So what does it mean to be happy?
There's been an interesting discussion over at Daylight Atheism. A thought- experiment, posing the question: If you could hook yourself up to a happiness machine, would you do it?
On the surface, if there's no God to please and all we have is this life, it seems like there should be no reason not to. If there's no ultimate exterior meaning, and we create our own meaning for our own lives, then why shouldn't that meaning be "hooking myself up to a happiness machine until I die"?
And yet most people in the conversation wanted nothing to do with that hypothetical machine. (Or, at most, they could see using it only rarely, or only under extreme circumstances such as debilitating terminal illness.)
I was going to comment; but my comment kept going and going, and got too long for a comment on somebody else's blog, and eventually morphed into... well, into this piece.
So. On the topic of a happiness machine.
I want to talk about my experiences with heroin.
I've never been a heroin addict, or anything even close to a heroin addict. But I have taken it, more than once. In my early twenties, I took heroin about six or eight times, over the course of about three years.
And the experience was about as close to a pleasure machine as I can imagine. It was more than just the complete absence of pain and unpleasantness... although it certainly was that. It was more than just a total sense of relaxation and peace... although it certainly was that. It was more than just the dissolving into a misty darkness of all problems and worries... although it certainly was that. It felt like everything was okay, like everything was right with my life and the world. There was one point during one of my experiences when I got nauseated and threw up... and throwing up was perfectly okay. Sure, on the whole I would have preferred to be doing something other than throwing up... but throwing up was okay, too. Everything was okay. Everything was more than okay. Everything was right.
It seems like it should have felt fake or plastic -- it was a drug, after all -- but it didn't. At the time, at least, it felt richly, deeply satisfying. It felt like I was melting into the universe, like I was profoundly connected with the very essence of goodness. It felt like the way you feel after you've had unbelievably amazing sex for hours. Filled with pleasure in every pore of your body, and without any need or desire for anything more. It felt like this was how life should be, for everyone, all the time.
It was as close to a pleasure machine as I can imagine.
And I was extremely wary of it.
I was careful not to take the drug very often. Not just "never twice in the same week," but "never twice in the same month," and never more than two or three times a year. I was careful not to seek it out, but only to take it when the opportunity fell into my lap by chance.
And even so, it scared me. I loved it, but it scared the crap out of me. I knew it was a pleasure I had to treat with extreme caution; that if I let it become even remotely a regular part of my life, I could be in big trouble.
I had one particular experience, in which I'd felt amazing the day that I took the drug... and really, really shitty the day after. Not physically shitty -- I wasn't going through withdrawal or anything -- but emotionally shitty. I was going through a difficult time in my life, and the loss of that "everything is right and okay" feeling felt unbearable. Heroin felt right; not being on heroin felt wrong. And thank Loki in Valhalla, that spooked the hell out of me. I was able to recognize that as The Obviously Wrong Way To Look At Things. I never took the drug again after that.
I had access to a pleasure machine. And I didn't want it. I wanted it at most maybe two or three times a year; and ultimately, I didn't want it at all.
So this, I think, is my point:
Pleasure is not the same thing as happiness.
I can't remember now where I read this, but I've seen studies showing that, while people often think that what makes us happy is lying on a beach with a drink in our hand doing absolutely nothing (or something along those lines), that isn't in fact what makes us happy. That's nice for a little while, but it gets boring fast. 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. What makes us happiest is engaging in an activity that shuts up our chattering, nattering, critical inner voice, and lets us just do, and just be.
It doesn't have to be a work activity necessarily. It can be, of course -- I get it sometimes with writing, when it's going really well, when I lose all track of time, when the pipeline between the dark pond of my brain and the bright world of words on a screen is flowing like blood through a healthy artery -- but it doesn't have to be. It can be dancing. Reading. Sex. Good conversation. Playing music. Listening to music: not passively and in the background, but really listening. Rock climbing (or so I've heard). Whatever. If we care about it and find it totally engaging of our consciousness, then that's what makes us happy.
I think about the peak experiences I've had in my life: the non- heroin ones, the moments of blissful, ecstatic atheist transcendence and peace. And while, on a purely visceral level, heroin may have been more pleasurable, the other experiences were far more satisfying. I felt replenished afterwards, not drained. I felt strengthened for the difficult and tedious tasks ahead of me, not saddened and burdened by them. I felt like something had been added to me, like I had become larger and richer and more complex; not like something had passed through me and then disappeared, leaving nothing behind but a memory and a longing for more.
Heroin gave me pleasure. These other experiences made me happy. And I'd rather be happy.
Don't get me wrong. I've got nothing against pleasure. Pleasure is important, too. Pleasure can also connect us with our deeper selves and the world around us. (And for the record, I'm not anti-drug, either. While I do think drugs should be approached with caution and good information -- and while I think heroin in particular is a serious minefield -- I don't think there's anything wrong with taking the occasional vacation from your usual state of consciousness.)
And I'm not saying that I've found the secret key to happiness, which I'm revealing in this 1,417- word blog post. I haven't.
I'm saying this: I think that a happiness machine, pretty much by definition, wouldn't make us happy. Not for long. Not unless it magically replicated the experience of engaging with a meaningful and challenging activity in the world around us. The experience would begin to pall. The human brain being what it is, we'd either become addicted to it -- which isn't any fun -- or the experience would lose its charm. Happiness isn't about capturing a frozen moment of perfect time. Happiness, by definition, is about moving forward through time, and through the world.
And more to the point, I'm saying this:
One of the most common critiques of atheism is that, if there's no God and no external meaning to our lives, then we have no reason to do anything other than selfishly pursue our own happiness. So I'm saying this: 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.