Could it be that Truth leads to Happiness and vice versa?

Interested in these topics? Go to Sapient Nature.

In one of my favorite scenes from the movie The Matrix, Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) poses Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) with a choice between two pills—a red pill and a blue pill. "Take the blue pill," says Morpheus, "and the story ends [here]. You awake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe."

"You take the red pill," he continues, "you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember: All I'm offering is the truth, nothing more."

Morpheus thus offers Neo a choice between "life as usual," and "knowing the Truth."

If offered a similar choice, most of us would, I imagine, choose as Neo did: take the red (Truth) pill.

Let me now act like Morpheus and pose a slightly different—and more difficult—question to you: supposing I offer you the choice between "knowing the Truth" and "being Happy." If you choose the former, you will know the answers to all of life's big questions, such as, "Is there a God?" "What is the purpose of life?" etc., but you may not be happy. If you choose the latter, you will lead a happy and fulfilling life from this moment forward, but you may never know the answers to life's big questions.

Which would you choose?

Over the past two years, I have routinely posed this question to the students in my Creativity and Leadership class and, generally speaking, my students slightly favor Happiness to Truth. Specifically, about 58% of the students choose "Happiness," and the rest (about 42%) choose "Truth."

At first blush, this result might appear to contradict what the happiness researchers say, namely, that happiness is everyone's most important goal. It would seem, from my results, that quite a few people are more interested in knowing the Truth than in being Happy.

However, such a conclusion is not necessarily valid. To understand why, consider what Yaacov Trope and I found in a series of studies we conducted. In our studies, we first put participants in a happy or sad mood. Then, we asked participants to read an essay about the effects of caffeine consumption. The essay highlighted both positive effects of caffeine consumption ("caffeine promotes mental alertness," "caffeine can help avert Alzheimer's," etc.) as well as negative effects ("caffeine makes you nervous and jittery," "caffeine can cause cancer," etc.).

What we wanted to test was this: Would peoples' mood-state make a difference to their receptivity to the negative information about caffeine? Specifically, would happy or sad participants be more willing to process negative information about caffeine?

Our findings revealed that participants' mood did make a difference to their receptivity to negative information: Participants in a positive mood were more likely to process negative effects of caffeine consumption. Participants in a negative mood, on the other hand, were much more likely to process positive information about caffeine. These results suggest that participants in a negative mood were much more interested in "repairing" their mood (i.e., becoming more "happy"), whereas those in a positive mood were more receptive to the "truth" (in this case, about the effects of caffeine consumption).

These results have important implications for the circumstances under which people are like to choose Truth over Happiness. Specifically, it suggests that people may be more willing to seek Truth only if they are feeling sufficiently happy and not otherwise. This, in fact, turned out to be the case with my students as well: those who chose Truth were, at the time of making the choice, less stressed out and more happy than those who chose Happiness.

What this suggests is that there is a hierarchy to the order in which people seek Happiness vs. Truth: Happiness is sought first, and only after a "critical level" of happiness has been achieved does one have anappetite for Truth. In other words, Happiness does seem to be a more important goal than is the Truth for most people, but, once Happiness is achieved, Truth-seeking becomes more important.

All his leaves one important questioned unanswered, however: What is the correlation between knowing the Truth and being happy? In an earlier post, I had mentioned how many smart people are not necessarily happy. In other posts, I discussed how beauty and brains, or tastiness and healthiness, and effectiveness and ethicality, may be at cross purposes. Is there a similar inverse correlation between knowing the Truth and being Happy? Specifically, are those who know the Truth likely to be less happy?

Not according to most of the world's religious and spiritual traditions. Hinduism, and the Advaita philosophy in particular, explicitly suggests that one's true nature is bliss, as does Buddhism. Christianity too, in stating that the "Kingdom of God is within you," appears to suggest that knowing the Truth is tantamount to experiencing eternal bliss.

This then suggests that the task of choosing between Truth and Happiness may be one of those trick questions: Regardless of which you choose, you would arrive at the other! So, the choice between Truth and Happiness may not be such a difficult one after all; if the religious traditions are to be believed, you can't go wrong with either.

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Replies to This Discussion

I'm going for I'm only happy when I know the truth....  otherwise I loose all my happiness tormented that I am living a lie.

But I am very interested in this idea that we are greatly influenced in our judgement by our current mood.

I think this fact is very under valued as a fact - and many persist in believing that we can achieve rational thought at all times - when clearly we can't, as we are so effected by many causal factors including our bio chemistry.

For me, the main thing I 'miss' about there being no afterlife is that there are just so many things I will never get to know.  If I had an eternity of consciousness, I'd spend it exploring the universe. 
I'll go with Truth every time.

interesting though that the article says that those that were happy went for truth - it would then make sense that those that were unhappy would go to church to get happy, not concerning themselves with truth... which is I believe what happens.

There is a correlation between poverty and faith.

Why is religion stronger in economically unequal societies?

If, like many of us, you’d like to work toward weakening religion’s grip on the world, it behooves you to know why people are religious in the first place.  Increasing evidence suggests that religion is promoted by personal insecurity, including economic inequalities in one’s country, the availability of health care and welfare systems, the dysfunction of one’s society (e.g, the amount of crime), and so on.  What this means is that turning people away from faith involves more than just expounding the weaknesses and perniciousness of religion.  It also involves eliminating those social conditions that promote religion.  And that, indeed, may be a nobler goal.

The idea that economic inequality fosters faith is the subject of new paper by Frederick Solt, Philip Habel, and J. Tobin Grant in Social Science Quarterly: “Economic inequality, relative power, and religiosity.

The purpose of this study was threefold:

  1. To test the hypothesis that economic inequality among nations really is associated with increased religiosity.
  2. If such a relationship does exist, why does it exist?  Is it that in inegalitarian societies poor people increasingly embrace religion? Or is there another explanation?
  3. If such a relationship does exist, is it because economic inequality promotes religiosity, or because increased religiosity promotes economic inequality?

Unlike the paper of Nigel Barber I discussed recently, Solt et al. appear to have done the study correctly, using sophisticated statistics.  First, they used survey data from 76 different countries on both the degree of economic inequality (quantified by the Gini index that ranges between 0 for complete equality and 100 for complete inequality) and the degree of religiosity, using 12 different measures of the strength of faith (see figure below).

Their first finding is that every single measure of religiosity—and there are 12 of them—shows a highly significant positive correlation with economic inequality.  Here is Figure 1 from their paper, showing these correlations and (I think) the best-fit regression:

Why Atheism Will Replace Religion: New Evidence

With economic security, people abandon religion

Atheists are heavily concentrated in economically developed countries, particularly the social democracies of Europe. In underdeveloped countries, there are virtually no atheists. Atheism is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. Why do modern conditions produce atheism? In a new study to be published in August, I provide compelling evidence that atheism increases along with the quality of life (1).

First, as to the distribution of atheism in the world, a clear pattern can be discerned. In sub-Saharan Africa there is almost no atheism (2). Belief in God declines in more developed countries and atheism is concentrated in Europe in countries such as Sweden (64% nonbelievers), Denmark (48%), France (44%) and Germany (42%). In contrast, the incidence of atheism in most sub-Saharan countries is below 1%.

The question of why economically developed countries turn to atheism has been batted around by anthropologists for about eighty years. Anthropologist James Fraser proposed that scientific prediction and control of nature supplants religion as a means of controlling uncertainty in our lives. This hunch is supported by data showing that the more educated countries have higher levels of non belief and there are strong correlations between atheism and intelligence.

Atheists are more likely to be college-educated people who live in cities and they are highly concentrated in the social democracies of Europe. Atheism thus blossoms amid affluence where most people feel economically secure. But why?

It seems that people turn to religion as a salve for the difficulties and uncertainties of their lives. In social democracies, there is less fear and uncertainty about the future because social welfare programs provide a safety net and better health care means that fewer people can expect to die young. People who are less vulnerable to the hostile forces of nature feel more in control of their lives and less in need of religion. Hence my finding of belief in God being higher in countries with a heavy load of infectious diseases.

In my new study of 137 countries (1), I also found that atheism increases for countries with a well-developed welfare state (as indexed by high taxation rates). Moreover, countries with a more equal distribution of income had more atheists. My study improved on earlier research by taking account of whether a country is mostly Moslem (where atheism is criminalized) or formerly Communist (where religion was suppressed) and accounted for three-quarters of country differences in atheism.

In addition to being the opium of the people (as Karl Marx contemptuously phrased it), religion may also promote fertility, particularly by promotingmarriage (3). Large families are preferred in agricultural countries as a source of free labor. In developed countries, by contrast, women have exceptionally small families. I found that atheism was lower in countries where a lot of people worked on the land. 

Even the psychological functions of religion face stiff competition today. In modern societies, when people experience psychological difficulties they turn to their doctor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. They want a scientific fix and prefer the real psychotropic medicines dished out by physicians to the metaphorical opiates offered by religion. No wonder that atheism increases along with third-level educational enrollment (1).

The reasons that churches lose ground in developed countries can be summarized in market terms. First, with better science, and withgovernment safety nets, and smaller families, there is less fear and uncertainty in people's daily lives and hence less of a market for religion. At the same time many alternative products are being offered, such as psychotropic medicines and electronic entertainment that have fewer strings attached and that do not require slavish conformity to unscientific beliefs. 

1. Barber, N. (in press). A cross-national test of the uncertainty hypothesis of religious belief. Cross-Cultural Research.
2. Zuckerman, P. (2007). Atheism: Contemporary numbers and patterns. In M. Martin (ed.), The Cambridge companion to atheism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. This book is not held by any U.S. Library. 
3. Sanderson, S. K. (2008). Adaptation, evolution, and religion. Religion, 38, 141-156.

Happiness is subjective. I could only find happiness in truth.

This is a fun task. In this I would have to opt for happiness. I see tremendous effort and lengthy considerations could be involved or it may be simple really. I read your choice and thought how could you ‘know’ you’re living a lie unless making the choice for happiness included knowing that you were excluding the truth. Simply put if you are happy….you ARE happy. For me (and you too judging from you choice) truth is important. As a condition it would have to be present to whatever subjective degree envisioned. Is truth a state of consciousness? Happiness surely seems to be. Truth may be a condition for happiness but it does not seem to me to be necessary. For instance I do not know the truth about the Great Truths but I am sometimes rather blissful. Placing conditions such as a requirement of truth will ultimately deter any happiness. Unless someone “Knows” how can they even asses knowing the truth. It seems like two different pieces of fruit. Both subjective but the “devil is in the details.” More of a philosophical question and the dudes that have been doing that all this time may make me ponder and spin) but seldom is there a “Truth.” I probably messed this all up ‘cause I am kinda slow but hey you asked. 

As for you second “fact” portion of this I think that you have a point. I must say that I can’t see how someone could continue rational thought under any conditions?. I can think of some experiments there that may help but if we have to go to extremes there may be some injuries…..

Thanks Alice. And Truthful New Year to you.

Pete - happy new year to you too :)

I've been thinking and I can't imagine a situation where you could be asked if you wanted to be happy or know the truth in any real life situation - the question alone begs to make you unhappy - as if you pick happiness, you'll always be concerned about what you were missing - as I don't think you can have pure happiness - as you said happiness is happiness - but it would have to be a decisions that someone else made for you - for example - leave someone happy in the ignorance they they will die shortly of an incurable disease, or in the ignorance that someone they love will die of an incurable disease - or that a loved one has betrayed their trust in some way by having an affair or spent all the family inheritance - because surely in this instance having happiness is opposed to something that is true that will cause them un-happiness - or the question would not make sense - because then you might have truth and happiness together......

Honestly, I don't get this choice- even if I wanted it...As the article suggests its a false dichotomy and this I totally agree with, although my reasons are more nuanced .

If happiness and truth are in conflict, then there something wrong somewhere, and it is then necessary to firrst remove the cause of such situation.

Madhukar - good point :)

Happiness for me lies in the pursuit of truth, not necessarily finding it. The human condition is to always strive for more and better. This is where the pipe dreams of heaven and paradise fail in a very fundamental way. The only way one could enjoy such an existence is to cease being human. Imagination would have to become vestigial.  If you'll recall from the matrix, there was a reason the Utopian version failed...

I'm not sure that this article presents a reliable premise for discussion. It posits Truth and Happiness as two conflicting options, but isn't the real issue Sustainable Happiness? The two aspects to consider would then be current state (how are you currently?) and state stability (do you need to make course corrections?). 


Looking at the experiment, individuals in a (+) state focused on data about possible dangers which could be disruptive, while individuals with a (-) state focused on improving their current state. Having recast the initial premise, the logic of this behavior seems fairly obvious: people focus on obtaining Happiness first, then seek to preserve it. 


I think the real connotation of Truth in this discussion is "physical data which contradicts our mental model of the world". Under most conditions, we obviously want to fix mental slips to ensure that we get the right physical results for our daily machinations, but we're undercut by the issue of "concept-visibility". Essentially, it means that if we don't think about something then we lose all awareness of it.


So when faced with a contradiction of our previous efforts, it can sometimes be easier to simply build a mental wall against ourselves-- intentionally blinding our awareness instead of investing major effort to rework our ideas. The clearest sign of this mistake is Dogmatism; it's the Happy person who ignores negative data because he can't afford to make a course correction. These are the only people to whom Truth and Happiness would be opposing concepts, as everyone else needs Truth to maintain Sustainable Happiness.  


To paraphrase the shared message of the world's religious, spiritual, and rationalist traditions: "You can deceive Yourself but not the World, and the World bites." Depending on the tradition, that can be taken either literally or figuratively.




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