Classical economic theory rests on a simple premise: individuals and firms are utility maximizers, which means they “seek to get the highest satisfaction from their economic decisions.” Expected utility theory lets economists model decisionmaking processes with math; they can predict purchasing behavior, assess how proposed tax rates will affect voting behavior, anticipate the success or failure of negotiations, or predict when disaffected populations will rise against their governments.
This framework has problems, but it is also a powerful way to study the world. However, it raises a key question: what goes into the utility function? In other words, what measure of “satisfaction” do human beings actually maximize? Many economists treat utility and wealth as interchangeable, which has a subtle cascading effect. From these microfoundations we construct an entire economic world in which all human activity aims at wealth accumulation.
This abstract view of wealth-maximizing individuals often rings true. There is nothing inherently wrong with the ethical pursuit of wealth, and economic self-interest has played a huge role in innovation, economic growth, and rising standards of living throughout history. However, these forms of progress have come at great cost. Individuals in liberal-democratic societies are profoundly alienated from themselves, each other, nature, and meaning. The consequences are evident in our soaring levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, substance abuse, and suicide.
As I seek to live a good life, I often wonder what it would look to maximize a different kind of utility.
One of the most powerful books I’ve read in the last few years—Johann Hari’s Lost Connections—posits that the real locus of depression is found not primarily in brain chemistry but in our profound sense of disconnection. He identifies seven forms of disconnection prevalent in our world:
- Disconnection from meaningful work
- Disconnection from other people
- Disconnection from meaningful values
- Disconnection from childhood trauma
- Disconnection from status and respect
- Disconnection from the natural world
- Disconnection from a hopeful or secure future
Healing ourselves and our societies will, in turn, require intentionally reconnecting across all these areas.
This book had a profound impact on my thinking. I continually encounter the same theme in my other reading. In Fragile Power, Paul Hokemeyer writes:
At the core of human pain is isolation from others and ourselves. We find relief from this pain in reparative human connections where we are seen and heard as vulnerable human beings.
In his book Tribe, Sebastian Junger notes the physical proximity of the industrializing 18th-19th century United States to traditional Native American societies. He writes:
It may say something about human nature that a surprising number of Americans—mostly men—wound up joining Indian society rather than staying in their own. They emulated Indians, married them, were adopted by them, and on some occasions even fought alongside them. And the opposite almost never happened: Indians almost never ran away to white society.
This phenomenon bewildered U.S. thought leaders at the time. French émigré Hector de Crèvecoeur wrote of Native Americans, “There must be in their social bonding something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted among us.”
The point is not to romanticize Native American culture or denigrate liberal-democracy, but to illustrate that human-beings evolved over tens of thousands of years to live in tight-knit communities, embedded in nature, in which rich human relationships and interdependency were constant. Our atomized existence today is deeply alien to human nature. Consider a hundred people living alone and lonely in their finely-partitioned apartment building, a frazzled mother alone at home with her toddlers most of the week, or a tired worker who commutes to and from an office where he sits in front of a computer for sixty hours a week. These alienating situations are a far cry from the rich relational life that our genes still remember.
The currency of connection
Going back to expected utility theory, there is no reason why wealth necessarily needs to be the primary measure of utility. We all maximize utility, according to the theory, but utility is whatever brings us satisfaction.
I often wonder what it would look like if “connection” was my primary measure of utility. In other words, what if I made decisions based on what would maximize my sense of connection?
Below are just a few thoughts.
- Seek individual integrity: Many of us are deeply disconnected from our own selves due to inattentiveness, trauma, social pressures, cognitive dissonance, or confusion. A divided life fuels a sense of alienation and disconnection, so we should always work to heal inner division and seek integration. This means discovering our real values and identity, shedding harmful projections and messages, finding healing from past traumas, and embracing an authentic identity. This is a lifetime project that requires deliberate investment.
- Maximize rich relationships: We live in an age of shallow connection, so any attempt to create and sustain authentic, deep, human connection is precious, courageous, and rare. The quality of a life may very well be measured in its depth of human connection, so this is perhaps the currency we should maximize above everything. We should have a bias towards quality time with others, and should deliberately seek to create meaningful relationships, even when doing so feels countercultural. Prioritizing relationships often means rejecting our cultural obsession with productivity (an admitted challenge for me).
- Pursue meaningful work: The key word here is “meaningful.” If we have a choice (and I realize we often don’t), we would not necessarily seek the highest-paying or most prestigious work, but rather work that rings true to our souls, aligns with our sense of self and purpose, and accords with our values. This principle could also apply to how we use our leisure time. We don’t want to burden ourselves with unrealistic expectations and demands of our leisure time, but we should have a bias towards meaning. This could entail incorporating imagination, discovery, creativity, growth, and skill development into our leisure rather than merely consuming passive content.
- Maximize time in nature: Nature has a quiet, healing power that gently unknots the tension of our frantic daily lives. For me personally, maximizing this currency means continual engagement with the natural world—which can often be done in conjunction with other people and with physical exercise. It can also include small, daily experiences; I enjoy sitting outside in the mornings, and work outdoors whenever an employer lets me.
- Connect with our bodies: Many of us take our bodies for granted (at least until we get older) or even war against them. A life of connection would entail listening to the body’s messages, caring for it, protecting it from harmful influences (to include those we ourselves often inflict on it), and nurturing it through activity and exercise. Mindfulness practices can also be helpful here, as we are embodied creatures and the body-mind-soul connection is powerful and real.
- Commit to a hopeful and secure future: Today’s world often looks bleak and the future appears ominous; current trends include the pandemic, global warming, the unraveling of institutions, cancel culture, soaring economic inequality, and staggering debt. Our natural impulse is to escape, but this is another form of disconnection. I worry about our present crisis, but I also see this upheaval as fertile soil in which reinvention can and must begin. The great project of our time is imagining and designing a better way of organizing society, but this will be a lifetime project involving everyone. Maximizing connection means resisting the impulse to flee; it means committing, engaging, and finding a humble role to play within this great project. It means the intentional cultivation of hope by paying close attention to the world, with an eye for goodness and opportunity.
The pursuit of financial security and success will always be a deep part of human life, but if the psychologists are right that connection is a key metric for a well-lived life, then it’s worth considering how we might maximize connection in our own lives.