Mental State Theory: An Inadequate Picture of Happiness

In investigating questions of human happiness, it’s important to explore the very concept of happiness itself. Unfortunately, this word is used in myriad contexts and comes loaded with many meanings. For the purposes of this article, I will use the term to refer to the deeper type of happiness that we associate with human flourishing — the type of happiness we mean when we ask ourselves the question, “Am I really happy?”

Questioning this type of happiness itself will hopefully bring into focus a better picture of the nature of happiness and its role in human flourishing, as well as introduce important questions that must be addressed in giving an adequate account of happiness. Though I acknowledge the fact that happiness has an inescapably subjective nature — after all, each of us is made happy by different things — I think we can still hold meaningful discussions about the objective aspects of happiness, namely, what it is that we think happiness consists.

Instead of attempting to answer this question directly (which would require much more than one article), I will dispute the common belief that happiness only consists of mental states, or that to be happy means to be in a certain psychological state. This particular conception of happiness is widespread. Popular moral theories, including many (although not all) variants of Utilitarianism, rest on the idea that what humans desire are positive mental states, or pleasure. Furthermore, it seems to me that in our every day lives, our default intuition seems to support decisions that maximize the pleasure of ourselves or others. It requires deeper reflection to override this default concern for mental states for the sake of some other value. A common example of this is when somebody accepts that they have done something wrong — his initial instinct is not to admit his fault, for that would invoke feelings of shame and guilt. But upon further reflection, he realizes that the better action is to apologize and recognize his fault for whatever reason (so that he can avoid making the same mistake next time, or that he can become a better person, etc.).

In challenging this simple and compelling notion of happiness as purely a psychological state, the philosopher Robert Nozick employed a well-known thought experiment known as “The Experience Machine.” Imagine sometime in the future in which human beings have the technology and the understanding of neurophysiology to construct a machine that can perfectly produce any psychological state. Once plugged in, the individual’s thoughts and beliefs can be altered in any way — he can be made to think that he is the greatest writer in the world, the greatest musician, the most wealthy, the best looking, the most popular, the most well-liked, etc. He can be made to believe, and more importantly feel as if, his life is perfect in every aspect; his days would be filled with nothing but elation and contentment. Assume that, while in the Experience Machine, the individual believes everything he is experiencing is real, i.e., he is not aware of being in an experience machine, and further, has no memory of being plugged in.

Would you plug in? Nozick believed that most people would say no, especially when given enough time to think about it. This intuitive answer does not cohere with the view that happiness is constituted only by mental states. The Experience Machine can give us the best mental states imaginable, so why would we (or at least most of us) turn down the chance to plug in?

A common response in defense of mental state theories is that the thought experiment is too removed from our reality. The thought experiment is too abstract, or perhaps just too foreign, for us to consider and thus cannot yield any real insight into what we think of as happiness. But this thought experiment is not as far from reality as we think. Consider alcohol or recreational drugs. People consume these substances in order to make themselves feel a certain way. But because of the damaging side effects, many people do not think the experience worth it. Is it so hard to imagine a type of drug that exaggerates the effects of, for example, heroin, and does not have any negative side effects? If not, then it seems that at least a crude version of the experience machine is not so far from our reality, after all.

If this answer still isn’t satisfactory, consider the following alternative scenario, which is not only possible, but happens in some form or another quite regularly: Imagine someone who is happily married to a wife whom he loves more than anything. He genuinely believes that his wife loves him in the same way, but in reality, she doesn’t love him at all. In reality, she is cheating on him and can put on a perfect act to make her husband believe the contrary. Should we say that the husband is truly happy, in the sense of flourishing? Is that the kind of “happiness” you would want for yourself? Put another way, if we compare two men, both of whom believe that they are loved by their wives, but only one of who actually is, would we say that they are equally well off? Or does the one with a truly loving wife have greater claim to being truly “happy”?

Having established that the Experience Machine (or the alternative experiment) is valuable to use as a thought experiment, I return to the question of why our intuition tells us to reject the offer to plug in to the machine. The answer is simple: we believe that happiness is more than just a psychological state. We value something else beyond simply experiencing certain emotions and believing certain things — we value actually accomplishing the things we think we are accomplishing and actually being the person we think we are. Striving to do things and to become a certain person seems completely meaningless if it all takes place in our heads. We pity the beguiled husband even though he believes that he is in a perfect marriage, because in reality, the marriage is broken. However, this position does not commit us to saying that mental states play no role in happiness. Rather, the claim I wish to advance is that mental states do not play the only role in happiness.

The question remains: What else do we value in our happiness? What else should we value in happiness? The question seem closely connected to what we value  in that, what we value gives us a framework for evaluating whether or not any given individual is truly happy, and further, for determining how to live our lives in pursuit of happiness. For instance, someone who values that his life be grounded in reality and not some imaginary virtual machine will not think consider life in the Experience Machine to be one of genuine happiness.

After hearing these arguments, some may still want to plug in. If I asked these individuals to compare the same life in the experience machine, and the same life outside of the experience machine, however, I suspect most of them would regard the life outside the machine as “better” in some way. In this paper I have not argued why life outside the experience machine is the better alternative, or, more generally, why happiness should not consist only of mental states. This would involve a discussion of what we value and find meaningful. In this article, I hope to have at least shown that for most of us, who do have the intuition to refuse the experience machine, mental states are clearly not enough. Perhaps actual success or the actual possession of goods like truth, love, beauty, dignity, and freedom are intrinsically valuable and thus play a role in happiness.

Originally published in Flourish, Yale’s Undergraduate Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Human Flourishing

Tagged under Philosophy