The Spoils of Happiness

In 1974, Robert Nozick, a precocious young philosopher at Harvard, scooped “The Matrix”:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Super-duper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life experiences? […] Of course, while in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think that it’s all actually happening […] Would you plug in?. (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 3)

Nozick’s thought experiment — or the movie, for that matter — points to an interesting hypothesis: Happiness is not a state of mind.

“What is happiness?” is one of those strange questions philosophers ask, and it’s hard to answer. Philosophy, as a discipline, doesn’t agree about it. Philosophers are a contentious, disagreeable, lot by nature and training. But the question’s hard because of a problematic prejudice about what kind of thing happiness might be. I’d like to diagnose the mistake and prescribe a corrective. 

Nozick’s thought experiment asks us to make a decision about a possible circumstance. If things were thus-and-so, what would you do? Would you plug in? Some people dismiss the example because they think the very idea of that sort of decision, with respect to a hypothetical situation, is somehow bogus and can’t show anything. “These are all just hypothetical! Who cares? Get real!”

But the fact that a scenario is hypothetical doesn’t make it imponderable or worthless. Compare a simpler case: Suppose there were a fire in your building and you could either save your neighbors, who’d otherwise be trapped, by dragging them outside, or you could save your pencil, by holding on tight to that as you escaped, but not both. What would you do? I hope the answer’s easy. And that’s the point: We can, sometimes at least, answer this sort of question very easily. You are given a supposition and asked whether you would do this or that; you consider the hypothetical situation and give an answer. That’s what Nozick’s example is like.

So, would you plug in?

I think that for very many of us the answer is no. It’s Morpheus and Neo and their merry band of rebels who are the heroes of “The Matrix.” Cypher, who cuts the deal with the Agents, is a villain. And just as considering what we would grab in case of emergency can help us learn about what we value, considering whether to plug into the experience machine can help us learn about the sort of happiness we aspire to.

In refusing to plug in to Nozick’s machine, we express our deep-seated belief that the sort of thing we can get from a machine isn’t the most valuable thing we can get; it isn’t what we most deeply want, whatever we might think if we were plugged in. Life on the machine wouldn’t constitute achieving what we we’re after when we’re pursuing a happy life. There’s an important difference between having a friend and having the experience of having a friend. There’s an important difference between writing a great novel and having the experience of writing a great novel. On the machine, we would not parent children, share our love with a partner, laugh with friends (or even smile at a stranger), dance, dunk, run a marathon, quit smoking, or lose 10 pounds in time for summer. Plugged in, we would have the sorts of experience that people who actually achieve or accomplish those things have, but they would all be, in a way, false — an intellectual mirage. 

Now, of course, the difference would be lost on you if you were plugged into the machine — you wouldn’t know you weren’t really anyone’s friend. But what’s striking is that even that fact is not adequately reassuring. On the contrary it adds to the horror of the prospect. We’d be ignorant, too — duped, to boot! We wouldn’t suffer the pain of loneliness and that’s a good thing. But it would be better if we weren’t so benighted, if our experiences of friendship were the genuine article.

To put the point in a nutshell, watching your child play soccer for the first time is a great thing not because it produces a really enjoyable experience; on the contrary, what normally makes the experience so special is that it’s an experience of watching your child, playing soccer, for the first time. Sure it feels good — paralyzingly good. It matters, though, that the feeling is there as a response to the reality: the feeling by itself is the wrong sort of thing to make for a happy life.

Happiness is more like knowledge than like belief. There are lots of things we believe but don’t know. Knowledge is not just up to you, it requires the cooperation of the world beyond you — you might be mistaken. Still, even if you’re mistaken, you believe what you believe. Pleasure is like belief that way. But happiness isn’t just up to you. It also requires the cooperation of the world beyond you. Happiness, like knowledge, and unlike belief and pleasure, is not a state of mind.

Here’s one provocative consequence of this perspective on happiness. If happiness is not a state of mind, if happiness is a kind of tango between your feelings on one hand and events and things in the world around you on the other, then there’s the possibility of error about whether you’re happy. If you believe you’re experiencing pleasure or, perhaps especially, pain, then, presumably, you are. But the view of happiness here allows that “you may think you’re happy, but you’re not.”

One especially apt way of thinking about happiness — a way that’s found already in the thought of Aristotle — is in terms of “flourishing.” Take someone really flourishing in their new career, or really flourishing now that they’re off in college. The sense of the expression is not just that they feel good, but that they’re, for example, accomplishing some things and taking appropriate pleasure in those accomplishments. If they were simply sitting at home playing video games all day, even if this seemed to give them a great deal of pleasure, and even if they were not frustrated, we wouldn’t say they were flourishing. Such a life could not in the long term constitute a happy life. To live a happy life is to flourish.

A stark contrast is the life of the drug addict. He is often experiencing intense pleasure. But his is not a life we admire; it is often quite a pitiful existence. Well, one might think, it has its displeasures, being a user. There are withdrawal symptoms and that kind of thing—maybe he’s frustrated that he can’t kick the habit. But suppose that weren’t the case. Suppose the user never had to suffer any displeasure at all—had no interest in any other sort of life. How much better would that make it?

Better perhaps, but it would not be a happy life. It might be better than some others — lives filled with interminable and equally insignificant pain, for example. Better simple pleasure than pain, of course. But what’s wrong with the drug addict’s life is not just the despair he feels when he’s coming down. It’s that even when he’s feeling pleasure, that’s not a very significant fact about him. It’s just a feeling, the kind of pleasure we can imagine an animal’s having. Happiness is harder to get. It’s enjoyed after you’ve worked for something, or in the presence of people you love, or upon experiencing a magnificent work of art or performance — the kind of state that requires us to engage in real activities of certain sorts, to confront real objects and respond to them. And then, too, we shouldn’t ignore the modest happiness that can accompany pride in a clear-eyed engagement with even very painful circumstances.

We do hate to give up control over the most important things in our lives. And viewing happiness as subject to external influence limits our control — not just in the sense that whether you get to live happily might depend on how things go, but also in the sense that what happiness is is partly a matter of how things beyond you are. We might do everything we can to live happily — and have everything it takes on our part to be happy, all the right thoughts and feelings — and yet fall short, even unbeknownst to us. That’s a threatening idea. But we should be brave. Intellectual courage is as important as the other sort.

David Sosa is Louann and Larry Temple Centennial Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is chair of the department of philosophy. He is editor of the journal Analytic Philosophy and author of numerous articles. He is now completing a book, “A Table of Contents,” about how we get the world in mind.


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