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Generative AI and the ARC of Happiness – Dr Paul Marsden

Paul Marsden

Generated AI, this new revolution in AI, is technology that doesn’t simply behave intelligently, but it’s technology that behaves creatively using skills associated with human creativity. So, it can create genuinely new and surprising output that’s either useful, beautiful, or thought provoking, which is kind of the definition of what creativity is. 

Dr. Paul Marsden, CPsychol

It is impossible to ignore the rapid rise and adoption of Generative AI programs, like chat GPT and Midjourney. At Freedom, we are fascinated with the conversation about whether these tools will support or undermine digital wellbeing and productivity, and the impact that they will have for the future of work. The likelihood is that it will depend a lot on how thoughtfully we use them.

In this episode we welcome consumer psychologist, Dr Paul Marsden, to discuss this very issue. As a positive psychologist, he believes that technology should be designed to support the ARC of happiness, and that there is huge potential for the positive application of generative AI. We are no longer in a situation where AI will simply replace menial, repetitive tasks; it is being proven to be incredibly creative.

We discuss:

  • Autonomy, Relatedness and Competency in technology
  • The rise of generative AI, it’s creative applications and how it is beating humans
  • How generative AI provides insight into the human psyche
  • The place for generative AI and how we can use it for good.

Dr Paul Marsden (CPsychol) is a consultant psychologist specialising on the psychological effects of technology on we think, feel and behave. Paul works with businesses to help them understand how tech transforms people’s expectations, relationships and experiences. Paul appeared as himself in the 2022 award-winning movie ‘I am Gen Z’ – a documentary film on teens, tech and wellbeing, and has recently completed a study for WPP digital agency, SYZYGY, on how people feel and respond to new AI technology like ChatGPT.

Learn more about Paul and his work:

Imagine: Public Perceptions of Generative AI in Germany (Survey on the Public Perceptions of Generative AI in Germany – SYZYGY GROUP)
I am Gen Z: I Am Gen Z

Freedom Matters Host and Producer: Georgie Powell 

Sentient Digital

Music and audio production: Phil Amalong | Toccare 

Philip Amalong


Paul: We thought the future of AI, we thought it would be just like the menial, low grade, low paid tasks will be automated by technology that behaves intelligently using very basic skills associated with the human intelligence and the ability to sense what’s going on, learn from its environment and its experience. 

But actually no, it’s that bit of humanity that we thought was special and unique to humans, which is our ability to be curious and to be creative and to create new things. And what this technology has just shown us is that actually machines are brilliant. They’re winning. 

AI designers are winning fashion contests. AI photographers generating photographs that are actually synthetic photographs, they’re not of anything, but they are photorealistic. They’re winning photo competitions. Fine art competitions are being won by AI over humans. It turns out that AI is really good at being creative.

Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each episode, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired, so let’s get to it.

This week, I’m speaking with Paul Marsden, a consultant psychologist specializing in the effects of technology on how we think, feel, and behave. Paul works with businesses to help them understand how tech transforms people’s expectations, their relationships and experiences. 

In 2022, he appeared in the award winning movie, I Am Gen Z, a documentary film on teens, tech and well-being, and has recently completed a study for WPP agency, SYZYGY, on how people feel and respond to new AI technology like Chat GPT. 

In this episode, we discussed the arc of happiness, why the scare mongering around screen time might be misleading, and how generative AI is a powerful tool for better understanding the human psyche. 

Paul, welcome to the Freedom Matters podcast. It’s great to have you here. 

Paul: Georgie, really looking forward to chatting with you today. 

Georgie: To kick off, can you explain to me your role as a psychologist and particularly a role as a positive psychologist. 

Paul: Yeah. I’m a consumer psychologist and so I’ve been working since the 20th century, I’m that old, with brands helping them understand what consumers want. And it always struck me as somebody coming from a psychological background, is that marketers have a really kind of negative Debbie Downer downbeat view on the world. 

They’re always looking at people’s problems, their pain points, what’s wrong. And there’s a whole area in psychology that just focuses on what’s right about humans, what’s right about the world, what makes life worth living and its positive psychology, which is the science of feeling good and functioning well, basically. 

And so what I do, what I’ve been doing for a couple of decades, is actually just applying insights from this science of effectively happiness. For brands, helping them understand how they can promote and have a positive effect on human well-being. And it’s with different niche because whilst everybody is focusing on, okay. What’s my customer problem? What’s my pain point? 

You say, you actually look at pleasure points rather than looking at people’s problems. You look at their goals and their aspirations and their hopes. And it’s just a nicer way to live a career when you’re focusing on the positive side of things and you see the beauty in the world rather than see the disarray and destruction. 

Georgie: But you did quite early on start to notice that the way that we’re using technology had its downfalls, had its negativities that didn’t necessarily give us those kind of happiness cues that you thought we should be getting from the way that we use technology, I think. 

And that’s why you’re starting to talk more and more about what I believe you’re calling the arc of happiness, and what is referred to as the arc of happiness in self-determination theory. 

Paul: Yeah. Psychologists love models, and there are lots of models out there around what drives human beings, what are our basic needs, psychological needs, emotional needs. But one foundational model that has been validated pretty much around the globe that is basically the cornerstone of the foundation of positive psychology, a thing called self-determination theory, and it’s got two major benefits. 

Firstly, it is evidence based, it’s been tested. But more importantly for marketers, it’s really simple and simple to apply and it simply says that amongst the myriad of personal needs and desires and goals people have, there are three foundational things that drive our happiness and well-being. 

And that’s just having a sense of personal autonomy that we are autonomous individuals, and we can behave authentically and that we have a sense of freedom and control over our lives. And actually, when, if you’ve ever been in a kind of relationship where you’re feeling controlled, whether it be another person or a bit of technology controlling you, it actually undermines your well-being. And that sense of autonomy is absolutely key. 

Secondly, in this very simple, but powerful model of human well-being, it’s having a sense of relatedness. We’re all born alone and we all pretty much die alone. And we spend the intermediary period desperately trying not to be alone. We are social animals. We are more intelligent, we’re more happy when we’re with other people. 

And this is a study, US Study, the longest study of human well-being, what drives human well-being that dates back 80 years. And their key finding is actually having positive, rewarding, deep personal relationships, not lots of them, but a few really positive relationships. That is, it not only drives mental health, but also your physical health. Having a sense of alertness is key. 

And then finally, the C in this arc of happiness as I call it as a mnemonic A, R, and C is having a sense of competence. None of us like to feel dumb, and all of us like to feel, okay, we made a smart decision. We are cognitive creatures and we literally, cerebrally, and neurally get off on actually being right and feeling smart. 

And so we have a sense of competence that we know we’ve been shopping, we found that little black dress or we found that amazing deal and that has actually drives well-being. Or being competent in a relationship. 

Clinically depression in, especially related to relationships, it means your relationship with your work or with somebody else is probably you’re not feeling competent in it. You’re not behaving competent and you’re investing all this time in a job, you’re investing all this time in another person and you’re not getting any positive return on it. So, you feel incompetent. 

And clinically, what happens in depression is that your body just shuts down and saying, look, stop it, Paul and stop it, Georgie, you’re investing in the wrong person, the wrong job, the wrong activity because you’re not being smart about it. So, it really is part of our human psyche, this idea of being competent. And so these three things drive our well-being. And once you’ve got that lens, you can apply it. 

Now to circle back to your question about technology. Technology has a fantastic opportunity to increase people’s autonomy. It empowers us. We can get what we like, what we wanted, just like having another arm, but it can also shut down our autonomy. Think about autonomous vehicles, think about the algorithms on social media that control your attention, control your time and to a degree, control your responses. 

Think about relatedness. If you’re like most people in the research that I’ve recently done, the first thing you touch in the morning is not another human being, it’s a bit of silicon. It’s your mobile phone. And the last thing you touch at night is not going to be another human being. It’s going to be a bit of silicon. 

And what does technology do when we have more screen time rather than actual human time, face to face time? And so technology can bring people together and social media can do that. But it can also pull people apart and make people more isolated. And social isolation is one of the biggest predictors of depression and deliberate self-harm, and all manner of psychological problems. 

And then thirdly competence, if you think about — technology allows you to do amazing things. I’m a really rubbish artist, but I’m loving these new AI tools mid journey because I can use words and I can play with words. I’m not too bad at that. 

And you can turn what you can imagine, your words, you can turn your imagination into fabulous things, so you can actually turn somebody with zero artistic capability or competence into somebody who’s actually relatively good. I’ll never be a fabulous artist, but it actually makes me feel more competent. But at the same time, all these artists are being replaced. So, I think it’s a twin thing. 

So, where I stand on the well-being debate and digital well-being debate in particular, is a midpoint saying that we can use technology to improve and bolster our arc of happiness, to improve autonomy, relatedness, and competence. 

That is this positive technology vision, but technology can also undermine our arc of happiness and undermine our sense of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. And it’s up to us to choose how we do it. Sorry, very long answer, but it’s something that really excites me. 

Georgie: No. It’s fabulous. And what I’ve been thinking about recently is the double layers of interaction because what jogged me on this was John Mack’s presentation about a species between worlds. And I went to see him do a lecture recently where he referenced your article, where you look at how Pokemon Go was so attractive because it basically hit all the elements of the arc of happiness. 

It gave you a sense of autonomy, they felt related, they felt competent, and it was one of the things that made it so compelling and so addictive. And a lot of the products that we use individually might satisfy us from an arc happiness perspective. But the challenge is that collectively, they don’t. 

And I guess what I’m trying to work out in my head is these two layers between how single products might be able to satisfy us. But collectively, it then means that our days or the way that we spend our time or how we think, how it exists to society isn’t necessarily as we intended, and our relatedness and our competency is lost. 

Paul: Yeah. I think you’re right. I think it’s smart to look at different levels at an individual level. And I think it’s probably from a solution or psychological sense, it’s just about satisfying us. It’s about enabling us. It’s about you think of technology as an enabler, saying it’s like a musical instrument. 

A musical instrument will take a musical ability and just make it better, make it real. And good technology extends and supports happiness and well-being. And it might do it at an individual level. But there are some, at a population level or aggregate level, some of the unintended consequences of technology. 

Or maybe perhaps in some cases intended consequences such as it through the attention economy, through algorithms based on their ability to create grievances, to catastrophize, to sensationalize, and then have a kind of a negative loop effect. Then you feel less competent because you just wake up and you look up after an hour of TikTok and you think, well, I’ve just lost an hour of my life. And so you feel actually not smart about living your life. 

Georgie: Recently, Paul has helped publish some research with SYZYGY which explores consumer perceptions to creative applications of generative AI. I asked Paul to talk a little about what he was finding fascinating about this new wave of tech. 

Paul: We know that there is something big going on, the big hype cycle around AI and particularly this generative AI. So, it’s AI that generates new things. Your granddaddy’s AI, which is just technology that behaves intelligently using skills associated with human intelligence. So, like, for sensing, learning, reasoning, ect. 

Generated AI, this new revolution in AI, is technology that doesn’t simply behave intelligently, but it’s technology that behaves creatively using skills associated with human creativity. So, it can create genuinely new and surprising output that’s either useful, beautiful, or thought provoking, which is kind of the definition of what creativity is. 

It’s basically just like sophisticated autocomplete. You know, when you’re typing into a search thing, basically, they will finish your phrase when you’re searching for something. Generative AI does that. It looks for what it expects either the next pixel to be and generating art, or what the next word is when you’re generating a sentence or a lyric or a poem. 

And it makes its prediction based on large language models of things people have spoken about. And people diss it as being this is just a sophisticated auto complete, it’s not smart. But actually, if you’re a psychologist, the first thing you recognize is that that’s what humans are, we’re sophisticated, autocompletes. 

It’s like we will respond to a particular situation or a stimulus or a person, mostly, habitually, mostly based on what do I expect to say next? And so what this technology actually does give, it probably gives us as much as an insight into how the human mind works and how human creativity works as it does to machine creativity. And it stands to transform the world. 

And I went to the robot hotel in Japan, absolutely amazing place. You go and you get checked in by a robot. You got a little robot to take you to your room. Your room’s got a kind of an Alexa device thing and cute Japanese thing will talk to you only in Japanese, so it makes it really difficult if you’re not Native Japanese speaking. 

The only thing that was actually human was the poor human cleaner who was wiping the windows. And you think, whoa, is this the future where AI does all the kind of creative cool stuff, and we just do the manual stuff. And we see it’s like still [inaudible 00:13:37] I do stuff. It’s like one of the really called things is to fold a T-shirt. Machines are really bad at it, but actually humans are really good at it, and that dexterity of making moves in robotics, but it’s tough. 

But it’s transforming what we thought would be the future of AI, which we thought it would be just like the menial, low grade, low paid tasks would be automated by technology that behaves intelligently using very basic skills associated with the human intelligence and ability to sense what’s going on, learn from its environment, and its experience. 

But actually, no, it’s that bit of humanity that we thought was special and unique to humans, which is our ability to be curious and to be creative and to create new things. And what this technology has just shown us is that actually machines are brilliant. They’re winning. AI designers are winning fashion contests. 

AI photographers are generating photographs that are actually synthetic photographs, they’re not of anything, but they are photorealistic. They’re winning photo competitions. Fine art competitions are being won by AI over humans. It turns out that AI is really good at being creative. 

So, the study that we’ve just done with WPP Digital, SYZYGY, which is part of WPP Digital, is actually looking at people’s perceptions of machine creativity. Why do they got to think of these machines behaving creatively? Because that’s the bit that was supposed to be left for us, the cool bit. And actually, turns out the machines are really quite good at it. What do people think? 

And the big finding is that actually, at least in Germany, this is a national survey of over a thousand runners, it’s a representative survey, people are actually positive about it. Most people think that this will actually make humans more creative and that will actually extend their own creativity. 

So, you’ve got 24% of people who would actually like to use generative AI to create a digital clone of themselves so when they’re dead, they can continue to interact with people. And that’s actually a real AI service. It’s called 

And you’ve got a technology called Deep Nostalgia that actually can animate a photo of a lost loved one and turn it to a video and the new technology will allow you soon to be able to upload their voice. You’ve got a snippet of their voice and they can talk to you. And one in four people are actually — want to use this really creative use of this technology. 

But the big finding of the study is, yep, green light to brands, to companies. If you as a human can imagine it, getting to the point where AI can create it. If you can imagine it, AI can create it. What a fabulous world to live in?

Georgie: It is. It’s really nice to talk to someone who’s positive about it because it is also quite scary. So, a lot of the conversations we have are around the challenges at the moment with the internet are that we’re basically overwhelmed. We’re overwhelmed with information, we’re overwhelmed with content. The content that rises to the top is the content that’s most likely to grab our attention. 

It is often more extreme or it’s exactly what we’re looking for, which can be a good thing. It’s not always a bad thing. Obviously, with these tools, the volume of content that’s available is exploding. We’re already seeing it. And so I’m quite interested in how the content landscape becomes curated in a world where it’s not an ocean anymore, it’s a universe of content. Is that something that you’ve thought much about? 

Paul: Yeah, 100%. All the time. It is just fundamentally changing the way that we create — we communicate with people. Because you just got this explosion of content that is going to be generated by AI that is going to be smart. My best friend now is GPT 4, and they used their open AI. And you can do some really clever prompts. 

So, for example, you can create a prompt which lists all the human fallibility’s in terms of cognitive biases, decision things. And you just simply say, you are a behavioral scientist and you have encyclopedic knowledge of all the different cognitive biases. Come up with a way to manipulate or present or communicate a particular product that will have the most effect. 

And it is just brilliant. It’s building on the world’s encyclopedic knowledge in a way that no human expert can do. And so not only is it the sheer volume of stuff, you know, SEO is going to just change because in the next few years, most of the content that is actually available will be machine generated rather than human generated. And so how do you sift through all that? 

But it’s actually really good and it’s compelling. That’s for me, that’s the worrying thing, it’s just that it’s better at communicating, better at capturing our attention, better at persuading us to act in a particular way than maybe humans are. So, I think the real challenge is especially for disinformation, we’ve got the US elections coming up, ect. And I just think we’ll see a whole new wave of really, really smart disinformation.

And so what do we do about that? And I think the answer is that you can diss the idea of solving technology problems with technology. But I think the way that Apple are looking at this technology, trying to keep it personalized AI technology on a device. And if you think, I love the phrase, I can’t remember who said it, but it’s wonderful. 

And so I’m going to steal it with pride saying, rather than think of this technology as ecosystems, AI technology is creating a new technology ecosystem, the future is actually about building ego-systems. And your ego-system is your personalized AI system that will help you filter through and help you make smarter decisions based on your best interests. So, rather than us kind of an Alexa or Siri that is the parameters are made for humanity. 

Actually, based on what’s best for you in your particular situation, your personality and your history. And so if we can start thinking of our own personal AI assistant, I think that’s the way that we’re going to be able to filter out, not only the volume that you talk about that is just going to complete, or just the amount of information that we’re going to, that’s going to be created in the next few years, it’s just unimaginable. 

There’s going to be smart information to actually have your own personal assistant that actually acts as a secretary who filters out this stuff and say oh, this is actually really interesting thinking of an AI as a kind of a noise filter, I think, is probably a smart way and a personal assistant, a real tutor counselor therapist that. Everybody has onboard personal and private on their smartphone, I think, is going to be the way forward so we can actually profit from this amazing, amazing revolution. 

Think of everybody, think of all the people who don’t have access to great medical, for a doctor, medical care. If you’ve got a smartphone, you’re going to have a really smart doctor on there. Same with mental health, they have your therapist, the same with education, tutor actually adapting to the way that you learn and your own cognitive abilities, it’s just going to be fabulous. 

Georgie: It was at this point in the conversation that I was really sorry we didn’t have another five hours because things are starting to get interesting. But I had to circle back and challenge Paul. I can see how a personal AI would be really useful, but what happens to our autonomy? Is this not just a case of the autonomous vehicle on steroids? 

Paul: I think then you get into real existential problems, like what is freedom? Do we have free will? Because I’m not sure how you met your partner, but mine it was just complete happenstance. So, it was very uncreative at work that it used to happen. Now it’s done via app. And so to what degree really are we in control of what happens? 

Because, yes, we have our own decisions that we make, but the happenstance of the circumstances, and the context we’re not in control ourselves. What we can do is make informed decisions and we can make decisions that are authentic, autonomous if our onboard AI therapist, counselor, tutor, confidante…if it actually acts in your best interest and is importantly explicit, if it shows how it generated its particular recommendation or that it’s filter, then you can have the ability to take control and say, no, I want more of this. I want less of that. I think it’s giving people control and you can only give people control when they can make informed decisions; opening up the black box, not black boxing technologies. 

So, if your friendly therapist, Lexi, onboard says, okay, Georgie, I think maybe consider this. If it then says the reason why I’m saying this is because stuff that you’ve done in the past or the reasons for your decision, then you can take it as an adviser. There’s a difference between an adviser and a controller. And I think the adviser role is when it actually shows it’s working. Doesn’t simply come up with a solution. 

It says, this is how I got to this recommendation, and you can then make an informed decision, and you can actually know that it’s smart, competence, autonomous because you’re in control. And then the relatedness can also come in because it’s about often our decisions about how we relate to other people and just — And if you’re onboard to Lexi therapy, you can actually say, look, this happened last time, think about what happened.

So, think of it in terms of cognitive, behavioral therapy, learning smart, positive, cognitive tricks in order to navigate the world in a more fulfilling and happy way. 

George: But I think what you’ve just said is going to prompt so much thought amongst different listeners in different ways. And I really, really can’t quite share it. I think for me, I’m just thinking we’ve got a really big job to do really quick to make sure people realize that these tools are tools and advisors for them to control, and that’s like the tipping point, right? 

It’s recognizing and making sure that people are being proactive in the way that they choose to interact with these technologies. And therefore using them in a really positive and beneficial way rather than accepting this is the default of how I now get fed content, how I now get fed information advice is just going to come at me. 

Paul: And that’s why you’re a brilliant podcaster, Georgie, because you just summarized just in 30 seconds what I’ve been babbling on about…

Georgie: No, not at all.

Paul: Yes, 100% yes. 

Georgie: I feel like there’s a lot of work to do, but this hopefully will get the work started. 

Paul: We can be positive about it. We can see the disarray and dysfunction in the world, but there’s such an amazing upside, positive side to how technology can improve people’s lives, help people feel good, function well, find meaning, find connection, find autonomy, find self-esteem through having a sense of competence in the world. 

It’s going to be based on the decisions that we decide to take. We’re in control of the future. We can decide how to use this technology and we can choose to see the beauty in the world and increase the beauty in the world. And as positive psychology that’s what I want to do. 

Georgie: Absolutely amazing. Paul, you’ve been a knockout guest. It’s been so great to connect with you again. Thank you so much for joining us on the Freedom Matters podcast. 

Paul: Thanks for inviting me. It’s been really super chatting with you. 

Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.