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In Philosophy, a thought game exists called "The experience machine" {1}. In summary, it's a machine you plug into that enables you to always experience positive events, and never negative ones.

One of the common arguments not to plug into this machine is that if you never experience lows, you can't appreciate heights, since they would become the norm. This line of reasoning is known as the Hedonic treadmill.

In Positive Psychology the concept of a Baseline level of happiness {2} exists. It has been shown {3} this baseline can be raised, or lowered, but the research I know of does not discuss the effect of removing negative experiences to increase the baseline. It focuses on other factors, like intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, and so on.

Knowing about baseline happiness, and the trend to fall/rise back to it; what would happen if you never had negative experiences? The argument against using the experience machine basically assumes the baseline would plummet if there are no negative experiences, or at least become quite low.

My line of thinking, and hypothesis is that there is no need for negative experiences in order to appreciate positive ones. Since, if you don't experience anything negative for a week, you can still experience joy that week, a month... a year... a life? If you are never unpleasantly hungry, you can still appreciate a good meal.

Now to the actual question(s):

  • Is there any research that shows the effect of "lack of negative experiences" on the baseline level of happiness?
  • Are you better able to enjoy nice experiences in the light of negative ones?
  • Is there research on the relation between the two?
  • Has this research ever been applied in Philosophy to try and answer the Experience machine puzzle?

{1} Nozick, R. (1977). Anarchy, state, and utopia (Vol. 5038). Basic Books.
{2} Brickman & Campbell (1971). Hedonic relativism and planning the good society. New York: Academic Press. pp. 287–302.
{3} Diener; Lucas, Scollon (2006). "Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill: Revising the Adaptation Theory of Well-Being". American Psychologist 61 (4): 305–314. doi:10.1037/0003-066X61.4.305.

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Interesting question! You mention in Positive Psychology it has been shown the baseline can be raised or lowered. Doesn't that relate to some of your questions? In what way does the research you do know about fall short? –  Steven Jeuris Feb 12 '13 at 10:32
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The research i know of does not discuss the effect of removing negative experiences to increase the baseline. It focuses on other factors, like intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, and so on. Updated in the post. –  Wouter Feb 12 '13 at 10:38

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The experience machine is meant to be an argument against hedonism in that it's supposed to show that humans value other things than happiness and therefore wouldn't/shouldn't hook themselves up to the machine (whether it succeeds in doing this is another matter; Nozick simply points out that it would be "absurd" for anyone to connect oneself to the machine, an in my opinion extremely weak argument).

As such, the machine in the thought experiment is meant to supply you with whatever experiences that will create the largest amount of happiness for you (however, it's never explicitly stated that the experiences would have to be happy experiences; it's simply stated that the machine would be able to supply you with whatever experiences you desired, and when addressing a hedonist, those experiences would be happy experiences). If this means that you need a big chunk of sad, soul crushing experiences from time to time just to be happy the rest of the time, then so be it; as long as there is some pattern of experiences that in the end would generate more happiness for you than what you would experience in real life (a.k.a your real life isn't perfect), the thought experiment applies.

So, regarding your last question, the thought experiment really is immune to the kind of objections that you bring up, which means that we can't be informed about the solution to it by empirical research.

With that said, the question of how much and what type of negative experiences, if any, we need to be able to experiences happiness is interesting, but I don't have the answer to that one.

(Random speculations mode commencing: However, in my view, this seems to be more of an assumption that people make rather than something that is firmly based in science. Do we have the same intuition when it comes to pain? Would we say that a person who was raped and tortured since birth wouldn't be worth rescuing since she because of the lack of positive experiences didn't experience any negative experiences? Is there a reason to believe that this alleged relationship between positive and negative experiences isn't symmetrical?)

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Thank you for putting your time into this well put answer. You also make a very good point in your 'random speculation' section that I didn't even consider yet. Thanks! –  Wouter Jul 21 at 11:03

Well, there is one informal theory known as the cosmic orgasm (reference needed ), that states that very highly advanced civilization will move to a virtual reality state of pure pleasure and stop contact with other civilizations. This is one of the ways to solve the Fermi paradox (why haven't we been contacted by alien civilizations?). I never tried it, but they say that the first injection of heroin is a state of pleasure of about two minutes superior to a continuous orgasm. I am pretty sure that if you could manipulate synaptic changes at the microscale at will, that state could be reached forever without decay. The fact that its decay is a mater of the specific way our brain adapts to chemicals.

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Thanks, i also think looking at neurosience, and the way the pleasure-seeking-part of the brain reacts and changes to different experiences, will help to answer this question. –  Wouter Jul 17 at 8:44
    
However, Nozick primarily defined the experience machine as something that could control the input to the brain: "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." That we all could live in a state of eternal bliss if we had access to machines that could manipulate our brains to be in any state we desired seems trivial. –  Speldosa Jul 20 at 22:51

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