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Oh, this is just terrific. I really couldn't add much to it at all. Too many people don't seem to have a grasp of what happiness is, and while I'm not sure I do either, I do know that the endless pursuit of it doesn't seem to work.

To my mind contentment is a better definition; if one can look over the balance of one's life so far and say, you know, it really hasn't been all that bad -- that's contentment.

It's hard to see how a life lived in pursuit of happiness could yield that outcome.

I also agree with the determination that a happiness machine wouldn't work for anyone very long. That's a remarkably Buddhist point of view, FWIW.

And ... who is it, exactly, that keeps insisting atheists are miserable?


That was really beautiful!

Anne Cognito

Hear, hear! What a wonderful expression of what it means to be happy.

Also, thank you for explaining what it was like to be on heroin. I'm not particularly interested in testing my resolve against drug addiction, so I've never bothered to do anything harder or less legal than alcohol. I do wonder what it's like to have a psychotropic experience, though, so I always appreciate hearing from others.


That said, it seems to follow logically that happiness from accomplishments would be more satisfying because it's imperative to our own survival that we find happiness from accomplishment more satisfying. People who don't find that to be the case would most likely be selected against.

What if there were a true happiness machine that made you feel accomplished as well? What if there were a machine that could make you happy and seamlessly replace whatever memories you had with a memory of that happiness coming out of something you accomplished? And you wouldn't even know it had happened.

Claire B

Yogurtbacteria: That would frighten the hell out of me, actually. If there was a machine that could do that, and I knew before plugging myself in that that was what it would do...

I'd run like crazy. People would have to grab me and strap me down in order to plug me into it. Even then I'd be kicking and screaming and trying to get away right up until the moment the machine went on.

The thought of having my memories changed by an outside force freaks me totally. Our identities are composed of the stories we tell about ourselves. And those stories, in turn, are composed of our memories.

If I was plugged into a machine that could alter my mind to give me different memories, memories of things I hadn't experienced, I wouldn't be myself any more. Essentially, the machine would kill me and replace me with someone else. Maybe this other person would be blissfully happy, but it wouldn't be me. Not really, not any more.


"And ... who is it, exactly, that keeps insisting atheists are miserable?" -Warren

I had to smile when I read this. I am reluctant to tell people that I'm an atheist and I have depression. I do get upset when people assume that atheists are any less "happy" than believers. Atheists can be just as happy or down in the dumps as anyone else.

I wouldn’t want a happiness machine, but I do need something to help stabilize my moods.


Claire B:

That makes sense; I might react the same. But I think it's interesting to note that any objection we might have to something like that is purely the result of our having evolved predilections for gaining happiness in a certain way. Since all of our predilections are emergent phenomena, it seems to me that the only reason we don't want to be hooked up to a pleasure machine or a memory modifying changing machine is because those preferences are selected against in the evolutionary process. I would imagine if that selective pressure were taken away, or if selective pressure favored a quality of being fulfilled by happiness machines, we might be a species that obtained complete fulfillment by being plugged into such a machine.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that there are pleasure machines and there are pleasure machines. A truly perfect pleasure machine would, one way or another, provide precisely the same sense of fulfillment as any other way you could experience fulfillment (e.g. accomplishing things). The experience of fulfillment being just as deterministic as the experience of pleasure, it seems like it ought to be possible.

That is, it ought to be possible to make a pleasure machine which makes you feel accomplished, fulfilled, happy, and not at all alarmed by the idea that you only feel that way because of a machine. Perhaps many or most of us still wouldn't choose to be hooked up to it, but contemplating the idea to its fullest, and keeping in mind the emergent nature of all pleasure, is interesting--a perfect happiness machine wouldn't leave you concerned about the use of a perfect happiness machine.

Claire B

yogurtbacteria: You're right, it's almost certainly true that I only feel this way because it's been evolutionarily selected for.

But then, if I fell in love, I'd only be feeling that way because we as a species have evolved to pair-bond. That wouldn't mean that my feelings weren't valid (not that I'm saying you said they weren't, btw).

I remember coming up with an epigram once, that I was pleased with at the time and am still quite proud of now, justifiably or otherwise:

"Love is like a flower: the fact that it can be explained in evolutionary terms doesn't keep it from being beautiful."

If we had evolved in different circumstances, probably I wouldn't feel this way. But given that we have, I do, and will continue to do so.

And the fact that a perfect happiness machine would automatically keep me from being concerned about it is, me being the product of evolution that I am, part of what bothers me about it!


Beautiful post - a really inspiring description of purposeful living and happiness. I can understand the wariness of opiates, too: I had morphine after an appendectomy and remember lapsing from pain into golden contentment and then sleep, and waking up hoping for another dose. Lovely, terrifying stuff.


The pursuit of happiness is not selfish. Happiness is not about sucking up as much pleasure as you can. Happiness is about engaging with the world, and being intimately connected with it. The things that make us genuinely happy -- work, hobbies, family and friends -- are, on the whole, the things that make us good. They are the things that make life richer and better: not just for ourselves, but for the world that we're connected with.

I just wanted to say that again. This is a wonderful post.

Greta Christina

I'm with Claire B. I realize that once I was hooked up to a hypothetical perfect happiness machine, I wouldn't care about finer points like "is this genuine connection and fulfillment or not?" (Like the Hitchhiker's Guide bit about giving Arthur a new brain: "I'd notice!" "No, you wouldn't! You'd be programmed not to!") But if I knew that that's what a happiness machine offered, at that point I would know the difference -- and I would reject it.

And alas, Warren, a lot of hard- core theists do insist that atheists are miserable. It's an interesting paradox, actually: they insist that without religion, people would just pursue their own happiness and pleasure selfishly and without any moral limits; and at the same time, they insist that atheists are forlorn and unhappy. Not sure how that works, exactly...

Rev. Wally Real

It's interesting that you mention drug use which can be a short cut to enlightenment or ecstatic transcendence as you put it.

Heroin is the kind of drug the more you do the greater the chance it will bring about misery and self-destruction. Crack cocaine has a very short term high as well (1-2 minutes). Ironically another drug called ibogaine has been used to cure people of these addictions and can provide greater insight into your psychological processes and provide a long term benefits that would increase the quality of your life and personal happiness.

Magic mushrooms are also enlightening and thanks to the John Hopkins study it has long term positive benefits in the landmark study done some years ago.

LSD, mescaline, salvia divinorum, DMT, etc. have been used too by many.

Since you are into sex worker rights this classic piece by Annie Sprinkle is one of the best comprehensive reviews on drugs and sex I've read:

How Psychedelics Informed My Sex Life and Sex Work


My favorite ibogaine trip report on a user not addicted to any particular drug:


My favorite mushroom trip report:

My favorite SD trip report:


I recently ran into a much terser answer to the Happiness Machine question: "Does that really sound like a good idea for more than fifteen minutes?"

I think that captures the essence of Greta's longer piece, so along with "Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness", it may do if you're in a hurry.


You've nicely captured what a lot of happiness researchers would agree with: happiness = pleasure + meaning. Or to put it slightly differently, happiness involves both an emotional component and a cognitive component.

On the topic of (the scientific study of) happiness, I would recommend any of the following books: The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Happiness by Diener & Biswas-Diener, and Positivity by Barbara Fredrickson.


That's a really well written description of the the effects of heroin. I've only used it once, but it's the scariest drug I've ever done.

I can see why people's lives are ruined over it.


That was ridiculously awesome. I can not get over how, since I've found this, every single article I read is intelligent, articulate, AND enlightening. It is seriously amazing. You are wonderful.


Claire B: That makes excellent sense. What's interesting to me is that one of my motivations for not wanting to be hooked up to a happiness machine myself is that it wouldn't be conducive to my continued survival. A perfectly happy person, I presume, would be unconcerned about dying. And I rather want to live, but, of course, my aversion to death is just as much a product of selective pressure as my aversion to the happiness machine idea.

Actually, you know, here is the rub for me: the question I ponder in all of this is, fundamentally, where fulfillment and happiness is purely an emergent biochemical phenomenon resulting from selective pressure, what is it that makes leading a productive, fulfilling life different from being hooked up to the machine? Would it be fair to say that we perhaps, already have such a machine, but it has a crappy, often indecipherable user interface (that is to say: life)?

I hope my rambling is decipherable.


"That is, it ought to be possible to make a pleasure machine which makes you feel accomplished, fulfilled, happy, and not at all alarmed..."

It just so turns out that I happen to be connected to just such a machine. I stumbled across the generator of happiness completely by accident some years ago, and haven't let go of her since.

Seriously, though - I couldn't imagine being hooked up to a machine like that. There's a chance I'd try it, as I've tried so many things in my life, but I highly doubt it's the sort of thing that would hold my attention for long. Granted, my high general resistance to most drugs and such has predisposed me to assume that such things are not likely to be nearly so fun as they're billed to be, but I'm pretty sure even aside from that, I wouldn't get into it so much.

As previously mentioned, the idea of becoming addicted to it would certainly be a deterrent to me, and many others. Further, it would have to be a damned sophisticated piece of equipment to really be anything like a "perfect happiness machine" for me.

I'm easily bored, quickly begin to chafe anything resembling routine, and generally have little patience for anything like passive entertainment. Honestly, I think I would get more happiness out of taking the thing apart to try to see how it worked than from hooking up to the machine... and even that would likely only last an hour or two.

Unless it tasted like candy. Then I'd just hook up to the thing and die with a smile. :P


I had a friend who tried cocaine a few times in high school, and her description sounded a lot like yours, Greta: the most salient effect of the drug was to make her want more of it. I find that pretty scary. As her experience and yours show, not everyone who tries these things gets addicted - there may be some physiological aspect of the user that has to be there for that, so that some people become addicted almost immediately while others never do. But personally, I wouldn't want to take the risk of finding out which of those groups I was in.

Tying this back to the original topic, one of the commenters on my post who's a neuroscientist said that the Happiness Machine, if it were invented, would permanently change the way your mind works merely by virtue of what it does. Once you'd used it, you'd never want to do anything else again, and you'd probably be completely convinced that this was the rational course of action and would be able to come up with all kinds of persuasive arguments for it.

That, more than anything else, is why I wouldn't want to use that machine. It's essentially making a slave of yourself, and I value my reason and my autonomy too much to surrender them. I think happiness is the supreme good, but not when purchased in this way. Happiness brought about through things that genuinely should bring it about is just as good, and it still leaves you capable of making decisions for yourself about how to seek it.

G Felis
What actually makes us most happy is working on something that engages us. An activity that's difficult and challenging, but within our capabilities. An activity that we care about, and that we can lose ourselves in.

S'truth! I finished writing my dissertation a few days ago, and - FSM help me! - I sorta feel like starting another one.


I used to quip that there's two types of people on acid, the ones who might see the walls melting and say, "the walls are melting!" and the ones who would say, "it looks like the walls are melting". I have no problem with those who satiate their pleasure drives by way of such things like drugs, but there's something wrong when people lose track of that being an escape and believing it's real.

I don't have a problem with people either dropping a tab or believing the walls are melting, just don't try acting on that belief to the extent that you affect others.

Great post, btw

Chris Smith

This was a fantastic post. I especially liked that last paragraph.

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