Does Happiness Have To Be Real?

What a thought experiment can tell us about expectations of happiness

Every so often I find myself imagining that everything in my life is going perfectly to plan. My social life is vibrant, my relationships are all buoyant, and my writing is winning the best accolades in town.

But all this is just in my head. I can imagine whatever I like; it’s what happens in reality that counts. Or is it?

There is a thought experiment put forward by the philosopher Robert Nozick known as the ‘experience machine’. This is a device that can give you all the experiences you most desire. You just tell the engineers what you want to happen to you and they code it into the machine.

The catch is that the experiences are not real but simulated through electrodes to your brain; your body is floating in a tank whilst your perfect-life is projected onto your consciousness by a very clever computer. Every two years or so, Nozick explains, you awake from your suspension and for a few hours, select the experiences you want for the next two years of your life. The question Nozick asks is simple: would you choose to live your life like this? Would you plug into the experience machine?

Nozick was a political philosopher who wanted to use the experience machine as a way to point out that happiness is not the only consideration for making decisions. He was arguing against the maxim of classical Utilitarianism, which states that so long as a choice produces happiness, then it can be considered morally good. Nozick wants us to appreciate the dilemma here, that it is not at all obvious that we should hand over our lives to the pursuit of happiness if it means that something else — perhaps something more fundamental — is lost. The authentic experience of ups-and-downs in life may have more value, even than an endless feast of engineered pleasures.

In fact, Nozick argues that most of us would choose against the machine under the belief that the task of life consists primarily in being ourselves. “Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide,” he writes, imagining that the few minutes between pluggings, when you’re choosing what comes next, would be full of distress. (The idea is that while you’re in the tank you’re not aware of it; you think you are living normally, albeit wonderfully.) It’s in the moment’s pause between suspensions that our doubts turn into genuine concerns, about what life is really for. Is a pretend life a life at all?

I wonder if many of us already live in a kind of experience machine anyway. The make-believe world of advertising, for instance, lures us into all manner of precarious expectations about our future happiness, largely based on prompting envy and insecurity in ourselves. We get a sudden glimpse of the elusive pearl before being asked to part with our cash to obtain it. Does the concept of the experience machine glamorize happiness in the same way?

Thinking about the experience machine, for me, also prompts the question of how one’s happiness might be engineered like this. What assumptions are we making about happiness when we think about a device like this?

Happiness tends to be equated with feelings of pleasure or contentment, as a result of being successful, when you get what you want, when you’re satisfied, or when you do good for others, or when your needs for love and attention are met. The basis of these experiences may not be reality as such — as if one could point to such a thing — but a complex mapping of past memories and future hopes, about our idea of ourselves and about other people’s perception of ourselves, about overcoming hardships, surviving a testing ordeal, having learnt something new: in short, evolving as person.

The experience machine, then, begins to emerge as a dubious invitation. For how could you begin to engineer happiness without the crucial sense of growth and triumph-over-adversity inherent to real life? Could you even grow bored of too much happiness? Could it be a disappointment? Perhaps if you were going to enter the experience machine you should consider prefacing your most desired experiences with a few set-backs in order to arrive at a sweeter joy in the long run?

The conclusion I draw is this: If you’re interested in life, then you must be interested in reality. A worthwhile life consists in living our own lives, with all the peaks and troughs, efforts, disappointments and successes that entails. Such a life is measured not on levels of happiness but on the achievement of living freely and wisely. The Greek philosopher Epictetus, in his Discourses on Stoicism, puts it better:

“Make up your mind, therefore, before it is too late, that the fitting thing for you to do is to live as a mature person who is making progress […] And if you meet anything that is laborious, or sweet, or held in high repute, remember that now is the contest, and here before you are the Olympic games, and that it is impossible to delay any longer.”

Christopher P Jones writes about culture, art and life at his website. Sign up for more.

Art historian, critic, novelist, artist. Author of Berlin Tales:

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