You Might Be Happy But Your Life Is Still Meaningless


Turns out, even happiness isn’t even a foolproof strategy for the good life. Sure, technically your life might be really good if you’re happy, but it will still be shallow. That’s because happy people these days are actually just selfish people who spend their time making sure all their needs are met but are not stressed out or worried that much. Meanwhile, the other people with more meaningful lives have more stress and more worry, and actively seek out meaning/excellence even when they know it will cause less happiness. Face?

So says an Atlantic piece about happiness citing the authors of a study of 400 Americans — aged 17 to 78 — who self-reported attitudes about a variety of factors such as stress, worry and others over the course of a month. “Takers” lead happy lives, while “givers” lead meaningful lives. So while you’re out there trying to do what you thought you were supposed to be trying to do all along, i.e., just be happy, it turns out you were, in fact, still being a cooze:

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” said the authors, describing with an eerie accuracy dozens of people I know.

So if you’re sitting around wondering why you aren’t truly happy, the reason is simple: It’s because you’re out there trying to be happy. This is, no doubt, the kind of happy you could achieve following these steps.

Or as the Atlantic piece points out, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” Booyah! But hold that unhappy thought for a moment. For something that seems so intuitive and so simple, isn’t it kind of impressive how many theories there are for achieving happiness, or rather, what happiness actually entails? Is it a fleeting moment or a state of mind? It is an emotion or an achievement of excellence?

Dale Carnegie famously told unhappy folks to go spend a day volunteering, and see if it didn’t turn things around. Bobby McFerrin said not to worry. Dennis Leary said happiness comes only in small doses: a cigarette, a piece of chocolate, an orgasm. Buddhism tells us to free ourselves from craving to reach Nirvana.

And there is the (much-preferred to me) idea of flow, courtesy of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, father of positive psychology. If you don’t know about flow, stop what you’re doing and retreat to the Internet beyond these walls. There is a TED Talk here, a wiki here and the book here. Or if you don’t want to do that, allow me to paraphrase.

Flow is an idea of happiness based on a study for decades across all cultures and backgrounds, that the ultimate well-being is not a result of big laughs, or fun trips, or other conventional ideas of pleasure that people typically associate with happiness. It’s being really engaged in a task or pursuit or passion in a way that produces optimal experience.

Imagine any activity in your life you’ve engaged in in such a way that you lose all track of time (except that acid trip in the desert). Whether it’s solving a difficult math problem or working on a puzzle, it’s the kind of activity that takes all of your mental faculties, energies and attention, and challenges them, and probably is quite draining. But when you have finished the work, you have an immense sense of pleasure and satisfaction. It’s not fun, per se, but it’s a kind of happiness to be so fully immersed in an activity, particularly one that hones your craft.

But make no mistake — it’s a pleasurable thing. I think finding that kind of meaning in one’s own work qualifies as happiness. I think a meaningful life is ultimately a happy one. That doesn’t mean it’s without hardship, struggles or failures, but it means it’s ultimately one viewed positively, which to me would be the point.

Back at the Atlantic, the idea of happiness versus meaning are found to be at odds. We learn the compelling story of a man named Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who not only survived concentration camps while nearly his entire family, including a pregnant wife, perished, but came out of the experience with a new understanding of what drives our will to live — meaning. Meaning that came, of course, through great suffering.

Frankl’s message, the article says, which he wrote about in a best-selling book Man’s Search for Meaning, with ” its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning.”

But I find Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of flow to be both of those things combined, the idea of a pursuit of individual happiness that’s also part of a search for meaning. It involves a kind of suffering as well, though certainly nothing on par with actual tragedy, though I doubt Frankl meant that the only meaning comes from tragic suffering.

Perhaps this distinction between happiness and meaning is merely a semantic argument.

Though a Gallup poll cited claims that happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high, and 60 percent of all Americans “feel happy without a lot of stress or worry,” apparently, 4 out of 10 Americans still lack a clear sense of purpose, which is a necessary component of overall well-being (different than happiness?!?)

Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”

As a result, some researchers are apparently advising people to stop looking for happiness. “You can’t chase happiness!” they say. Don’t go ’round lookin’ for happiness like some stray cat looking for a handout. Don’t come around here no more, ya hear? Instead, look for meaning.

But what if the idea that you can only have one or the other is simply too limited? What if being happy is what gives life meaning for some people? (I’m not being surly, at least not on purpose). What if the happy person who most values getting things they want and not stressing out all that much is, for all intents and purposes, even if it’s just lazy contentment, actually happy, and that is what gives their life ultimate meaning? What I mean to say is, if you feel happy, what would motivate you to also look for some additional meaning anyway? And then, would your existence not be optimal to you, anyway?

And what if, as the concept of flow suggests, you can have both? What if finding meaning in your work, in your usefulness, in reaching your full potential as an artist or a teacher or a person, is both meaningful and happy? Especially since it no doubt enhances your contribution to the greater good, which enhances meaning in one’s life? Happy and meaningful, together again? Happimeaningness? Problem solved: Slap it on a bumper sticker.

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