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Which Is More Important: Truth or Happiness?

Could it be that Truth leads to Happiness and vice versa?

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In one of my favorite scenes from the movie The Matrix, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) poses Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) with a choice between two pills—a red pill and a blue pill. "Take the blue pill," says Morpheus, "and the story ends [here]. You awake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe."

"You take the red pill," he continues, "you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: All I'm offering is the truth, nothing more."

Morpheus thus offers Neo a choice between "life as usual," and "knowing the Truth."

If offered a similar choice, most of us would, I imagine, choose as Neo did: take the red (Truth) pill.

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Let me now act like Morpheus and pose a slightly different—and more difficult—question to you: supposing I offer you the choice between "knowing the Truth" and "being Happy." If you choose the former, you will know the answers to all of life's big questions, such as, "Is there a God?" "What is the purpose of life?" etc., but you may not be happy. If you choose the latter, you will lead a happy and fulfilling life from this moment forward, but you may never know the answers to life's big questions.

Which would you choose?

Over the past two years, I have routinely posed this question to the students in my Creativity and Leadership class and, generally speaking, my students slightly favor Happiness to Truth. Specifically, about 58% of the students choose "Happiness," and the rest (about 42%) choose "Truth."

At first blush, this result might appear to contradict what the happiness researchers say, namely, that happiness is everyone's most important goal. It would seem, from my results, that quite a few people are more interested in knowing the Truth than in being Happy.

However, such a conclusion is not necessarily valid. To understand why, consider what Yaacov Trope and I found in a series of studies we conducted. In our studies, we first put participants in a happy or sad mood. Then, we asked participants to read an essay about the effects of caffeine consumption. The essay highlighted both positive effects of caffeine consumption ("caffeine promotes mental alertness," "caffeine can help avert Alzheimer's," etc.) as well as negative effects ("caffeine makes you nervous and jittery," "caffeine can cause cancer," etc.).

What we wanted to test was this: Would peoples' mood-state make a difference to their receptivity to the negative information about caffeine? Specifically, would happy or sad participants be more willing to process negative information about caffeine?

Our findings revealed that participants' mood did make a difference to their receptivity to negative information: Participants in a positive mood were more likely to process negative effects of caffeine consumption. Participants in a negative mood, on the other hand, were much more likely to process positive information about caffeine. These results suggest that participants in a negative mood were much more interested in "repairing" their mood (i.e., becoming more "happy"), whereas those in a positive mood were more receptive to the "truth" (in this case, about the effects of caffeine consumption).

These results have important implications for the circumstances under which people are like to choose Truth over Happiness. Specifically, it suggests that people may be more willing to seek Truth only if they are feeling sufficiently happy and not otherwise. This, in fact, turned out to be the case with my students as well: those who chose Truth were, at the time of making the choice, less stressed out and more happy than those who chose Happiness.

What this suggests is that there is a hierarchy to the order in which people seek Happiness vs. Truth: Happiness is sought first, and only after a "critical level" of happiness has been achieved does one have an appetite for Truth. In other words, Happiness does seem to be a more important goal than is the Truth for most people, but, once Happiness is achieved, Truth-seeking becomes more important.

All his leaves one important questioned unanswered, however: What is the correlation between knowing the Truth and being happy? In an earlier post, I had mentioned how many smart people are not necessarily happy. In other posts, I discussed how beauty and brains, or tastiness and healthiness, and effectiveness and ethicality, may be at cross purposes. Is there a similar inverse correlation between knowing the Truth and being Happy? Specifically, are those who know the Truth likely to be less happy?

Not according to most of the world's religious and spiritual traditions. Hinduism, and the Advaita philosophy in particular, explicitly suggests that one's true nature is bliss, as does Buddhism. Christianity too, in stating that the "Kingdom of God is within you," appears to suggest that knowing the Truth is tantamount to experiencing eternal bliss.

This then suggests that the task of choosing between Truth and Happiness may be one of those trick questions: Regardless of which you choose, you would arrive at the other! So, the choice between Truth and Happiness may not be such a difficult one after all; if the religious traditions are to be believed, you can't go wrong with either.


Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

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