Erik Larson

Nov 23, 2008

The Happy Gadget

Years ago, scientists from several countries collaborated on a well-funded effort to engineer an “experience machine” (it later came to be known as the “Happy Gadget”). Ethicists around the world squawked, initially, in protest, then were silenced when public support grew, and politicians around the world endorsed what became known as “The Happy Revolution”, or just “The Happy”.

The Happy Gadget gave wings to generations of parents who wanted only to see their children be happy. In times past, the failure of offspring to make of their lives a success (to become “healthy, wealthy, and wise”, as pre-Happys once remarked, steeped as they were in ignorance) was bemoaned by all. It caused great consternation, and by degrees, greased the axles for a new social theory and shortly thereafter the political will to usher in The Happy.

In 2015 the Happy Gadget was tested on a small group of children. Measurements of happiness were, in the words of one examiner, “through the roof”. In a press statement released by Happy Industries shortly after the test, results read as follows: “…subjects experienced consistent, non-degrading feelings of happiness while connected to Happy [that is, Happy 0232i, the first Happy Gadget]. 90% reported wishing to stay connected to Happy indefinitely.” [One outlier reported feelings of guilt, and later anxiety, at not having “done anything”, in his words. He was released from further experimentation; his whereabouts now are not known.]

By 2025, Happy was the rage. Parents who, before, had “just wanted their kids to be happy”, would report that levels of happiness were markedly increased; children, hooked to the Happy Gadget, self-reported happiness levels never seen before. By 2027, according to official reports at the time, 93% of all children under 16 were Happy. The project was vindicated, and proclaimed a success. It seemed a new era was at hand.

And then it happened. In the summer of 2029, they came to our Eastern shores, and by the winter of that same year the Great War was upon us. Soon after the standing government closed the Happy experiment. Parents, alas, had realized their professed dream of “just seeing their children be happy”, only to see it come to naught. By the following summer, their society was in ruins. Wailing into the night sky, parents were captured on film repeating, endlessly, the Gadgets mantra that their children were finally happy . And later, even their clarion voices would be silenced. The Happy children were made to work, and were enslaved, and of the few documents published during this dark time, it was recorded that happiness fell to levels not ever seen before. It fell, in one definitive account, even below the pre-Happy levels.

It is today of pressing historical and scientific interest how the greatest project in the history of mankind, with the greatest, surely most noble goal—to make our kids happy—ended ignominously, and with decades of subjugation and war. No definitive theories are forthcoming; some small minority have questioned the Happy Gadget project itself, but no doubt with strong opposition, and a questionable command of the facts. These views, such as they are, are still voiced, though mostly dismissed. There is now no clear path ahead.