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Culture & Religion

Peak Experiences, the Meaning of Life, and Wilkinson’s Advice

What matters in life?  Will Wilkinson wrote wrote a nice Big Think post on Friday quoting some recent psychological research and suggesting the answer is “memorable social experience”:

A number of recent studies bear out the idea that spending on experience is more likely to boost satisfaction with life than spending on stuff. …

Spend your money on time doing memorable stuff with people, people.

The premise is interesting, and Will’s mild preachiness is, initially, charming. We tend to look forward to costly experiences like trips to faraway lands, and we tend to look back on them fondly for years. Experiences offer a better return on our investment than objects. So if we find $2000 in change under our sofa cushions, we’d be better off spending it on a trip to Costa Rica than on a next generation flat-screen TV. On one level, the message is a heart-warming corrective to rampant consumerism: filling our homes with new stuff does nothing to fill our lives with true satisfaction, but spending money on theater performances, exotic travel or dinners at Per Se — especially if we go with people we love — will pay off handsomely. Here is Will again:

Experience-sampling studies show that spending time with people we like is our most reliable source of good feeling, and happiness surveys show that sociality generally is the most important factor in global life satisfaction. When we invest in memorable experience with friends and family, the experience is not only more likely to be memorable, because it is shared, but is more likely to actually be remembered, because it will be relived again and again in conversation. Perhaps most importantly, sharing memorable experience binds us closer [to] one another, and makes our ongoing relationships even more meaningful.     

It was the “perhaps” that killed my buzz. Isn’t it obvious that engaging in meaningful experiences and forging closer relationships with lovers, spouses, family and friends is the best possible thing we can do with our lives? Why the slight hesitation in Will’s voice when he is making his best point? And then I started to sour a little on the whole argument, slightly sickened that we should be judging what matters in life by asking what will afford us the most consistent pulses of pleasure over the longest amount of time. Should the quality of an experience really be contingent on our ability to recall and smile about it later in life? Do we exist to provide our future selves with the ability to revisit the thrill of that time we bungee jumped off a bridge with a buddy? And then I was reminded of an old thought experiment Robert Nozick introduced in his book “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”:

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences? (42)

Nozick assumes we’ll say “no,” and I hope he’s right. From this, Nozick draws three conclusions:

What does matter to us in addition to our experiences? First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them…A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person…Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality. (42-43)

It’s not that buying tickets to a Broadway show or going to a five-star restaurant with a loved one are artificial experiences. My point is that by Will’s reasoning, engaging in activities like these is valuable mainly for the memories they will bring, and the pleasure that will accompany the memories. It’s all about the pleasure, which means there is no particular reason not to seek similar pleasure while plugged into an experience machine. Don’t misunderstand me: there is nothing wrong with happy memories. Happy memories are wonderful. But if we follow the advice of psycho-economists to structure our lives with an eye to maximizing happy memories, our orientation toward our lives changes…with potentially perverse results. Certain meaningful experiences are not enjoyable, at least not while we’re doing them. If the standard for good living is simply what conduces most to our happiness, we might never undertake painful or extremely challenging projects like, say, graduate school. We might shrink from the hard work necessary to keep relationships healthy and stable. We might end marriages too casually. And by trying to maximize meaning in our lives, we might, ironically, become very shallow people.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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