A Sense of Progress

And why we have it

Most people think of progress as a good thing. We want to be better than we were before, we want to push our limits, and we want to invent, create and thrive. We have a sense of progress, and that sense makes us feel good. This is one of the things why even beneficial AI might be a problem.

I would argue that it makes people inherently happy when they have mastered a skill that they previously did not have. Just take a look at children who learn new things constantly and how they smile and laugh and are excited about their accomplishments.

But, why? Why do we feel good when we are progressing towards becoming better persons? What is the appeal of self-help books? Why do we want to develop a better character? Why are we on this continuous quest to become better than we have been before? And why do we push ourselves to achieve goals at all? Why do we even design obstacles to overcome? Why is excelling in games, like sports, art or chess important? Why is mastery something valuable?


When thinking of it from an evolutionary point of view it becomes obvious why humans should like the idea of progress and be intrinsically motivated to pursue it. People who were curious and hungry for "more", made their lives considerably better and therefore produced more offspring. They outcompeted people who didn't like progress. Therefore most humans today should value progress.

and Nurture...

There is another side attached to this though. Because as always nurture plays a role. The love of progress is not nested equally deep within everyone and I know enough people who do not seem to get the same kick out of learning new stuff and progressing towards goals as other people do. Some people are just more content with what they have and don't need to move as much.

And I think this has to do with genetic variation and the upbringing of people. Both can change and influence our behaviors and preferences. So the other part that makes us love progression, aside from evolutionary adaptations, is that we probably got pushed by our parents and environment, often from a very early age on.

I for one was always pushed to be good at things. Pushed might be the wrong word. Encouraged and strengthened with positive reinforcement. That's why I now think that progress is good. And why I think that it is important to excel at learning and achieving goals. Progression was something I always got rewarded for with encouragement and I think that stuck.

So to sum up:

We like the sense of progression because of both - nature and nurture.

Hard Things

The nature of challenges is that hard things are fun for people.

And I think that is because hard things promise our brains rewards. There is a flood of dopamine when we solve a hard thing after a long time of stretching ourselves to do so.

This might just be one of the best feelings possible in the realm of human experience. And, usually, the harder we worked to accomplish something, the better that experience, that final resolve, will feel to us.

The reasoning for why we like to overcome tough challenges and do hard things is the same as that for why we like progress. In a way, they are two sides of the same coin. Back in time, when we were done with hard things, that usually meant there was something to show for our efforts. A dead lion or a source of honey.

And it is similar today. The appeal of hard things can be partly explained because they offer something as a reward. And that something is usually proportional to the work put in. This means, that the harder the things we tackle, the greater the reward we get. And our brains are hard-wired for this type of reward and very sensitive to it.

So we like to pursue goals that are hard to achieve.

There is a social aspect at work here as well. Because we can share the fruits of our work. And challenges we have overcome, are accepted within groups as a token of personal achievement. They show who we are to others, they are a form of signaling and a way of gaining trust and appreciation from others. Because, somebody who can accomplish hard things, is somebody we want to have in our group of peers. It's much better to go hunting lions if everybody in the group is good at overcoming obstacles.

There is a problem with this though. In our society, it is easy for us to get rewards in other ways. Ways that are quicker and easier. So we, over time, lose the ability to concentrate and focus. We train ourselves to not be motivated to solve hard challenges and puzzles anymore. And this is a big problem.

Furthermore, we are often afraid of failing and hence we sometimes limit the scope of the hard things we try to accomplish. I think this is bad because the fear of failure shouldn't hold us back from pushing ourselves. The idea of progress and achievement and overcoming hard things should be stronger, than the fear of it.

This is another way of saying that life (movement, purpose) is more important than death (stasis, decay).

And that is also, why we like progress. Progress is the opposite of death. Progress means that we are still alive and that we can push and extend ourselves into the future. And there is nothing more fundamental to life than that. Pushing our boundaries to make more of ourselves and increase our chances of staying around, is what life is all about in the end.

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