Why Happiness Can’t Be Faked
The Experience Machine thought experiment
Every so often I find myself imagining that everything in my life is going perfectly to plan. My relationships are bouyant, my social life is all dinner parties and wine evenings, and my work is winning the best accolades around.
My imagination can do this. It can conjure effects that don’t match reality. But all this is just in my head. I can imagine whatever I like; it’s what happens in reality that counts, isn’t it?
There is a thought experiment put forward by the philosopher Robert Nozick known as the Experience Machine.
The ideas is that the Experience Machine is a device that can give you all the experiences you most desire. You create the perfect life. 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 ideal-life is projected onto your consciousness by a very powerful computer. It’s like a perfectly rendered virtual-reality machine.
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. Then, whilst you’re in the machine, the virtual experiences are so real-seeming that you don’t know they’re virtual. You simply think that these remarkable events are your own 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 wanted to construct an argument against the idea 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 plug-ins, when you’re choosing what comes next, would be full of misgivings. It’s in the moment’s pause between suspensions that your doubts might turn into genuine concerns, about what life is really for and what makes it valuable. Is a pretend life a good 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 the excitement envy — at the expense of our inner peace. We get a sudden glimpse of an elusive pearl before being asked to part with our cash to obtain it. I suspect that the concept of the Experience Machine glamorises happiness in the same way.
Thinking about the Experience Machine, for me, also prompts the question of how my happiness could actually be engineered like this. What assumptions must be made about my happiness when I think about a device like this?
Happiness tends to be equated with feelings of pleasure or excitement, as a result of being successful, when we get what we want, when we receive good news, or when our needs for love and attention are met. The basis of these experiences may not be reality as such — if it’s possible to 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 an unreal 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? Might you feel a bit sick at too much of the good-life, like when you’ve eaten too many sweat cakes (which seemed like such a good idea in the first place).
Could the Experience Machine actually be a disappointment? Life inside the machine is all too easy, and you get a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction from a lack of genuine occupation or excitement. Perhaps if you were going to enter the 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 real life entails.
Such a life is measured not on levels of happiness but on the achievement of living freely and wisely, always on the threshold between knowledge and uncertainty.