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A better future of greater happiness is in our hands… (Photo by MamiGibbs / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

From Rats in Cages to Primates in Paradise — The Scientific Story of Stress in Society

The immediate need for basic income in recognition of the effects of chronic stress and the importance of improving environments

At the end of 2015, after a year-long journey, I achieved the realization of an idea with the help of about 140 people that has already forever changed the way I look at the very foundations — or lack thereof — upon which all of society is based. I now firmly believe we have the potential through its universal adoption to systemically transform society for the better, even more so than many of those most familiar with the idea have long postulated, because for me, the idea is no longer just an idea. It’s not theory. It is part of my life. It’s real. And the effects are undeniable for someone actually living with it.

The idea of which I speak goes by the name of “basic income” but is best understood not by name, but by function, and that function is simply to provide a monthly universal starting point located above the poverty line as a new secure foundation for existence. It’s an irrevocable stipend for life. In the U.S. it would be something like $1,000 for every citizen every month. All other income would then be earned as additional income on top of it so that employment would always pay more than unemployment.

This may sound overly expensive, but it would save far more than it costs. It would also really only require an additional net transfer of around $900 billion, and that’s without subtracting the existing welfare programs it could replace, and also without simplifying the tax code through the replacement of all the many credits, deductions, and subsidies it could also replace. Basically we’re already handing out money to everyone, rich and poor alike, but in hundreds of different ways through thousands of government middlemen who only serve to disincentivize employment by removing government supports as a reward for working.

Odds are this idea is new to you, but it’s not a new idea. It’s been considered for hundreds of years from as long ago in the U.S. by founding father Thomas Paine in the 18th century, to Richard Nixon, Martin Luther King, Jr., and free market-loving Milton Friedman in the 20th century, to a quickly growing list of new names here in the 21st century. Its advocates know no ideological lines. Supporters include Nobel prize-winning economists, libertarians, progressives, conservatives, climate change activists, tax reformers, feminists, anarchists, doctors, human rights defenders, racial justice leaders, and the list goes on.

For such an old idea that’s been endorsed by so many for so long and yet has obviously never yet come to be, you may be thinking, “Why now?” The answer to such a question has economic reasoning rooted in the globalization of labor and the exponential advancement of technologies capable of entirely replacing labor, but as important as this particular discussion is to have, it’s centered more around the idea of a future problem and less a present one.

However, our problems are very much in the present and to see why, we need to go deeper, much deeper, beyond technology and economics, and into human biology itself. To do that, we’ll first need to look at what we as humans have learned from some animals in the lab and in the wild, because I think doing so pulls back the curtain on our entire social system.

Photo by Shankar S. / CC BY 2.0

Animals in Cages

As is true with many scientific discoveries, they tend to be accidental, and the story of Martin Seligman and some dogs back in 1965 is no different. Seligman wanted to know if dogs could be classically conditioned to react to bells in the same way as if they’d just been shocked, so he put them in a crate with a floor that could be electrified, and shocked them each time he rang a bell. The dogs soon began to react to the bell as if they’d just been shocked. Next however, he put them in a special crate where they could leap to safety to avoid the shock, and this is where the surprise happened.

The dogs wouldn’t leap to safety. It turns out they’d learned from the prior part of the experiment that it didn’t matter what they did. The shock would come anyway. They had learned helplessness. Seligman then tried the experiment with dogs who had not been shocked and they leaped to safety just as expected. But the dogs who had learned helplessness, they just sadly laid down and whimpered.

Fast forward to 1971 where a scientist named Jay Weiss explored this further with rats in cages. He put three rats into three different cages with electrodes attached to their tails and a wheel for each to turn. One rat was the lucky rat. No shocks were involved. Another would get shocks that could be stopped by turning its wheel. The third was the unlucky one. It would get shocked at the same time as the second rat, but it could do nothing about it. The third rat would only stop getting shocked when the second rat turned its wheel. Can you guess what happened?

Photo by David Noah / CC BY 2.0

Even though the two rats that were shocked got shocked at the same time and for the same duration of time, their outcomes were very different. The rat who had the power to stop the pain was just a bit worse off than the rat who experienced no pain at all. However, the rat who had no control whatsoever, stuck with a lever that did nothing, became heavily ulcerated. Like the dog, it too had learned helplessness. The cost of this lesson was its health.

The Power of Perception

Of course humans are not dogs or rats. There’s a bit more complexity when it comes to us and our physiological responses. For us, perception is a key factor. This is where something called attribution comes into play, of which there are three important kinds that lead to humans learning helplessness: internal, stable, and global.

Think back to when you first started school and try to remember your first math test. What if after taking that first test you did poorly on it, and instead of all the other possible reasons for why that could happen, you decided it was because you sucked at math? That’s an internal attribution. Now imagine you applied that attribution to all math tests. That’s a stable attribution. It’s not a one time thing. Now imagine you applied it beyond math to all classes. That’s a global attribution. Consider the results of such perceptions.

Maybe that first math test was simply too hard for everyone in the class. Maybe it wasn’t just you. Maybe your poor grade was due to not studying hard enough, or because you were too hungry or too tired. But instead, because you decided it was your fault and it meant you were stupid, your entire life went down a different path. Even though at any point along the way, you could have escaped that path, just like Seligman’s dogs could have escaped the shocks, what if you had learned helplessness from that first math test?

“We can learn to be helpless in an environment that actually offers us control, and the feeling itself of control can be the difference between a life full of unending stress, and a relatively stress-free life.”

It’s even been shown that we only need to be told there’s nothing we can do in order for us to feel there’s no point in trying. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Tell everyone there’s no point in voting, and fewer people will vote.

What all of this shows is two-fold and extremely important to remember. We can learn to be helpless in an environment that actually offers us control, and the feeling itself of control can be the difference between a life full of unending stress, and a relatively stress-free life.

Fight or Flight

Stress is more than a feeling. Stress is a physiological response, and it has important evolutionary reasons for being. Back in the day, many thousands of years ago, our ancestors who could shift into a kind of emergency gear where long-term higher-order creative thinking shut down, and the body was enabled to think faster, react quicker, be stronger, move faster, run longer, and think only about survival… those were the humans who survived.

We call this now the fight-or-flight response, and where this once incredibly important response was evolutionarily adaptive, it is now maladaptive. We don’t live in that same world anymore where it made so much sense. We aren’t being chased down by lions or being eaten by wolves while sitting in front of our computers in our air-conditioned offices, and yet our fight-or-flight responses are still being activated. In fact, for far too many, daily existence is nothing but fight-or-flight. Long-term stress is a real problem, and I would argue, it’s not just a health problem. It’s a problem for human civilization.

Dr. Robert Sapolsky in the field

Sapolsky and Stress

One of the most knowledgeable scientists in the world in this area is Robert Sapolsky, a pioneering neuroendocrinologist and professor at Stanford University who has spent more than thirty years studying the effects of stress on health, of which there are many. Over the years, Sapolsky has found that long-term stress increases one’s risk of diabetes, cardiac problems, and gastrointestinal disorders. Stress suppresses the immune system. It causes reproductive dysfunction in men and women. It suppresses growth in kids. It affects developing fetuses. Newer evidence even shows it causes faster aging of DNA. But potentially worst of all is what it does to the human mind.

Prolonging fight-or-flight into a chronic condition means that neurons in the brain related to things like learning, memory, and judgment all suffer the consequences thanks to the wide-ranging effects of our double-edged sword stress hormones called glucocorticoids. Recent research has even shown this response made chronic is a self-perpetuating cycle. A constantly stressed out brain appears to lead to a kind of hardening of neural pathways. Essentially, feeling chronic stress makes it harder to not perceive stress, creating a vicious cycle of unending stress.

On top of this, and related back to Weiss’s rats and human attribution theory, is the coping responses of those who are stressed out. Think of the “off-lever” in the second rat’s cage. There are many such levers around us and although they can be effective in reducing our stress levels, many of them are arguably pretty bad off-switches. These responses include acting out against others, otherwise known as displacement aggression or bullying.

Yes, bullying is an effective coping mechanism. As the saying goes, shit rolls downhill, and there’s actually a scientific reason for that other than gravity. In a hierarchy, it is healthier after a loss to start another fight with someone you can beat, than to mope about the loss. The former is the abdication of control, a form of learned helplessness, and the latter is the creation of control, a kind of learned aggressiveness.

“A society full of unhealthy people getting sick more than they otherwise would be, saddled with difficulties learning and remembering, suffering from weakened judgment and short-term survival thinking, and violently turning on each other as a means of coping is not a recipe for success. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

Life in the 21st century is full of both. On the learned helplessness side, there have been an estimated 45,000 suicides per year since 2000, with a sharp rise since 2007, that can all be attributed to the stresses surrounding the economic insecurities of unemployment and underemployment. The U.S. is even confounding the world, with a mysterious and dramatic rise in mortality rates among middle-aged white men and women, who all appear to be drinking and overdosing themselves to death.

On the displacement aggression side, we see bullying of traditionally marginalized groups and a global and marked increase of anti-immigrant sentiment which has already led directly to the election of Donald Trump and as a result, cries for border walls and travel bans. We are seeing a rise in authoritarianism, which is fundamentally a cry for more control and predictability.

A society full of unhealthy people getting sick more than they otherwise would be, saddled with difficulties learning and remembering, suffering from weakened judgment and short-term survival thinking, and violently turning on each other as a means of coping is not a recipe for success. It’s a recipe for disaster, especially faced with species-endangering challenges like climate change that demand long-term thinking. But there is hope, and that hope springs from the same well as our problems.

Photo by Rucker Sewell / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Stressed Out Primates

There is an animal out there, one of our cousins actually in the primate family, who lead somewhat similar lives to us. They are high enough in the food chain to generally not be bothered and smart enough to be the primary cause of each other’s problems. Or as Sapolsky has described it: “They’re just like us: They’re not getting done in by predators and famines, they’re getting done in by each other.” That animal is the baboon and it’s the animal Sapolsky has been studying for decades. In doing so, he’s found three primary factors in predicting stress levels.

Hierarchy

The first predictor is the social hierarchy itself. Those at the top tend to live the most stress-free lives thanks to having more control, and those at the bottom tend to live the most stressful lives, thanks to having less control. There is however an important caveat to this. The stability of the social hierarchy matters. If the top baboon faces what is effectively a baboon revolution, that can be pretty stressful. In other words, more unequal societies lead to more stress, for everyone.

Personality

The second primary factor is personality. Just as primates are smart enough to be stressed where other animals wouldn’t, they’re also able to not be stressed where others would. A baboon who worries for his life every time another baboon walks by is going to be far more full of stress hormones than a laid-back baboon. Personality is therefore a factor that can override one’s position in the hierarchy for better or worse. It can even strongly predict one’s rank.

Social Connections

The third primary factor actually trumps all. It turns out that stress-related diseases are powerfully grounded in social connectedness. At the bottom of the social hierarchy and prone to stressing out based on your personality? That can still be okay for your health and well-being as long as you have strong social supports — friends, family, and community — to override it all. Sometimes all we really need is to know we are not alone.

This social trump card even helps explain the prevalence of religion in human societies. It’s the creation of a perceived control lever that reduces stress across all factors including the all important social support factor. The result is that attending religious services regularly is actually surprisingly good for human health.

Photo by Stephen Poff / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Stressed Out Humans

All of this goes a long way toward explaining a great deal of human behavior. The construction of a social hierarchy is a naturally emergent phenomenon of our biology. Being “above” someone else in rank offers a level of control and predictability. Our personalities help determine our ranks and also how we cope with a lack of control and predictability. Our social relationships help put our lives and the world around us into perspective. However, this is no meritocracy and much depends on the circumstances of birth.

Growing Immobility

Because our personalities are greatly determined by our environments, especially as kids, a positive feedback loop can emerge where those born and raised in high stress environments full of impoverishment and inequality are unable to escape those environments. This can then become self-perpetuating through each successive generation that follows. We see this happening right now. For all those born into the bottom fifth of American society, about half remain there as adults. The same is true for the top fifth. Meanwhile, the middle 60% are twice as mobile as either one. If we care about the American Dream, we should consider the implications.

Growing Violence

What’s the result of such generational stratification of little social mobility? One need look no further than our coping mechanisms — the levers of control we create — to understand why so many things we don’t want, emerge from highly unequal societies. Remember displacement aggression? A 1990 study of 50 countries concluded economic inequality is so significantly related to rates of homicide despite an extensive list of conceptually relevant controls, that a decrease in income inequality of 0.01 Gini (a measure of inequality) leads to 12.7 fewer homicides per 100,000 individuals. Simply put, and this is a robust finding, growing inequality leads to growing violence. A meta-analysis of 34 separate studies even found 97% of the correlations reported between social inequality and violent crime to be positive, meaning as one got bigger or smaller, the other got bigger or smaller.

Growing Addictions

Addictions are another result. Drug use is a lever of control that is also an escape. We may not be able to control anything around us, but we can control an entirely personal decision that is as simple as drinking that vodka or smoking that cigarette. It can function as the middle finger to everything and everyone around us as a way of saying, “I may be stuck in this cage, but you can’t stop me from using this to feel like I’ve escaped, if only temporarily, and if even only an illusion. This is me controlling the one thing I can control — myself.” Consider again the mysteriously growing mortality rates of middle-aged white people due to overdoses and liver disease.

As economic inequality increases, other scientifically correlated effects include: reduced trust and civic engagement, eroded social cohesion, higher infant mortality rates, lower overall life expectancy, more mental illness, reduced educational outcomes, higher rates of imprisonment, increased teen pregnancy rates, greater rates of obesity, and the list continues to grow as inequality-related research grows.

Additionally, if you look closely at such a list of effects, it shows the erosion of social supports. If you are less likely to trust your neighbor, if you aren’t as involved in your community, if you or those you interact with are more aggressive, if you are depressed and just want to be alone, that means the all important trump card for handling stress — social connectedness — vanishes. This too is its own feedback loop. Less social connection means more stress which means less social connection. It’s an unending cycle for human misery.

It’s also exactly what we’ve been observing in the United States for decades. Robert Putnam wrote an entire book about it back in 2000 titled “Bowling Alone.” The title originated from the statistic that although more people are bowling, less people are doing it in leagues. As observed by Putnam:

“Community and equality are mutually reinforcing… Social capital and economic inequality moved in tandem through most of the twentieth century. In terms of the distribution of wealth and income, America in the 1950s and 1960s was more egalitarian than it had been in more than a century… Those same decades were also the high point of social connectedness and civic engagement. Record highs in equality and social capital coincided. Conversely, the last third of the twentieth century was a time of growing inequality and eroding social capital… The timing of the two trends is striking: somewhere around 1965–70 America reversed course and started becoming both less just economically and less well connected socially and politically.”

Viewed through Sapolsky’s decades of scientific investigation into the physiology of stress, and backed by everything we’ve observed since the Great Decoupling in 1973 where national productivity has continued to grow but wage growth has been non-existent, it becomes disappointingly clear that all of this is actually of our own making. Through the policy decisions we’ve made to increase inequality in the blind pursuit of unlimited growth through the cutting of taxes and subsidizing of multi-national corporate interests, and through the pursuit of globalization without regard for its effects on the middle classes of developed nations such that 70% of households in 25 advanced economies saw their earnings drop in the past decade, we’ve created a societal feedback loop for chronic stress. And we’re paying the price.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Just as we know more about why things are the way they are because of some rats in cages and some baboons in East Africa, those same animals point the way forward.

Photo by thornypup / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Creating Better Environments

In what was a sad day for Sapolsky but a remarkable day for science, he discovered back in the mid-1980’s that the very first baboon troop he’d ever studied had experienced a die-off. Half of the troop’s males had died of tuberculosis from eating tainted garbage. Because those at the top did not allow weaker males and any of the females to eat their prize trash, all of them died. The result was a truly transformed society of baboons.

Baboon Paradise

A greater sense of egalitarianism became the new rule of the jungle, so to speak. Bullying of females and lower males became a rarity, replaced with aggression limited to those of close social rank. Aggressive behaviors like biting were reduced while affectionate behaviors like mutual grooming were increased. The baboons got closer, literally. They sat closer to each other. Stress plummeted, even among those at the very bottom of the new hierarchy. Even more amazingly, this happier more peaceful society of baboons has lasted over the decades, despite members leaving and joining.

In what appears to be a transmission of societal values, new baboons are taught that in this particular society, bullying is not tolerated and tolerance is more the general rule, not the exception. Essentially, a new feedback loop was created, where the sudden reduction in inequality led to less stress and greater community, which led to a new normal of less stress and greater community. As Dr. Frans B. M. de Waal, the director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University put it in a 2004 interview with the New York Times about the baboon findings, “The good news for humans is that it looks like peaceful conditions, once established, can be maintained.”

As much as the story of these baboons have to reveal about the importance and the hope of a less stressed-out, more peaceful society, there is another animal story that in my opinion shows the most potential for mankind of all.

“Aerial view” of Bruce Alexander’s Rat Park

Rat Heaven

In what has become a very well-known and discussed kind of study, rats were put into cages and given the opportunity to press a lever to self-administer drugs like cocaine. They medicated themselves to death and thus went down in history as the kind of experiment to point to that reveals the helplessly addictive dangers of drugs and how we must be protected from their usage for our own good. This is the ammunition for the War on Drugs in a nutshell.

Meanwhile, in what has become a far too little known variation of this study, but I consider to be one of the most important ever devised, a new kind of experiment was run in an entirely different environment called “Rat Park.”

Hypothesizing that perhaps having nothing to do but just exist alone in a cage may have something to do with drug usage, a psychologist named Bruce Alexander decided to create a kind of rat heaven before offering rats drugs. Instead of a cage, rats were given a huge space to roam between tree-painted walls and a forest-like floor, full of toys and other rats to play and mate with, food to eat, obstacles to climb, tunnels to traverse, etc.

Within this paradise for rats, morphine-laced water was introduced. The rats could drink as much of it as they wanted. Incredibly, the rats didn’t care for it, opting for plain water instead. The morphine-water was then made sweeter and sweeter until eventually the rats finally drank it, but only because it apparently tasted so good, not for the narcotic effects. This was even confirmed by adding a drug to the water, Naltrexone, that nullified the effects of the morphine, which resulted in the rats drinking more of the water. All of this was in strong contrast to solitary rats in cages given the same choices, who took to the morphine-water immediately and strongly.

In fact, it’s even been found that solitary existence within a cage actively prevents neurogenesis — the growth of new neurons within the brain. It turns out neuroscientists for decades thought it impossible for adults to grow new neurons because they were studying solitary animals in cages the whole time. It’s therefore only recently that we’ve learned that impoverished environments actively limit brain development.

“Building a paradise for humans is up to us, where because everyone has enough, and inequality is low enough, we won’t reach for those levers of control that end up being against our better interests.”

What this all reveals is more than the great lie of the Drug War. It reveals the vast importance and great differences of living alone in a cage, and living in a world of abundance and social bonds. Viewed in the context of everything else discussed, it shows the importance of constructing an environment for the purpose of bringing out the best in us, instead of the worst in us. Building a paradise for humans is up to us, where because everyone has enough, and inequality is low enough, we won’t reach for those levers of control that end up being against our better interests. So how do we build “Human Park?”

Image by Amanda Wray. For more basic income illustrations, click here.

Creating Human Park

It is only in my studies of the idea of basic income that I’ve seen glimpses into this idea of a Human Park. Like a bunch of puzzle pieces that can be collected to form into a picture, the evidence behind simply giving people money without strings forms a profound image of a better world that can exist right now, if we so choose. Remember the three primary factors that determine our levels of stress?

More Equality

Creating a less unequal society is step one. There exists in the world today, and has since 1982, something as close to a fully universal basic income as anything yet devised. It’s the annual Alaska dividend where thanks to every resident receiving a check for on average around $1,000 per year for nothing but residing in Alaska, inequality is consistently among the lowest of all states. Not only that, but we see what we’d expect to see in lower stress populations, where Alaska is also consistently among the happiest states.

In Gallup’s 2015 ranking of states by “well-being,” Alaska was second only to Hawaii. This annual ranking is a combined measure of five separate rankings: purpose (liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals), social (having supportive relationships and love in your life), financial (managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security), community (liking where you live, feeling safe and having pride in your community), and physical (having good health and enough energy to get things done daily). Alaska scored 5th, 5th, 1st, 7th, and 6th respectively in each of these measures.

In other words, in the only state in the U.S. to provide a minimum amount of income to all residents every year, such that no one ever need worry about having nothing, they feel the greatest amount of basic economic security and the least amount of stress than any other state. As a result they’re also among the most motivated, the healthiest, and have strong family, friend, and community social supports. Alaska is essentially a glimpse at Human Park, but only a glimpse because even the $2,100 they all received in 2015 is not enough to cover a year’s worth of basic human needs.

Improving Personality

Some more of the best evidence we have in the world for what happens in the long-term when people are provided something that looks even more like a basic income than is found in Alaska, can again be found in the U.S., in North Carolina.

In 1992, the Great Smoky Mountains Study of Youth began with the goal of studying the youth in North Carolina to determine the possible risk factors of developing emotional and behavioral disorders. Because Native Americans tend to be underrepresented in mental health research, researchers made the point of including 349 child members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. About halfway into the ten-year study, something that is the dream of practically any researcher happened as a matter of pure serendipity. All tribal members began receiving a share of casino profits. By 2001 those dividends had grown to $6,000 per year. By 2006, they were $9,000 per year. The results were nothing short of incredible.

Photo by Rachel Samanyl / CC BY 2.0

The number of Cherokee living in poverty declined by 50%. Behavioral problems declined by 40%. Crime rates decreased. High school graduation rates increased. Grades improved. Home environments were transformed. Drug and alcohol use declined. Additionally, the lower the age the children were freed of poverty, the greater the effects as they grew up, to the point the youngest ended up being a third less likely to develop substance abuse or psychiatric problems as teens. Randall Akee, an economist, later even calculated that the savings generated through all the societal improvements actually exceeded the amounts of the dividends themselves.

However, the most powerful finding of all was in personality effects. These changes were observed as a result of better home environments that involved less stress and better parental relationships. Incredibly, the children of families who began receiving what we can call something very close to a basic income, saw long-term enhancements in two key personality traits: conscientiousness and agreeableness. That is, they grew up to be more honest, more observant, more comfortable around other people, and more willing to work together with others. And because personalities tend to permanently set as adults, these are most likely lifelong changes.

If we remember how important personality is to the perception of stress and one’s location within social hierarchies, these children will end up far better off, and as a result, their own children likely will as well. This is another glimpse into a basic income-enabled Human Park.

Increasing Social Cohesion

Although what’s been happening for years in both Alaska and North Carolina are close to universal basic income in practice, they are not actually UBI. UBI requires regularly giving everyone in an entire community an amount of money sufficient to cover their basic needs. This has been done in three places so far: the city of Dauphin in Canada, the Otjivero-Omitara area of Namibia, and the Madhya Pradesh area of India.

It’s in these areas that humanity has achieved what’s closest to creating Human Parks. As a direct result of guaranteeing everyone a basic income in Dauphin, hospitalization rates decreased 8.5% and high school graduation rates surpassed 100% as dropouts actually returned to school to finish. In Namibia, overall crime rates were cut almost in half and self-employment rates tripled. In India, housing and nutrition improved, markets and businesses blossomed, and overall health and well-being reached new heights. But if it’s one thing I find most interesting across all experiments, it’s the improved social cohesion — a proliferation of new and strengthened social supports.

In Namibia, a stronger community spirit developed. Apparently, the need to ask each other for money was a barrier to normal human interaction. Once basic income made it so that no one needed to beg anymore, everyone felt more able to make friendly visits to each other, and speak more freely without being seen as wanting something in return. In India, where castes can still create artificial social divisions, those in villages given basic income actually began to gather across caste lines for mutual decision-making. And in Canada, the basic income guarantee had a notable impact on caring, with parents choosing to spend more time with their kids, and kids spending more time with each other in schools instead of jobs.

Remember, social supports are the trump card of societies with less stress, and it appears that providing people with UBI strengthens existing social supports and creates new ones. Freed from a focus on mere survival, humans reach out to each other. This is also something that makes us different from every other animal on Earth — our ability to reach each other in ways unimaginable even to ourselves until only recently. We as humans are entirely unique in our ability to belong to multiple hierarchies, and through the internet create connections across vast distances and even time itself through recorded knowledge.

Our place in a hierarchy matters, but we can decide which hierarchies matter more. Is it our position in the socioeconomic ladder? Is it our position in our place of employment? Or is it our position in our churches, our schools, our sports leagues, our online communities, or even our virtual communities within games like World of Warcraft and Second Life?

“No other policy has the transformative potential of reducing anywhere near as much stress in society than the lifelong guaranteeing of basic economic security with a fully unconditional basic income.”

Reaching Our Potential

We as humans have incredible potential to create and form communities, and realize world-changing feats of imagination, and this mostly untapped potential mostly just requires less stress and more time. If all we’re doing is just trying to get by, and our lives are becoming increasingly stressful, it becomes increasingly difficult to think and to connect with each other. It’s the taxation of the human mind and social bonds. Studies even show the burden of poverty on the mind depletes the amount of mental bandwidth available for everything else to the tune of about 14 IQ points, or the loss of an entire night’s sleep. Basically, scarcity begets scarcity.

On the other hand, if we free ourselves to focus on everything else other than survival, if we remove the limitations of highly unequal and impoverished environments, then we’re increasingly able to connect with each other, and we minimize learned helplessness. As a result, our health improves. Crime is reduced. Self-motivation goes up. Teamwork overtakes dog-eat-dog, and long-term planning overtakes short-term thinking. Presumably, many an IQ jumps the equivalent of 14 points. A greater sense of security has even been shown to reduce bias against “out” groups, from immigrants to the obese. And if we take into account the importance of security in people deciding to invest their time and resources in bold new ventures, innovation also has the chance of skyrocketing in a society where everyone always has enough to feel comfortable in taking risks without fear of failure. Basically, abundance begets abundance.

If what we seek is a better environment for the thriving of humans — a “Human Park” full of greater health and happiness — then what we seek should be the implementation of basic income, in nation after nation, all over the world. There is no real feeling of control without the ability to say no. Because UBI is unconditional, it provides that lever to everyone for the first time in history. No other policy has the transformative potential of reducing anywhere near as much stress in society than the lifelong guaranteeing of basic economic security with a fully unconditional basic income. Plus, with that guarantee achieved, the fear of technological unemployment becomes the goal of technological unemployment. Why stress about automation, when we could embrace it?

No more fight-or-flight.

It’s time for live long and prosper.


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Special thanks to Arjun Banker, Steven Grimm, Larry Cohen, Aaron Marcus-Kubitza, Joel Cabrera, Andy Stern, Patrick, Stephane Boisvert, Albert Wenger, Richard Just, Topher Hunt, Chris Smothers, Chris Hughes, Joel Leoj, Jeff Marshall, Mark Witham, Gisele Huff, Lainie Petersen, Vladimir Baranov, Victor Vurpillat, Catherine MacDonald, David Ihnen, Danielle and Michael Texeira, Katie Doemland, Paul Wicks, Jan Smole, Joe Esposito, Jack Wagner, Joe Ballou, Stuart Matthews, Natalie Foster, Chris McCoy, Michael Honey, Gary Aranovich, Kai Wong, Louise Whitmore, Dan O’Sullivan, Harish Venkatesan, Michiel Dral, Gerald Huff, Cameron Ottens, Allan Free, Gray Scott, Saura Naderi, Andreas, Kevin Baker, David Bijl, Lawrence W Lee, Kirk Israel, Robert Solovay, Jeff Schulman, Andrew Henderson, Robert F. Greene, Martin Jordo, Victor Lau, Shane Gordon, Paolo Narciso, Johan Grahn, Tony DeStefano, Erhan Altay, Rise & Shine PAC, Luke Sampson, Lee Irving, Kris Roadruck, Amy Shaffer, Thomas Welsh, Casey Young, Elizabeth Balcar, Allen Bauer, all my other funders for their support, and my amazing partner, Katie Smith.

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Scott Santens writes about basic income on his blog. You can also follow him here on Medium, on Twitter, on Facebook, or on Reddit where he is a moderator for the /r/BasicIncome community of over 35,000 subscribers.

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