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Would You Rather Be Free Than Happy?

One day, we may be asked to choose.

Key points

  • Happiness is the ultimate goal, and yet many would choose freedom.
  • A happy dystopia is an oxymoron, however many writers have explored the idea in literature.
  • Many people don't like the idea of a happy dystopia because an unearned, artificial happiness would be disconnected from us as individuals.

Robert Nozick was an American psychologist who in 1974 proposed the idea of an “experience machine.” He asked us to suppose that “superduper neuropsychologists” (as he called them) had figured out how to stimulate our brain through carefully placed hi-tech electrodes, in such a way that we would have all the lovely pleasure and contentment that we feel when life is going well, but importantly, we wouldn’t even be aware of the fact that these lovely feelings had been artificially induced while we were under the influence of the machine. Would we choose to attach our brain to the “experience machine”? Nozick thought we wouldn’t, because we value life as a real thing, not as a mere vehicle towards pleasure and happiness.

First of all, let's make it clear that no such machine exists, although you knew this already. Personally, I am not sure it will ever exist, as there are no happiness centres or nuclei in the brain that, if stimulated, would induce a state of proper and sustained happiness. This is because happiness is a mere abstract idea with no biological basis to it. But I need to recognise that one day this machine could possibly be developed and then this question would cease to be purely theoretical.

Let's pretend Nozick's machine already exist and is available. And now let's be honest: if you could access a state of instant and constant bliss at the touch of a button, would you really choose to reject this option and keep all your dissatisfactions, fears, and miseries for the sake of your freedom? Pushing the button might turn you into a happy slave with no free will, living an aimless and meaningless life in a happy dystopia, but would you care?

Happy Dystopias

A happy dystopia is an oxymoron, and yet dystopia writers seem to have a particular preoccupation with this subject. The inhabitants of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, a novel published in 1932, were drugged with something he called soma, which enslaved them to the state, but also kept them perfectly content. Since then, countless other tales have offered different versions of the same theme.

We don't like the idea of the happy dystopia because an unearned, artificial, and synthetic happiness would be disconnected from us as individuals. It feels as if such happiness would be happening to a different person and is therefore irrelevant. That's why many would prefer to remain free, even if this freedom came at the price of the continuation of one's psychological struggles.

Personally, I'm not so sure. In my next post, we will explore this issue further, as well as the pleasure mechanisms in the brain and how feeling too much pleasure (and too much happiness) could threaten our survival.