Will Basic Income Make Humanity Depressed?

"When people rest, their minds wander."

Flickr / Mary Lock- Goldilock Photography

Could free money for everybody make people unhappy? Sam Altman, president of startup accelerator Y Combinator, is worried that a universal basic income may not be the magic bullet Silicon Valley makes it out to be. Some of tech’s biggest names believe the policy would help people who lose their jobs through robot automation, making sure everyone has enough to get by without fears over cut working hours.

Altman is not totally convinced this will lead to a better world. “What’s unclear to me is will people be net-happier or are we just so dependent on our jobs for meaning and fulfillment?,” he said in an interview published Sunday.

That doesn’t mean Altman is against the idea: in fact, he’s one of the founding signatories of the Economic Security Project, announced earlier this month, that wants to research the idea. Y Combinator is also planning to conduct a small basic income trial in Oakland, California.

However, Altman raises an interesting question, and it’s one that researchers have studied for years. Dan Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, has done research into what people do when they retire. If you’re planning to rest up, bad news: there’s a causal link between retirement and lower cognitive levels.

“When people rest, their minds wander,” Gilbert said in an interview in October 2015. “And when the mind wanders, it doesn’t usually go to a happy place. People who are engaged in an activity are almost always happier than people who are not.”

Keeping the mind active during retirement is key to maintaining cognitive levels.

Flickr / doc(q)man

Sitting at home is unlikely to make people happy, but Altman worries that people won’t replace the stimulation provided by work. There’s social activities to pass the time, but giving people a reason why they must get up in the morning could work as a strong motivator to take part in an activity.

“People do form bonds with their community and their society through work,” Altman said. “And I think it does contribute to our national cohesion.”

On the other hand, basic income could free people to take part in work. In a story published Monday, Edward Martinson explained how his disability benefits discourage him from taking up any work, as he would lose the benefits by working but can’t work enough of the time to replace the lost benefits. Basic income would remove that fear, as any earned money would add to his income in addition to the basic salary.

It’s a tricky topic, and one with no easy answers. Altman may have a point, but until researchers carry out more trials, it may not become clear whether a basic income is the way forward.

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