The Launch of Happiness Engineering


Let’s assume for a minute that the predictions in the last post are correct and that technology will enable humanity to become maximally happy. What kind of technological advances could get us there?

Here are some possibilities:

  • A Happiness Pill
    This is arguably the most straightforward possibility. We’ll simply take a pill to change the chemistry in our heads in a favourable way, making us happier.Crucially, the pill must not have any negative side-effects, such as feeling worse later as a counter-reaction to the pill (“crash”) or becoming addicted. Unfortunately, all of today’s “happiness pills,” whether they be caffeine, nicotine, Ecstasy, Prozac or others, do have considerable side-effects.
  • Gene Modification
    Happiness is inherited – at least partially. Scientists in Scotland and Australia who studied more than 900 pairs of twins found that genes play a significant part in determining how happy we are in life (read more here).As genetic modification becomes more feasible, the question is: Should we change our offspring’s genes in a way which makes them happier? Asked another way, can we accept responsibility for not taking advantage of these opportunities, thereby preventing them from leading significantly happier lives?
  • Artificial Brain Stimulation
    Our brain creates the world (“reality”) based on the stimulation it receives through touch, smells, sight, or other senses. If we could control these impulses (e.g., as depicted in the movie The Matrix, where brains are kept in gelatinous substances stimulated artificially by computers), we could create fake, but happy worlds.
  • (Other ?)

As these opportunities are not available yet, one may be inclined to wait until they become available and then consider applying. However, this could mean lost time. If we appreciate their anticipated outcome (which will be evaluated in more detail in future posts), we should actively aim to support their development.

Surprisingly, there are few focused efforts to develop these technologies (and discuss related questions, such as their ethical implications). I find this mind-boggling, considering that almost everything we do is directed at achieving happiness. Is it the fear of the unknown that has prevented us from searching for those technologies?

To fill the gap, I propose launching a new initiative: Happiness Engineering.

What is Happiness Engineering?

Here is a first shot at a definition:

Happiness engineering is the systematic application of scientific methods to create states which are perceived as happier by the individual(s) experiencing them (compared to the states when those methods are not applied) while minimizing the negative counter- or side-effects of creating such states.

Beyond the core task of developing happiness-creating technologies, the field of Happiness Engineering should focus on:

  • Providing transparency on existing efforts to create happiness (and detailed explanations of their successes and failures)
  • Evaluating possible outcomes of happiness technologies and contributing to ethical discussions
  • Reducing the risks potentially posed by the new technologies
  • Raising public awareness for the initiative and its goals and aims
  • Raising funds to support the initiative

At this point, I’d like to know what you think about this. Should we pursue such an initiative, researching ways to create happiness through technology and actively addressing the ethical questions which result from those efforts? Or should we refrain from accelerating this development (which will come either way) and adopt a wait-and-see attitude?

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The Future is Happiness


What will the world be like in, say, 500 years from now?

The world is too complex to make an exact prognosis, of course (honestly, we don’t have a clue what the future will be like just five years from now). However I believe some developments are outright logical and will lead to predictable results in the long run, even if they are hard to imagine today.

One of these developments is the increasing sophistication in achieving happiness. Eventually, I believe, we will be able to stimulate our brain however we want to and become maximally happy. It may even lead to the scenario depicted in the 1999 movie The Matrix, where brains are maintained in a gelatinous substance and stimulated by computers electronically in order to create a fake, but perceived-as-happy reality.

This may sound crazy, so let me give you the reasons why I believe this is going to happen.

  1. Happiness is our primary goal
    First, we all aim to be happy. Even though happiness is only a by-product of evolution, it’s one of the most important goals in our lives (maybe the only goal with intrinsic value, as argued here). The happier we can become, the better.
  2. We already “trick” nature
    Second, stimulating our brains artificially to achieve happiness would be nothing new – we do it all the time. For example:

    • Eating sweets
    Nature has developed an incentive system that rewards us for consuming foods containing high concentrations of energy (e.g., sweet fruits), because energy is crucial for survival. However, eating food with an unnaturally high sugar content (e.g., sweets) is an unnatural overstimulation of our reward system.

    • Consuming nicotine (or other drugs)
    I don’t know the scientific explanation for how smoking can be rewarding to the body, but I doubt it helps to achieve nature’s goal (survival & reproduction).

    Having sex with contraception
    Nature “thinks” we reproduce, but we don’t! We just want to get the good part without the bad (no, I don’t hate kids ;-)).

    • Engaging in other “unnatural” activities that make us happy
    Whether we’re playing video games, listening to techno music etc., most of the “modern-world” activities we perceive to be rewarding succeed in stimulating our incentive system in a positive way, but without necessarily serving nature’s goals. However, we don’t worry too much about that. As long as these diversions serve our purpose (achieving happiness) we welcome them.

  3. It will be technically feasible
    Third, humanity will discover ever more effective ways to stimulate our inherited incentive system in a positive way (without negative side effects). Ultimately, we will also understand how the brain works (the brain is still largely a black box to science today) and be capable of creating the world we want – a world full of happiness, free of suffering.

Personally, I draw two conclusions from this: one positive and one negative. The positive conclusion is that paradise on earth is indeed possible. The negative conclusion is that you (if you are reading this before, let’s say, the year 2100) and I have been born too early to experience it. However, we should look on the positive side: we’re literate, we live on more than $1 a day, we live in times of peace, etc. This puts us ahead of so many unfortunate people today and in the past, so we should not complain about our lot in life.

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