say I’m quite an optimistic person despite looking at the world around me and seeing it seemingly deteriorate. I have hope because of my belief in God and that is what makes me live a better life.

    The teachings in the Quran like no person is given a trial that is more than they can bear, or that God helps those who help themselves, or that God is always with us and so on and so forth, make me want live a better life.

    It’s also important for Muslims to helps others, think well of others, be just to others etc so that also helps.

    As a Muslim it doesn’t matter what’s happening around me in this world I am still expected to do good and improve my situation so it really doesn’t matter how bad the world is. In fact Muslims and I’m guessing Christians have a slightly different take on this due to the belief in heaven and hell. As a Muslim, heaven is the ultimate goal, and unlike in Christianity, simply being a believer won’t keep me out of hell, so I *need* to be a good person and that’s what helps me live a better life.

    Sorry for the long winded reply…hopefully it was worth reading and not just repetitive waffle :/

  • Jer Clifton

    Yellow, thanks so much for the comment. I appreciate you sharing your thinking on how your faith informs your beliefs regarding this UA. I think my own background would push me to think something similar (Christian), that the world is declining in some important way, though I think I am less sure than you if that is true. In fact, I tend to think that the world is improving in important ways.

    But a discussion of whether or not the belief is true or where it comes from is separate from the discussion about what effects that belief might have on people’s individual lives. These effects can be grasped through empirical experiments.

    You say that “as a Muslim it doesn’t matter what’s happening around me,” but I would push back and say that you, like any human, might be affected by beliefs in ways that you, or I, do not understand. What’s scary about my research, I think, is that I may find out that beliefs that you or I hold dear might be, essentially, bad medicine. How does that make you feel? I know some are excited to find out, but others can be angry. They find it threatening to think that I can run a belief through the “scientific mill” and find out if it is good for you. After all, isn’t the main point of a belief to be true? Perhaps they are right, but the effects of beliefs still interest me greatly and seem worthy of study.

  • Yellow

    I’m glad I can be part of this discussion 🙂 I’ll be honest, I haven’t yet read much about your research, but I do intend to and it all sounds very interesting.

    I agree with what you said about “better” needing to be defined. There are many ways that we can all agree the world has in fact improved. There have been technological advances, medical advances, we know more about the world, all this and more has led to better lifestyles, and in turn I guess you could say a better world.

    When I think about the world being “better” or “worse”, I automatically think of it in terms of peoples’ morals and behaviour. I think of how we interact with those around us, the immodest and immoral behaviour displayed all around us, the increasingly individualistic societal norms, the crime and so on and so forth.

    Someone suggested that it only seems like society is getting worse because we weren’t around to see the bad in previous generations and I guess nostalgia plays tricks on peoples minds.

    I do not deny that there’s good happening in the world too, though.

    I agree, anything that happens around me will affect me directly or indirectly. The point I was trying to make was my faith is a source of hope, encouragement, comfort, advice in bad situations.

    The Quran, chapter 103: By time, Indeed, mankind is in loss, Except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.

    This teaches us the basic requirements of believing – to do good and help others do good and remain patient. Patience is only needed through difficulty and negative situations, This is just one part of the Quran which should instil positive action in a Muslim’s life.Of course, we’re human, and we do not always follow everything in our religion.

    But I meant I can believe the world is becoming worse, yet have faith in the possibility of things getting better…honestly I’m not confused! lol
    Maybe I am a meliorist. But then I don’t believe in the “happily ever after” narative because – heaven and hell.

    Why do you think your belief may be shown to be bad medicine?

    It doesn’t anger me at all. The Quran keeps telling us ponder, reflect, ask questions and invites challenges to ensure we are rational and we truly know it is the truth. I don’t think anyone should be worried about you disapproving their faith because if their faith is true then this will not effect them, and if their faith isn’t true – isn’t it best they found out?

    Though can a religion really be put through the “scientific mill”, can the results be valid when religion isn’t the same as science?

  • Hyper Intellect

    This pejorist that makes an effort to be partly meliorist just finished his second reading of your post. I wanted it to soak in, and re-read for anything I might have missed the first time.

    Such as your wonderful statement of purpose “I love to unearth powerful ideas and share them.” How awesome is that!?

    My current understanding also is that being a meliorist is more beneficial. But do pejorists tend to be better informed, more realistic, or more concerned with big challenges facing humanity?

    I like these two terms you’ve exposed me to. And the humor example you give.

    Warm regards.

    • Jer Clifton

      Thanks Hyper intellect! Very kind words indeed! I think your question is a great one and the short answer is that we do not know!!!! Isn’t that fun! Next year I am going to be planning future research around this topic and that may very well be one of my questions. Keep those thoughts coming! I appreciate them.

  • The First Philosophical Debate Ever | Jer's Intellectual Adventures

    […] conducive to the ‘good life’ (explored non-academically in the recent post “Once upon a time there was a universe…“).  Anaximander put forth a story of  existence: everything is doomed to devolve back to […]

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