Would you take a happy pill?

Our friends at the Australia Institute have put the results of their happiness survey online, with a few points worth noting.

As reported in the SMH at the weekend, nearly 40% of Australians think that the overall quality of life in Australia is getting worse. I offered a couple of theories as to why on Saturday: the information bias concerning what’s happening to other people, and the cognitive difficulties we experience in comparing over time. But perhaps partisan sentiment also plays a part in these judgments. Labor voters were nearly twice as likely as Coalition voters to think that things are getting worse (51% versus 26%), just as Labor voters are much more pessimistic than Coalition voters about their standard of living over the next six months. To some extent this could be confusing cause and effect – people may have become Labor voters because they think things are going downhill. And perhaps Labor voters are more likely to genuinely believe that things are not as good as they used to be (less union power etc). But when unexpectedly asked to make judgments without being offered any assisting factual information it would not be surprising if people resorted to their party allegiance to help them give an answer – if my party is in power, things must not be going too badly, but if the other lot is in then things must be getting worse.

Very usefully, there is a surprisingly rare direct question about what factor the respondent believes ‘is most important to you with regard to your own happiness and well-being’. Only 4% rated ‘money and financial situation’ as the most important thing, with ‘partner/spouse and family relationships’ the clear winner on 59%. When asked about aims over the next five years back in 2005 money did somewhat better, with 22% nominating a higher income as their first choice. The results aren’t inconsistent: if you are already happy with your family life, more money might be what you need to improve well-being overall, even if it is not the most important factor contributing to your happiness.

My favourite question, however, was this:

If there was a legally available drug that could be bought over the counter, that made you feel happy, and did not have any side-effects, do you think that there would be occasions when you would take it?

This is putting to the general public a version of a question that has been put to many philosophy students, most famously via Robert Nozick’s Experience Machine that would make us happy, even though we would not actually be doing anything. As Wikipedia puts it:

Nozick seeks to attack hedonism by means of a thought experiment. If he can prove that there is something other than pleasure that has value to us and affects our well-being, then hedonism can be seen to be defeated.

And the answer from the Australian public? Overwhelmingly, they would not take the happy pill, with 73% saying no. The only partial exception are the Ecstasy-taking 18-29 year olds, with 18% saying ‘definitely yes’ and another 21% saying ‘yes, probably’. I often think the public gets it wrong, but on this question I agree with the majority.

15 thoughts on “Would you take a happy pill?

  1. I’d be interested to know how many of these people that said no to taking a happy pill are on, or would take, anti-depressants if they were prescribed by a doctor.


  2. Scott – Probably quite a few, though the paper makes the point that anti-depressants take you back to a more normal state. They don’t substitute for the experiences that people normally associate with happiness.


  3. It was an interesting question. If Hamilton believes that the best society is one which promotes virtue why bother with happiness research? Does he think that nobody will pay attention unless there are graphs and tables?

    Hamilton’s project seems surprisingly similar to Leo Strauss’ — but in an innocent way. He seems to be abandoning the modern project and turning instead to the ancients. He doesn’t want political philosophers to lower their sights.

    When Hamilton appeals to data from happiness surveys I feel as if he’s playing a game. But then again, I don’t suppose a media release saying “Ancient philosophers right about the meaning of life” is going to get the same kind of coverage as a shiny new opinion poll.


  4. “If there was a legally available drug that could be bought over the counter, that made you feel happy, and did not have any side-effects, do you think that there would be occasions when you would take it?”

    Haven’t these people heard of beer?

    On a slightly more serious note, isn’t the “Experience Machine” also the theme behind “Total Recall”, or at least the Phillip K. Dick novel?

    “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” was published in 1966, “Anarchy, State and Utopia” in 1974.


  5. Don – I think you are right. I did not take him back as far as the Greeks when I wrote my review of Affluenza, but I did argue that his concern with happiness etc was a tactical one: to get attention, he had to critique modern society on its own terms, and not against the pre-modern criteria he would use to judge contemporary Western society.


  6. Yobbo — Well spotted. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nozick had been reading Dick.

    There’s a huge overlap between philosophy and sci-fi. Descartes, for example, raised the possibility that the world an illusion created by an evil demon (but dismissed the idea). But the Matrix asks the question again — except this time the demon is a machine.

    And Hilary Putnam has his ‘brains in a vat’ argument.


  7. I think Yobbo’s right.

    Disregarding the side-effects which in the short-term are pleasant, and regardless of their response to the Nozick question, the majority of people out there are taking the “happy drug” (alcohol) on a fairly regular basis.

    And there’s still a reasonable percentage of people who smoke because it makes them feel good, regardless of the fairly well documented long-term side effects.


  8. Wasn’t there soma (sic ?) in Brave New World? I recall that characters in that world more or less constantly took it and that the one who didn’t was quite unusual.

    Alcohol is our happy pill of choice, and fortunately has some negative side-effects taken in excess.


  9. I already take a happy pill in the form of 100mg of sertraline hydrochlorine daily. It wards off depression and yes, helps me to be happier.

    I suppose my studies in neuropsychology ruined me for these hand-waving “what is happiness?” discussions. To me happiness is an emotion generated by certain neurochemical conditions. Eventually humans will perfect the technology to have bliss, nirvana, joy, happiness on tap. As well as fear, rage, misery etc.

    If you ask me, the biggest challenge facing moral and political theorists of all stripes is the next 100 years of technological advance.


  10. Oh, and Nozick’s Experience Machine is already catching up with us in the form of the internet: cam girls, World of Warcraft etc.


  11. The 27 per cent of Australians who would take the happy pill can easily accomodate the 15.3 per cent who have taken illicit drugs in the last year, and the 17.4 per cent who smoke, but not the 41.2 per cent who drink on a weekly basis. Does this mean that 14.2 per cent of Australians are bullshit artists?


  12. Sacha: I believe the Soma in Brave New World was a government issue that not only made humans happy, but also compliant. So it’s a bit different than Nozick’s happy machine.


  13. A good post and discussion – Henderson’s stuff hs always raised my hackles a little, but I could never quite say why.

    Now I know – he’s yet another person who wants to impose his purely personal vision of “the good life” on the rest of us, whether we like it or not. Hence the “take this medicine – it tastes nasty so it must be good for you” tone of so much of his work. It is, as Don Arthur notes, a very old tradition. Unlike Don I don’t think it’s so innocent.

    On soma, if we’re hedonists why would we care whether the hoi polloi are compliant or not beyond the instrumental reason that we need to maintain future soma production?


  14. Yobbo: Soma in Brave New World was to make people happy yes. But wouldn’t compliant be a result of that not as a part of the original effect? If someone is happy, they are more likely to do as told. Especially if that ends up with happiness? Would you do something if it resulted in happiness? Work an extra long shift etc. Alcohol does roughly the same thing, depending on original mood. The old movie trick of a spy getting someone drunk to spill secrets wasn’t entirely made up..


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