Experiments In Thought

The Happy Pill

What do you want in life? Its an important question; if we know what we want we can think about how we go about getting it. When asked, people will often say things like they want to be famous, wealthy or perhaps successful. However, when they are asked why they want those things, they usually say is that it will make them happy. Some people will just say that all they want is to be happy. So, directly or indirectly, people just want to be happy. Or do they?

The Happy Pill

Imagine you could take The Happy Pill. This pill would make you feel perfectly happy for the rest of your life. It’s not a trick. You really would feel happy and no other unpleasant feelings would occur to impede your feeling of perfect happiness. However, the pill would cause you to fall into a deep coma like sleep for the rest of your life. Whilst you slept, you would need no caring for, no food or water. Nothing could ham you, and you would live as long as you were going to live had you not taken the Pill, however long that would have been.

Would you take the pill?

Take a moment to think about it. Based on what most people say they want from life, this seems like a perfect solution. A life filled with the maximum possible amount of uninterrupted happiness. Perfect. Or, is it?

Whilst most people, when asked, would say that what they want is just to be happy, when asked the same people admit that they would not take The Happy Pill. There is some intuition there that tells us that we would be missing out on something that is meaningful and important to us; even if whatever it was came at the expense of our some of our happiness.

The Dying General

Imagine you are a General mortally wounded on a battlefield. You fought bravely, believing that the outcome of this battle would be critical to your sides chance of winning the war and securing the safety of your homeland and loved ones. You hear the battle is over but do not know if your side has been victorious. Your trusted second in command enters your tent, and in the last few moments, before you pass away, you ask them, "Did we win?". Sadly the battle was lost, and with it, the hope of victory in the war. The second in command knows that the General fought bravely, and that the knowledge of the defeat can only serve to torment the General in their last moments on earth.

Should the second in command tell the General the truth? And as the General what would you want second in command to tell you? Would your prefer the lie, and to die believing a happy fiction, or do you value the truth, even if all it could do was cause you despair?

What do you want out of life?

We have all come to believe that we are in a constant pursuit of happiness; but I think that The Happy Pill shows us that simply maximising for happiness in our life isn’t really what we want after all. The Happy Pill thought experiment allows us to reflect on what else might make our life meaningful.