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Happiness v. meaningfulness

In their second day of "Debating Human Happiness" on Slate.com, Steven Pinker and Martin Seligman ("two of America's most eminent psychologists") invoke the notion of "a meaningful life" as justification for mocking the seeming ignorance of MIT students and "the hedonistic American take on happiness" in general.

"Certainly," Pinker writes, "the difference between happiness on the one hand and a good and meaningful life on the other can't be overemphasized." But, alas, this great truth is apparently so self-evident to Pinker's awesome intellect that he doesn't see any need to explain it to the rest of us.

And I'm rather skeptical of it, to be honest. For one thing, people have reason to want to believe that life is somehow meaningful, because if they can convince themselves it's true, then they'll be much happier. For another, I don't think I know what a "meaningful" life means in the first place.

I am not what most people would call a hedonist — I like fun, but I don't really trouble myself to go out and have it — but I believe that my desire to feel good about myself and my life — to be happy — is the only real determining factor in how I live it. I think I'm a good person, but, as far as I can tell, the reason I try and treat other people well is basically because it feels good to, and it feels miserable not to. In the larger scheme of things, I want to be a certain kind of person — to live my life a certain way — and, because of that desire, the best way for me to be happy is to actually be that way. If being a good person gives my life "meaning," I'm not aware of it.

Pinker's purported evidence for the distinction between a meaningful life and a happy one is his response to a thought experiment of Robert Nozick's. His response, as he indicates on Slate, isn't universal:

Last year when I lectured to my introductory psychology class about happiness I made this point using a set of thought experiments from the late philosopher Robert Nozick. If a genie offered you the possibility of living the rest of your life in a state of sublime happiness, but you had to be asleep the whole time and dreaming, never to taste reality again, would you take it? How much extra happiness would you agree to if you had to lose a unique talent, like athletic or musical giftedness, or if you had to give up 30 IQ points? To take an extreme case, would you agree to a lifelong increment in happiness on the condition that you would be transformed into a pig? Would you agree to become happier if it meant that one of your siblings had never been born or one of your children? All these examples, I said, show that happiness is not our only goal, perhaps not even our main goal, in life.

A young woman raised her hand. "Professor Pinker?" Yes? I said. "I'd rather be a happy pig." Other hands shot up. "Me too!" "Same here!" "Pig!" "Pig!" "Pig!"

(He dismisses this possible contra-indication with a wave of his rhetorical hand: "Well, these were overworked MIT students around midterms, so we shouldn't conclude too much from this, other than that professors should think twice before asking rhetorical questions in class.")

I have a guess as to the thought experiment's flaw. It asks you to commit a sort of theoretical suicide: Would you end your life, in exchange for a happier one? I would propose an alternative thought experiment. Imagine a person, exactly like you, living in an alternate universe, leading a life exactly like yours. Also imagine another person, also exactly like you, but living not in another universe, but in a state of sublime happiness, who had everything you would want for yourself in life (including, of course, the belief that you are living in a "real" world). Which of those two people would you rather be?

[I am genuinely interested in responses, by the way (and I promise not to ask if you're a student at MIT, or how your midterms are going).]

Now, of course you could argue that, even if there is a genuine difference between Nozick's experiment and the one I just proposed, it must mean something that people don't want to kill themselves off — that they believe there is some value to their own life besides the happiness they experience. (Interestingly, by this argument, Pinker and Seligman must value their own lives more than the MIT students do. Maybe Nozick found a good test for the size of a person's ego?) But I'm not sure. There is a strong emotional reaction to even the idea of ending a life — in other words, it makes people unhappy — that could just as easily explain it.

Maybe our eminent psychologist friends would know?

October 17, 2002 12:23 PM

Comments (and TrackBacks)

Hmmm. I'd rather just be me. I wouldn't choose person A, since that's just the same as being me; and I wouldn't want to be person B, because -- um. Actually, I dunno why, except that the way you framed the question somehow makes me think that person B is in some kind of Matrix-like delusional state.

Posted by Senn on October 18, 2002 12:26 PM

I dunno why, except that the way you framed the question somehow makes me think that person B is in some kind of Matrix-like delusional state.

Yeah, I reread that today and wasn't sure if I'd put it quite right.

I think the two alternatives are, Someone exactly like you; and someone essentially like you, but with a totally happy life.

I really doubt it means something to talk about whether an alternate universe is "real" or not, but I guess it wasn't something I wanted to think about when I wrote this yesterday, and I wanted to keep as much of the thought experiment intact as possible. That was careless, and probably a mistake on my part.

Posted by M on October 18, 2002 12:52 PM

I really doubt it means something to talk about whether an alternate universe is "real" or not

As one. I read somewhere that all philosophical enquiry boils down to two questions:

1. is what I'm seeing really there?
2. what ought I to be doing?

A stubbed toe is all the answer I need to #1, for the most part; but #2 is endlessly fascinating. Ought I try to be happy? What then is happiness? In re: the thought experiment as you restated it, I would say that I already have as much of a totally happy life as is possible. Certainly not everything in my life is without pain or struggle, but I believe that we cannot know happiness without sadness. The aim, perhaps, is a balance that retains that contrast, so that we appreciate the good things, but keeps the pain from overwhelming us. That's where I'm at, finally; and I'm a lucky, lucky bastard, and I know it.

Posted by Senn on October 20, 2002 5:10 AM

While I'm hogging your comments space, there's also this:

you could argue that [...] it must mean something that people don't want to kill themselves off — that they believe there is some value to their own life besides the happiness they experience

Here, I think, you point out the flaw in either thought experiment (Nozick's or yours): whether one is opting for a pig, or for "someone essentially like you", one is still ending one's self. The ego don't like that, no sir! Not even for the promise of happiness (which, if pressed, most people will admit they can't readily define) will people extinguish their identity; so at the very least, identity is intrinsic to happiness, if indeed it's not more important.

Posted by Senn on October 20, 2002 5:19 AM

1. is what I'm seeing really there?
...

A stubbed toe is all the answer I need to #1

Heh. I agree with your characterization of the answer, even though the question is still problematic. There's no real way to ask the question -- it's something like, "What is this," where "this" is, you know, everything. But I don't think you can ask if it's "really there," because it's not exactly clear what any possible answer would actually mean. (What exactly are you saying if you say it's not? Beats the heck out of me, at least.)

the flaw in either thought experiment (Nozick's or yours)

Actually, what I was aiming for in my version was to force you to choose between two new selves, and not between your own self and a new one. That is, my question wasn't, would you rather be you or this other, happy person; it was, would you rather be someone just like you (but not you), or this other, happy person.

But, to be honest, this disagreement about whether anything is "real" in the first place is a more likely explanation for why I (and you, from the sounds of it) disagree with Pinker, et al. That is, I'm not really in much of a position to guess at what they're thinking.

Posted by M on October 20, 2002 1:05 PM

what I was aiming for in my version was to force you to choose between two new selves

I got that, but you're still asking me to end this current self, and that's what I'm clinging so grimly to. I must confess I don't understand where the "happy pigs" are coming from: I wouldn't go for any of Nozick's alternatives in exchange for something so nebulous as "an increment in happiness". I suspect that they were being deliberately contrary, as students sometimes will.

this disagreement about whether anything is "real" in the first place is a more likely explanation

Maybe so, in that the intent of the original thought experiments is not clear to me. My real disagreement with Pinker here, though, is that he is not sufficiently clear about what constitutes a happy life or a meaningful life, nor about why the two should not coincide.

Posted by Senn on October 20, 2002 9:32 PM

I'm guessing that Pinker would say a "real" life is more "meaningful" than any alternative you could construct.

Posted by M on October 21, 2002 7:18 PM

Matt -- I just came up for a breath of air and read your column again, and I finally agree with you. This is a classic example of intellectualism failing to challenge its own assumptions. The mere notion that "Happiness" is on "one hand" and "Meaning" on "another hand" presupposes a definition of happiness more in line with gratification or "fun" in the absence of fear, uncertainty, challenge or strife -- happiness devoid of the pain and struggle of creation and/or growth. Kind of a 70's dictionary. This symantic or cultural bias, to which the perpetrator is seemingly blind, is further exposed in the experiment of "sublime" happiness, where the adjective unarguably exposes a critical and flawed assumption. Why should happiness strive for the sublime? What could produce more happiness than the discovery of meaning, even if it trook a whole lifetime? What if one's epiphany of meaning one day was "digging these ditches will provide for my family"? I think the author is a victim not of the sublime but of sublimation: "to divert the energy from a sexual or other biological impulse from its immediate goal to one of a higher social, moral or aesthetic nature or use". I have to believe that if one's mere survival is at issue, just surviving must be a source of great happiness and even inner peace, regardless of the struggle or the sacrifice of immediate gratification. My grandparents would certainly have agreed.

Posted by Les on October 21, 2002 8:16 PM

I find all the thought experiments uncompelling. They only offer a happy/me choice. What if I am already happy? Shouldn't the choice be happy/unhappy?

In any case, a thought experiment that interests me more would be: You can do good in the world and be unhappy (or even marginally happy). You can do evil the the world and live in a state of bliss. Which will you choose?

Posted by Cat on October 22, 2002 3:32 AM

What could produce more happiness than the discovery of meaning

I agree -- but I suspect that Pinker and friends would argue that that meaning is impossible in the alternative cases described in the thought experiment. I.e., the discovery would be a delusion (they'd say), and the only genuine happiness you could achieve would be sublime. (Of course, I don't know why the discovery of meaning would be any more of a delusion in those cases than in "real" life, but, as I say, I think that's what they're thinking.)

I find all the thought experiments uncompelling.

I guess what struck me is that they're trying to pick out a distinction that (apparently) most people don't make -- I don't think they're particularly interesting, either. Then again, what do we know; we're just people, and not eminent psychologists or anything. (heh)

Posted by M on October 22, 2002 12:17 PM


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