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Philosophy of Happiness October 10, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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Remember the ’60s and ’70s? Some of us do, and one of the things we remember is the philosophical/existential  focus on the phenomena of dread/angst and dying. And yet, despite the Vietnam War, assassinations, unrest and fear of the future, the ’60s and ’70s were a pretty upbeat time—people had money, spent money, traveled, bought homes, got into getting an education, and weren’t all that much worried about dread in their everyday lives. But now? A focal shift from the philosophy of death and dying, and the sadness of ubiquitous dread, to an intense studying of the phenomenon of happiness—while our economy is tanking, unemployment is high, homes are being foreclosed, and we are really worried about the future. We’re not upbeat alt all these days, and yet (and so?) we want to know about happiness. There’s an interesting paradoxical correlation going on—like the the famous analysis of hemlines going up in bull market times, and down in a bear market.

We’ve touched on the issue of happiness on several occasions here on this blog, of course, and so I want to share an Op-Ed piece with you from the New York Times by philosopher David Sosa, asking the question of the nature of happiness: is it a state of mind? A byproduct of an experience? A chemical reaction? Robert Nozick started the ball rolling in 1974 when most Western philosopher were worried about unhappiness:

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 [The Matrix], for that matter — points to an interesting hypothesis: Happiness is not a state of mind.

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 havingthe 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.

Happiness, says Sosa, is not the experience of a feeling, but the feeling as a response to reality. If you could be under the illusion of being successful, or of being in love, and being loved, in a simulated reality, would that be preferable to the actual situation of tough accomplishments, or loving a flesh-and-blood person? No work, no heartaches, no break-ups, no pregnancy worries—in other words, only pleasure, and none of the pesky real stuff. But it wouldn’t be happiness—not the Aristotelian kind, of eudaimonic flourishing.

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.

I agree with Sosa—he isn’t the first person to point these things out (I’ve written about them myself in The Human Condition) but it’s enjoyable to see such a well-written analysis of an interesting question. What concerns me, though, are some of the comments to his piece. Apparently the idea that happiness is “just” a state of mind, and reality isn’t really there, anyway, has become the default view among (what I assume to be) young thinkers. Now that worries me…

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