My teenage daughter wants to have fun all the time. I hear the word “fun” everywhere. It seems everyone wants to have fun. This has always seemed a little strange to me but maybe that’s because I was brought up in England where, compared to California, not much emphasis was placed on the importance of fun. However, fun, or the enjoyment of pleasure, is a fairly straight forward concept familiar to everyone. Most of us would have no trouble identifying the things that we would have fun doing. Understanding what it takes to achieve happiness, however, is definitely a more demanding task.
In his speech on August 6 Zen Ben Bernanke stated that gauging happiness is an important consideration for central bankers when it comes to setting economic policy. Leaving aside the hubris of Mr. Bernanke, thinking that central planners can create happiness, his definition of the concept (“a short-term state of awareness that depends on a person’s perceptions, as well as on immediate external circumstances and outcomes.”) did include the two important elements of subjective awareness and objective reality. If you saw a homeless person drunk and writhing about in the gutter boasting about how happy he was, you would be right to question whether or not he was truly happy. There is more to happiness than just subjective perceptions.
Unlike fun, happiness seems to be a state that is best achieved when one is not purposefully looking for it. Happiness is in large part the incidental effect of being engrossed in activities which are being enjoyed for their own sake, and not necessarily because of any expected pay off in terms of happiness. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi puts it in his groundbreaking work “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” happiness can be defined as “moments of self-forgetfulness when we are totally absorbed in the process of life…” I’m climbing Mt. Whitney soon but I’m not climbing it with the object of experiencing happiness although, as a by-product of the climb, I may feel happy. I’m climbing because it makes me feel more connected to nature, more aware, more alive, more human. Happiness is certainly important but it is just one of many important things in life.
If you doubt that anything could be more important to us than being happy consider the film, The Truman Show, where Truman Burbank lives his entire life in front of cameras for a T.V. show although he is totally unaware of this. Would you want to be Truman Burbank, living a near perfect life, but one based on deception and trickery? If not, ask yourself what is it that could be more important to us than how we feel, how we experience our life from the inside?
Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick, attempts to answer this question through the use of a thought experiment. Assume for the moment that I have access to an experience machine and once I attach the electrodes to your brain you can have any experience you wish and will not be able to tell the difference between the real experience, i.e. actually doing the thing you are experiencing, and the simulated experience which is being fed to you through the electrodes. Ignoring logistical questions such as who would service the machine, would you decide to plug into the machine for life? If not, why not?
Nozick suggests that one thing that matters more to most of us than experience is doing things and not just having the experience of doing them. I want to actually climb Mt. Whitney, not just experience climbing it. According to Nozick, we also want to be a certain kind of person, not just a vegetative blob passively receiving a range of experiences. What is important to us is not just how we spend our time but also what kind of person we are. Plugging ourselves into the experience machine may be great fun but it’s also a great way to diminish ourselves, to whittle away at what makes us human, to become a non-person.
“It is better to be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied” John Stuart Mill
“Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder… “ Henry David Thoreau