On Philosophy

June 16, 2007

Real Satisfaction

Filed under: The Good Life — Peter @ 12:00 am

Previously I have argued that the good life, the well lived life, is one spent in pursuit of the things that we truly desire, those that bring us satisfaction. One potential pitfall with this understanding of the good life, namely how to distinguish satisfaction from pleasure in general, I have already discussed. Which brings me to a second pitfall, separating real satisfaction from apparent satisfaction.

To draw a distinction between real and apparent satisfaction may seem impossible. After all, don’t we define satisfaction in terms of our reactions to events? If this is the case then all there is to satisfaction is feeling satisfied, and thus there can be no such thing as apparent, but not real, satisfaction. To think of yourself as satisfied would to be satisfied. But I would not accept this definition of satisfaction. Satisfaction, as I see it, is a fulfillment of desires, and the feeling of satisfaction is simply a side effect of that fulfillment. Which means that it is quite possible for us to feel satisfied without having real satisfaction, if we are only under the illusion that our desires are being satisfied.

A noteworthy manifestation of this phenomena is what is commonly called videogame “addiction”. Videogame addiction is a when someone gives up many of the activities that could actually satisfy their desires in favor of playing whatever game has captivated them. Now I won’t deny that it is possible for someone to truly desire to play a lot of videogames, or to be a videogame expert, but I think such desires are much less common than videogame “addiction” is. I don’t think the desire to play videogames is as prevalent as addictive behavior towards videogames because desires tend to fall into one of three types: public effects, personal improvements connected to other desires, or idiosyncratic. The first two kinds, public effects, desiring to do something that has a lasting impact on at least some other people (write a book, invent a new device, etc) and personal improvement (become a better mechanic, learn to read faster, etc), are very common. But the desire to play video games fits into neither of these categories, because excellence at a video game leaves no lasting mark (new games always come out to replace the old) nor does it improve skills that can be used toward anything else. Thus it is best understood as an idiosyncratic desire, those which have meaning only to the person desiring them (such as collecting as many red rocks as possible). But idiosyncratic desires tend not to be shared by many people, as, because of their nature, it is hard to convince other people to desire the same thing, since fulfilling this desire doesn’t have an effect on the world, nor does it seem to serve a useful purpose to someone who doesn’t already share it. The fact that playing videogames seems to be so strongly desired by so many people implies that the source of this behavior is not the idiosyncratic desire to play videogames.

But obviously since so many people display signs of videogame “addiction” there must be some common explanation of their behavior. I believe it is because videogames provide apparent satisfaction. Videogames provide a virtual world in which it is easy to make a mark. And the most “addictive” games also offer the ability to improve the virtual person you control over time. Thus playing such videogames can make it feel like you are satisfying your public effects and personal improvement desires, if you are sufficiently into the game, and your unconscious mind starts rewarding virtual achievements as if they were real achievements. This I think explains the apparently addictive nature of videogames; the people so “addicted” are acting as if suddenly they had an exceptional ability to make a mark on the world. A great pianist might practice their art to the exclusion of much else, and, while we might find this somewhat excessive, it is somewhat excusable, since the pianist really is producing music that has an effect on other people, and may even be lasting contribution. But if you replace the piano with a videogame then they seem addicted, because, unlike the pianist, they aren’t really accomplishing anything, and so seem to be wasting their time, much like a drug addict wastes theirs. In both cases the “addicts” have nothing real to show for their addiction, beside hallucinations (shared hallucinations in the case of the gamer).

As you can probably tell from the tone of my writing I think that apparent satisfaction should be avoided, or at least pursued in such a way that it doesn’t get in the way of real satisfaction. I think it is unlikely that many will question this preference, once they realize that there is a distinction between real and apparent satisfaction. But for those that don’t consider the following: would you rather lead a life in which you satisfy some of your desires, or fall into a coma in which you have a vivid dream (which you don’t know is a dream) in which you satisfy all of your desires? I think everyone will agree that it is better to lead the life in which you satisfy only some desires than to fall into such a coma. The only reason anyone might prefer the coma is if they think that pleasure is all that matters. And if they think pleasure is all that matters they should be in a drug induced stupor, not reading this.

So, given that we wish to favor real satisfaction over apparent satisfaction, we need a way to determine what does and doesn’t give us real satisfaction. And that can be harder than you might think, because the reason that some people mistakenly pursue apparent satisfaction instead of real satisfaction is because the difference is not immediately apparent. One way to determine which activities provide real satisfaction is to consider how you would defend them to other people. If it comes down to their being “fun” or “it makes me happy” then, unless your only desire is to experience feelings of pleasure, then they are activities that should probably be prioritized lower than everything else. But of course this isn’t a foolproof method. as I mentioned above people do have some idiosyncratic desires that can’t really be defended to other people. However, in general, I think that just taking a moment to try and reflect as objectively as possible on the activities we engage in can distinguish those that provide real and apparent satisfaction, but unfortunately I can’t think of any perfect general procedure for separating the two.

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