FIrst off, I just want to say I think the idea of life being a simulation can be misused. When I first encountered the idea online, I saw some people were rejecting it as a self-centered, irresponsible view of the universe. However, in my case, supposing that my life might be a simulated reality has supported my mental health—without making me any less kind to others. I plan to keep exploring this fascinating point of view while trying to lead a life of service.
For those who, like me, are empathetic and have strong ethics, here is how I believe it can be helpful to imagine YOU are the one being living in a simulated universe.
Even video games make you care
To create the right mood, I want you to think of a favorite video game. Pick one in which the main character is on a mission to do good. For me, I guess I could pick the Harry Potter Lego series my sister and I used to play on Wii.
Now, you know that none of the characters in this game actually have a separate consciousness, right? The only consciousness here is YOU, the player. You aren’t even the main character, really; you’re an independent mind experiencing the game from the point of view of that character’s body. In this video game world, everything is one.
And yet, as you go about helping various people in the game—Ginny, Sirius, Cedric—you might imagine what their perspectives would be. You entertain the idea of them being separate consciousnesses. You go out of your way to save or assist them, even though deep down you know they are but characters in a simulation.
You act responsibly, as if the game world and everyone in it were real. Because even if it isn’t real, it brings you satisfaction to be a good person. You love to act with kindness. To see healing happen around is what winning means to you.
This gives you a taste of how it can feel, to operate in the real world while imagining it’s a simulation.
It’s not necessarily about saying you exist and others don’t, in some cruel sort of way. It’s just about facing the possibility that reality might not be what you always thought. We tend to assume we live in a material universe, one that gave rise to conscious organisms over eons of evolution. However, it is also possible the opposite is true. Maybe you were consciousness first, and then you dreamed up being a human organism in a scientific world. Or maybe someone placed you inside a simulation, much like in the movie The Matrix. Such possibilities have even been seriously explored by Scientific American, where author Anil Ananthaswamy cited Plato’s Cave and “Zhuang Zhou Dreams of Being a Butterfly” as two examples of ancient philosophers wondering if life could be an illusion.
You don’t have to believe life is really a dream, to try out the idea
The key word here is “maybe.” Life might be a dream, but it’s also possible you really do live in a world of 8 billion humans and countless non-human animals, who all have separate inner worlds of their own.
In my view, the smartest way to approach this mystery is to just embrace the unknown, and consider things from multiple perspectives. If you can live your life the way you’d want to if it were a dream, and the way you’d want to if it were a real world shared with other beings, then that dual harmony can bring you a lot of wholeness.
Below, I will list the 4 main ways that imagining my life is a simulation has seemed to benefit my mental health.
- Less compassion fatigue: I have historically been depressed about everyone’s suffering. I have hated the world because of how much senseless pain others are forced to feel. By imagining that what I am experiencing is, in fact, the only real experience, I simplify everything in a most comforting way. My empathetic distress is a lot less. When I do imagine things from others’ perspectives, it feels lighter. It is like how it feels to empathize with a character in a movie, where the overall context is one of adventure and curiosity—rather than me being so emotionally burdened by the seriousness of it all.
- Better self-care: I also have a lot less guilt about putting my own needs first. If you’re dreaming, what could be more important that the dreamer’s well-being? From this point of view, it’s easier to take full advantage of the privilege and financial means I have, and actually allow myself to have great health.
- Easier to manifest goals: If life is a dream, it suggests I may have more power than I thought I did. Clearly I cannot control this dream, but perhaps I can gently steer it by mastering my own thoughts and intentions. This view makes “manifesting my future” feel more believable. It could just be a placebo effect, but supposing my life is a dream helps me pay more attention to my thoughts and focus. I find myself daring to dream bigger about what I might be capable of.
- Open to different perspectives: Accepting that I don’t even know the true nature of my reality, I have to take all my beliefs and assumptions with a grain of salt. Exploring “life is a simulation,” while still staying tuned in to science, I gain practice at holding ideas flexibly. I never want to be too dogmatic about anything—whether it’s something specific like my views on diet, or something as broad as my interpretation of life itself. A perspective is a tool you can pick up when it’s useful, and set down to pick up a different tool when it’s no longer useful.
Of course, there is far more complexity to how we view the world than just “life is a dream” or “the world is material.” People can glean the benefits I described above by finding a perspective that works for them. There are also countless variations on the idea of life being a dream—I’ve heard of solipsism, the simulation hypothesis, and Steve Pavlina’s “subjective reality” which is what got me into this. If the basic idea resonates with you, explore it in your own life and make it your own.
In the end, I would never want to sacrifice ethics just to feel like I am at the center of my own dreamlike universe. However, imagining that my life is a simulation has not made me abandon my ethics or my empathy at all. Trillions of other beings seem to exist, and the chances that they are real is probably a lot higher than one in a trillion! Acting with kindness, and having good relationships with those around me, is key to my own mental health anyway. I say we love everyone in the world as if they were separate beings, but also use the idea of life being a dream if it helps us feel calmer or more inspired.
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Photo: Sebastian Staines via Unsplash