Pick One: Real Misery or Fake Happiness?

Why happiness may be our most important goal after all

Posted Oct 30, 2012

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Most People think Happiness is their Most Important Goal

In a survey of over 10,000 respondents from all over the world, researchers found that happiness is one of people’s most important—if not the most important—goal. I’ve done several surveys myself, in which I give respondents a list of 12 to 16 “Important Life Goals”—including goals like “being healthy,” “maintaining great relationships,” “having a successful career,” “being happy,” etc., and happiness consistently emerges as the most important goal. Several philosophers (like Aristotle), spiritual leaders (like the Dalai Lama), and psychologists (like Dan Gilbert) agree that happiness is the most important goal.

Despite this seemingly widespread agreement that happiness is a very important goal, some people are not convinced. Nozick’s thought experiment is often mentioned as an example of how happiness is not the most important goal. The thought experiment, if you haven’t already encountered it, goes something like this:

"Nozick's Machine"

Imagine that your brain is hooked up to a computer program that makes you believe that you are leading a very happy and fulfilling life. In other words, the computer program makes you believe that all kinds of good things are happening to you—e.g., you marry someone awesome, you have lovely kids, a great job and body, and are rich and famous.

Would you trade your current life for a life in which you are plugged to “Nozick’s machine”?

Most people say “No.”

Many researchers, including, Ed Diener (considered by many to be the father of the field of “Well Being”) and Robert Frank (author of the excellent book, Luxury Fever), believe that people’s reluctance to be plugged in to Nozick’s machine proves that people are not interested in being merely happy; rather, they want to be happy for the “right reasons.” Put differently, these researchers argue, Nozick’s thought experiment reveals that people want “real, authentic” happiness and not “fake, shallow” happiness.

But, I am not so sure. There are some fundamental problems with Nozicks’ thought experiment.

The first problem has to do with something known as “cold to hot” empathy gap. In short, the cold-to-hot empathy gap refers to people’s inability to empathize with how they would act or behave if they were to experience an emotional state that is different from the one they are currently experiencing. In particular, the empathy gap refers to how people in a neutral state can’t relate to how they would behave when caught in the throes of an emotional experience.

Perhaps the most common example of this empathy gap is the “pregnancy empathy gap,” which has been documented by many researchers. During the delivery process, most women—especially those who deliver a baby without the help of epidurals—swear that they won’t ever have another baby. During the “heat” of the delivery, women feel that the pain they are enduring is not worth having the baby. However, after a few months (or even weeks) have passed—and the once-pregnant women are now in a “cold” or “neutral” emotional state—they change their mind.

Another common example of the cold-to-hot empathy gap is how we forget the pain of a hangover—and the promise we made to “never drink again!”—once the hangover passes.

If you have never experienced a pregnancy or a hangover (get a life!), here’s an empathy gap with which I have no doubt you can relate: think of how much more food you order at a restaurant when you are feeling hungry than when you are not. In the state of hunger, we feel that we could eat a whole cow, but once the hunger subsides, we realize that we were mistaken. This type of empathy gap is called the “hot-to-cold” empathy gap.

According to me, the reason why people say “No” to Nozick’s machine is because of the cold-to-hot empathy gap: we can’t empathize with how we would feel if we were plugged to the machine, which is why we reject the offer to be plugged to it. Put differently, it’s a mistake to think that people’s response in a “cold” (or neutral) state is a reliable indicator of how they would respond if they were in a “hot” (happy) state. Put yet another way, if one were in fact plugged in to Nozick’s machine, and were consequently feeling deliriously happy, my hunch is that one wouldn’t want to be unplugged from the machine.

In fact, I am almost certain that most people wouldn’t want to be unplugged from Nozick’s machine. Why am I so sure? Because of the results from a thought experiment that I came up with myself, one that I call the “Anti-Nozick Thought experiment” (or ANTE for short).

Here’s how ANTE goes:

Results from ANTE Suggest that People Would Rather be "Fake Happy" than "Really Miserable"

Imagine that the life you are currently leading is a fake life. Although you think everything that is happening in your life is real, you are, in fact, merely imagining everything. In reality, your brain is hooked to a computer program and life, in reality, is far worse than you have been lead to believe. You could easily find out exactly how much worse life is is by choosing to be “unplugged” from the “anti-Nozick machine”.

Would you want to be unplugged from the anti-Nozick machine?

Among the few people I have asked this question, everyone says, “No”. That is, it appears that people would rather continue believing that life as they know it is the real life, rather than be unplugged and discover how much worse life is.

ANTE highlights two additional and inter-related problems with Nowick’s thought experiment. It reveals that the desire for “being happy for the right reasons” may not be the real reason that keeps people from choosing to be plugged in to Nozick’s machine. After all, if people would rather experience “real life” than experience “fake happiness,” they should choose to be unplugged from the anti-Nozick machine. Rather, it appears that people prefer the status quo—whether it is real or fake—, and don’t want to risk venturing into the unknown.

This suggests that the “fear of the unknown” may be another important reason why people do not want to be plugged to Nozick’s machine. To most people, being plugged to Nozick’s machine evokes the fear of venturing into a scarily unfamiliar territory. Who knows what price one would have to pay in return for happiness? Perhaps being plugged to the machine will come at a cost to one’s physical health or to the health of one’s relationships, etc.

All of this doesn’t prove that happiness is people’s most important goal. It is possible that other goals are more important than happiness, but people don’t know or can’t articulate what these goals are. It is also possible that people don’t want to be “merely” happy and they want to be happy for the right reasons. However, what the preceding discussion suggests is that Nozick’s thought experiment isn’t sufficient to conclude that happiness isn’t our most important goal, or that people want to be happy for the right reasons.

Till a better thought-experiment comes along, we’ll just have to believe people when they say that happiness is their most important goal.

Interested in these topics? Go here for my new (and free!) online course on happiness