You’re trapped in a goop-filled pod that feeds electrical impulses to your brain. Your beliefs and experiences—that you’re reading a text, that you’re sitting in a chair, that you’re wearing pants—are systematically misleading. There’s no text, no chair, no pants. You’re in “The Matrix.” That’s a main plot line of a popular 1999 science fiction movie of the same name.
The idea that all our experiences might be simulated goes back in philosophy at least to Descartes (1596-1650). It's a conceit that raises a lot of interesting questions. One is about happy lives (Nozick 1974). Start with a distinction:
You can have happy feelings, such as pride, joy, pleasure, ecstasy, in the Matrix. But does the Matrix put a damper on how happy your life can be—on how good or valuable your life is for you?
Suppose Richard is in the Matrix, and Anthony lives in the real world. Their subjective lives are identical. Despite having the same (mostly positive) experiences, are their lives equally happy (equally good or valuable for them)? You might embrace one of two positions.
Objectivism: Anthony is happier than Richard. That’s not to say Richard is bereft of happiness. But your life is better for you if it contains real successes and relationships, if you exercise genuine virtues, and if your positive attitudes about the world are supported by facts. And so the Matrix makes Richard’s life less valuable for him than it otherwise might have been.
Subjectivism: Anthony and Richard are equally happy. They experience the world in exactly the same ways, and so neither is upset by thinking he’s in the Matrix. From an outsider's perspective, Richard’s life might not be as good as Anthony’s. But being in the Matrix is irrelevant to how good Richard’s life is for Richard. For Richard, his life is just as good as Anthony’s.
Most philosophers are objectivists. A 2010 study found that most laypeople are subjectivists (De Brigard). What's your view? For years, I was stridently ambivalent. I could see both sides. What I couldn’t see is why I should pick one side rather than the other. If you have a firm opinion, you can perhaps appreciate my principled wishy-washiness by asking: What evidence would you appeal to—what facts would you present—to show me you’re right?
Philosophers try to resolve this debate by building theories. They hope to uncover a theory so powerful and so convincing that it'll settle the debate once and for all. But this strategy has failed for centuries. And it will continue to fail. To see why, you have to appreciate a fundamental fact about philosophy: Philosophers are great at building elegant theories that capture their own pre-set judgments. That’s why philosophy generates lots of theories but little consensus.
We need a different approach. We need to ask our theories of happiness to explain something besides our opinions about happiness. But what? I have a proposal. It relies on an assumption I hope you find obvious:
Psychologists study happy lives, too.
Psychologists investigate happy lives using standard scientific techniques. I’m not just saying that psychologists study and measure happy (pleasant) feelings. That’s uncontroversial. I’m saying that psychologists study the structure and dynamics of happy lives, lives that are good for the people who live them. This insight provides a way to break the philosophical stalemate: We can look and see what psychologists are studying when they study happy lives.
Positive psychology studies
Of course, these states don't exist in isolation. They tend to foster and build on each other. Get a critical mass of them together and they can start to form feedback loops. And then you're in a positive groove: the good things in your life today - the positive feelings, attitudes, traits, and accomplishments—have a settled tendency to bring you more good things tomorrow.
Positive psychology studies happy lives by studying positive grooves.1 It seeks to understand the structure of these success-breeds-success cycles and their dynamics: the interventions that promote lasting happiness by getting—and keeping—your positive grooves up and running (e.g., Walton 2014).
A happy life is a process, a causally linked chain of events, like a spinning top. And like some processes, positive grooves have inertia—once they get going, they tend to keep going. This explains why happiness is so effortless for some people. And it explains why happiness sometimes lasts for years, even decades.
I'll bet you've already spotted the trouble for subjectivism: Accomplishments are a part of positive grooves. And they involve facts that aren't part of our subjective experience. Anthony has a satisfying career, a rich family life, and supportive friends. Richard doesn't. He's suspended in goop with wires running into his brain. Despite having all of Anthony's experiences, Richard lacks the accomplishments that are a crucial part of what makes Anthony’s life good for him. That's why Anthony is happier than Richard.
1. I defend this view of positive psychology in detail in my 2015 book, The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychology of Well-Being (Oxford University Press).
De Brigard, Felipe. 2010. If You Like it, Does It Matter if It’s Real? Philosophical Psychology 23: 43–57.
Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.
Walton, Gregory. 2014. The New Science of Wise Psychological Interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science 23, 1: 73–82.