By Raj Raghunathan Ph.D., published on November 1, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
In a classic scene from The Matrix, Laurence Fishburne offers Keanu Reeves a choice between two pills: blue, which will let him believe what he’d like, and red, which will reveal the truth about existence—and not necessarily a happy one. Opting for red, Reeves finds himself irrevocably aware of how the world really works.
Would you choose to know the full truth with all its good and bad, or stay in a curated reality and be happy?
While our version may not be action-packed and glittery, we encounter such dilemmas every day. Hearing an odd sound while driving, you decide whether to ignore it and trust the engine—or take your car to the shop and risk expensive repairs. If you suspect your partner of cheating, you might confront him, or you may prefer to keep your suspicions unconfirmed.
When I polled students at the University of Texas on this broad existential question, 58 percent chose happiness and 42 percent, truth (even at the expense of cheer). Though you might think some people are simply more set on attaining knowledge and others on feeling good, the choice can hinge on something that changes by the hour.
At the time of the survey, the 42 percent of students who chose truth reported being less stressed and in better moods than those who chose happiness. In studies that tested the query more concretely, I further investigated how momentary emotions influence this preference.
My research partner, Yaacov Trope, and I had participants read an essay about caffeine—but first, we put them in either a good or bad mood. We asked some to write about an event that made them happy or sad. Other participants took a test and received false feedback. In the happy condition, we told them they’d scored at the top; in the sad version they thought they’d done worse than most of their peers. Later, we tested their memory of both positive facts (caffeine promotes mental alertness) and the not-so-positive (caffeine can cause cancer) to see how different emotional states affected their willingness to process unpleasant truths.
Mood mattered: Those who felt upbeat were more likely to remember the unsavory effects. Sad participants, on the other hand, were much more likely to recall the hopeful points. Subconsciously, those who were feeling low “chose” a reality in which coffee is all good. Because they were sad, they were inclined to repair their mood through positive knowledge—or felt too down to handle a dose of negativity.
Our happy-condition participants, however, showed that upbeat feelings make us more receptive to the whole truth—including its unpleasant features. A hierarchy emerges: First we seek happiness. Only after we’ve tipped toward contentment are we open to hard facts.
All this leaves one big question unanswered: What is the correlation between knowing the truth and being happy?
There are many theories on cultivating contentment. One approach posits that everyday decisions build or chip away at mirth. Yet “happy smarts”—the faculty to choose enjoyment—are not correlated with other types of intelligence. A recent meta-analysis of 23 studies shows no link between the two, meaning the person who’s good at solving problems and thinking cogently (and, presumably, getting closer to the truth—even if an algebraic one) appears to be no smarter than others when it comes to choices that affect mood.
To understand how decisions affect happiness, imagine yourself at the movies. You’re halfway through a film you’ve plunked down 12 bucks to see—and you hate it. If you think watching the entire flick is the only way to avoid “wasting” money, you’ll suffer through the next hour even though the plot is duller than your dentist’s waiting room. But with happy smarts, you’ll realize that you’re $12 poorer either way, leave, and use the time you’ve snatched back for something more enjoyable.
Traditional intelligence might not play a role, yet the desire to learn and explore may be a natural upper. Fellow PT blogger Todd Kashdan has found that curious people open to stretching their knowledge and experiences report a greater sense of meaning in their lives. An exploratory mind-set, it turns out, can kick-start mirth. If knowledge seeking leads to positive feelings, we may not have to choose between truth or happiness after all.
Ask a religious person, and you’ll hear the same idea with the added gravitas of spiritual connection and historical longevity. Christianity, for instance, emphasizes the connection between accepting its truths and experiencing stellar emotions (“God is Love”).
Hinduism, and the Advaita philosophy in particular, states that one’s true nature is joy, and that the reason why many don’t recognize this is because of ignorance—because of not knowing the truth. Even the atheistic tradition of Buddhism, which holds achieving the state of Nirvana as its highest ideal, suggests that knowing the truth releases us from the prison of desire and suffering, resulting in eternal bliss.
If religious traditions are to be believed, the choice between truth and happiness may not be that difficult: One will lead to the other. But in matters more mundane than enlightenment, choose carefully. Next time the car starts making that funny noise, realize that your bad mood could be hiding a broken accelerator.
Read Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D.'s PT blog: Sapient Nature