Sparking Joy: The Ethics of Medically-Induced Happiness

Photograph of a sunflower in sunshine with blue sky behind
"Joy.Youth.Sky.Blue.Sun.Shine.Sunshine.Happiness" by Irina Iordachesu is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Happiness is often viewed as an ephemeral thing. Finding happiness is an individual and ever-developing process. Biologically speaking, however, all emotions are the simple result of hormones and electrical impulses. In a recent medical breakthrough, a team of scientists has found a way to tap in to these electrical impulses and induce joy directly in the brain. This kind of procedure has long been the stuff of speculation, but now it has become a reality. While the technique shows a good deal of promise in treating disorders such as depression and post-traumatic stress, it also presents an ethical conundrum worth considering.

On initial examination, it is difficult to point out anything particularly wrong with causing “artificial” joy. Ethical hedonism would prioritize happiness over all other values, regardless of the manner in which happiness is arrived at. However, many people would experience a knee-jerk rejection to the procedure. It bears some similarity to drug-induced euphoria, but unlike illicit drugs, this electrical procedure seems to have no harmful side effects, according to the published study. Of course, with a small sample size and a relatively short-term trial, addiction and other harmful aspects of the procedure may be yet undiscovered. If, as this initial study suggests, the procedure is risk-free, should it be ethically accepted? Or is there cause for hesitation beyond what is overtly harmful?

The possibility of instantaneous, over-the-counter happiness has been a frequent subject of science-fiction. Notable examples include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which featured a happiness-inducing drug called “soma”; and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later adapted into the film Blade Runner), which included a mood-altering device called a “mood organ.” Both novels treat these inventions as key elements in a dystopian future. Because the emotions produced by these devices are “false”—the direct result of chemical alteration, rather than a “natural” response to external conditions—the society which revolves around them is empty and void of meaning. What is the validity of this viewpoint? Our bias towards what we perceive as “natural” may be simply a matter of maintaining the status quo–we’re more comfortable with whatever we’re used to. This is similar to the preference for foods containing “natural” over “artificial” flavoring despite nearly identical chemical compositions. While we are instinctively wary of the “artificial” emotions, there may be no substantive difference to the unbiased feeler.

Of course, emotions exist for more than just the experience of feeling. The connection between emotions and the outside world was addressed by Kelly Bijanki, one of the scientists involved in the electrically-induced happiness study, in her interview with Discover Magazine: “Our emotions exist for a very specific purpose, to help us understand our world, and they’ve evolved to help us have a cognitive shortcut for what’s good for us and what’s bad for us.” Just as pain helps us avoid dangerous hazards and our ability to taste bitterness helps us avoid poisonous things, negative emotions help drive us away from harmful situations and towards beneficial ones. However, living in a modern society to which the human body is not biologically adapted, our normally helpful sensory responses like pain and fear can sometimes backfire. Some people experience chronic pain connected to a bodily condition that cannot be immediately resolved; in these cases, the pain itself becomes the problem, rather than a useful signal. As such, we seek medical solutions to the pain itself. Chronic unhappiness, such as in cases of anxiety and depression, could be considered the same way: as a normally useful sensory feedback which has “gone wrong” and itself become a problem requiring medical treatment.

What if the use of electrically-induced happiness extended beyond temporary medical treatments? Why shouldn’t we opt to live our lives in a state of perpetual euphoria, or at least have the option to control our emotions directly? As was previously mentioned, artificial happiness may be indistinguishable from the real thing, at least as far as our bodies are concerned. Human beings already use a wide variety of chemicals and actions to “induce” happiness–that is, to make ourselves happy. If eating chocolate or exercising are “natural” paths to happiness, why would an electrical jolt be “unnatural”? Of course, the question of meaning still bears on the issue. Robert Nozick argues that humans make a qualitative distinction between the experience of doing something and actually doing it. We want our happiness to be tied to real accomplishments; the emotion alone isn’t enough. More concretely, we would probably become desensitized to happiness if it were all we experienced. In the right doses, sadness helps us value happiness more; occasional pain makes our pleasure more precious.

If happiness in the absence of meaning is truly “empty,” our ethical outlook toward happiness should reflect this view. Rather than viewing pleasure or happiness itself as the ultimate good, we might instead see happiness as a component of a well-lived life. Whether something is good would depend not on whether it brings happiness, but whether it fulfills some wider sense of meaning. Of course, exactly what constitutes this wider meaning would continue to be the subject of endless philosophical debate.


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