Alienation From Self, Authenticity, Bad Ideas, Being True To Yourself, Community, Happiness, Human Nature, Meaning, Obligations to Society, Psychology, Quality of Life, Science, Scientist

Why it is Better to Pursue Meaning in Life than Happiness

(About an 8 minute read)

“The most important thing is to enjoy your life—to be happy—it’s all that matters.” ― Audrey Hepburn

As a well-educated American, I know the sacred right of my people to pursue happiness is enshrined in the Constitution, that document that stuck it to King George, who we had to revolt against because he wanted us to be miserable, and was therefore a communist.

Indeed, the right of Americans to pursue happiness is in every way just as sacred as our right to pursue the long-sought secret of how to brew the perfect taste-free beer.  So I think we can reasonably ask ourselves: Happiness and tasteless beer — are they actually distinguishable?

Or to put the same question less poetically: Is happiness getting what you want?

I’d say it is.  We want a car, and when we get one we’re happy.  We want a new suit, a new dress, and we’re happy to get one.  We want to travel, an adventure bass fishing in Canada, and we’re happy when we go there.  We want love, and we’re happy when we find it.  We want to commit to a religion, an ideology, and we’re again happy when we can find one we can commit to.

But the catch is always there, you know.  Our car breaks down, it rains during our vacation, our spouse or partner leaves us, we begin to question our religion.  Then we’re unhappy.  Then the loss can be painful, even devastating.

Naturally, the American thing to do is take someone to court, sue them, sue the britches off them — even if you can only sue God and name the Pope as a co-defendant, you have that right.  But here’s the thing.  Does that really end the hurt?  Does it solve the pain?

I guess you could say that’s what separates Americans from Liberal Democrats.  Americans never admit defeat, pick themselves up, and take out a loan on a new car.  Liberal Democrats just…I don’t know what they do, but it’s unwholesome, and probably involves illicit sex.

However, lately I’ve been having some strange thoughts about happiness, very strange thoughts.  Well, not strange for a communist, but strange for an American.  I’ve been wondering if we might have got it all wrong.  Or at least, whether the majority of us Americans might have it wrong — the majority of us who in polls list happiness as our top value.

I don’t want to offend anyone, but I’ve been reading up on the science of happiness.  But before you reach for your rifles at mention of the word “science”, consider this: Science may be wacked-out when it contradicts demonstrable facts like Noah’s Flood, the 6,600 year old age of the earth, or the fact alien lizard people run everything nowadays, but science isn’t all bad.  Some of it isn’t fake.  Instead, it’s just as real as an honest Bud Lite is tasteless.

And the real science raises some troubling questions about happiness.  For one thing, there was this study where the researchers — those are the scientists — found that the pursuit of happiness negatively affects our well-being!  Yup, negatively affects our well-being, meaning we don’t feel well about being, I think.  Check this out (and I quote):

In one study by the behavioral scientists Jonathan Schooler, Dan Ariely, and George Loewenstein, participants listened to a piece of emotionally ambiguous music, Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” The researchers told some participants to try to feel as happy as possible while listening; the others were simply asked to listen. The people who tried to feel happy ended up unhappier after the experiment than those who listened without trying to boost their mood. In another recent study, Iris Mauss of Berkeley and her colleagues found that people who highly value happiness — as measured by their endorsement of statements like “Feeling happy is very important to me” — reported feeling lonelier on a daily basis, as assessed in diary entries over two weeks.

If you’re feeling about as crushed right now as a patch rammed down the barrel of gun to clean it, you’re not alone.  That’s exactly how I felt when I first read that.  And it doesn’t get better either.  Other studies pile on to the same point: Getting Americans to actively pursue happiness is undoubtedly a communist plot to make us all miserable.

But we can fight back.  And we can even fight back and have happiness in the end, too!

You see, the trick here is to quit pursuing happiness, and pursue meaning in life instead.  Yup, the science shows you can have both.  It doesn’t always happen that you get both, but it’s better to pursue meaning than it is to pursue happiness.  And meaning is important.  As important as carrying a pair of pliers with you on prom night in case of a stuck zipper, if you ask me.

But exactly what does it mean to have a meaningful life?  I quote again:

Though different people have different wellsprings of meaning, meaningful lives share three features, according to a paper published this year in the Review of General Psychology. After conducting an extensive review of the literature, the psychologists Login George and Crystal Park of the University of Connecticut identified the three features as purpose — the degree to which you feel directed and motivated by valued life goals; comprehension — the ability to understand and make sense of your life experiences and weave them into a coherent whole; and mattering — the belief that your existence is significant and valued. When people say their lives are meaningful, in other words, it’s because they feel their lives have purpose, coherence, and worth.

So you see, you pretty much get to exercise your right as an American to shop around for the right fitting shoe for you so far as meaning goes — just so long as what you pick gives you get a sense of purpose, coherence, and worth.

Now, the catch is, living a meaningful life doesn’t always mean an easy life.  “In a survey of over 2 million people in more than 500 jobs by the organization PayScale, those who reported finding the most meaning in their careers were clergy, teachers, and surgeons — difficult jobs that don’t always cultivate happiness in the moment, but that contribute to society and bring those doing them satisfaction.

Which raises the thorny issue of “contributing to society”.

Before you go off saying, “Contributing to society smacks of creeping communism right then and there”, consider this:  We’re not talking about forced contributions — such as taxes — here.  Instead, we’re talking about voluntary contributions, such what your job means to other people, or what your volunteer work means to them.

But I must confess I’m not so sure about this next part. That’s to say, some of the science gives me a wedgie, for it seems to imply some startling findings. Namely, that there might be a link between contributing to society and happiness!  I know, it just don’t make sense, but here it is anyway (and I quote):

Consistently, the countries that do the best in international happiness surveys—the Scandinavian countries, Australia, and New Zealand—are those that buy into a wider social contract that everyone is responsible for one another’s well-being via a robust welfare state. People are generally happier when everyone is well cared for. Research suggests that this phenomenon is no coincidence. Benjamin Radcliff, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Political Economy of Human Happiness, has conducted extensive analysis of the data and concluded that people living in more generous welfare states, where people both pay more in taxes and receive more in benefits, consistently report significantly higher levels of happiness.

Welfare state!  Higher taxes!  That’s about as counter-intuitive as it gets in my neck of the woods, which means your intuition has dropped off the edge of a counter and shattered into pieces like a china plate, I think.

I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to figure out some way of accepting that one.  I blame the scientists — by which I mean, the researchers — for allowing their ranks to be infiltrated by Liberal Democrats.  It’s the only explanation for the findings that makes any righteous sense.

However, the rest of it makes sense enough. Pursuing happiness isn’t the way to go.  Going for meaning is much better, and finding it can be tough on you (depending on where you find meaning), but maybe you can still have both happiness and meaning.  It’s getting toward evening now.  Time for me to go sit on my porch and chug a few Lites while I throw sticks at the neighbor’s kids to keep them off my grass. Thanks for listening!

Oh, before I go, I just had a final thought: I can see how if I was to pursue happiness, I might easily pursue it in ways that would lead me to become a stranger to myself, less than true to myself.  But I don’t see the same problem with pursuing meaning, because likely as not, whatever meaning I can get behind and believe in is going to be something that’s true to me.  Just a thought.  Ain’t no sin in thinking.  Well, sometimes there’s not.

11 thoughts on “Why it is Better to Pursue Meaning in Life than Happiness”

  1. Happiness and meaning are two tricky dicky concepts. But from what i have read from your post, i’ve assessed that finding meaning is an easier and more reliable way of finding happiness, than say being content with everything, which may be superior to meaning and is harder to attain.


      1. Content as in seeing the world and themselves as it is and not how it should be. At peace with life’s uncertainty. I don’t know if its superior now that i’ve thought it more. I suppose one could find purpose in contentment? Or not needing a purpose at all? I’m not sure. Harder to attain yes, in my mind.


      2. I don’t know whether one would find purpose in contentment itself, Teresums, or perhaps instead would find that being content was still compatible with having a strong sense of purpose.

        As for whether one thing is superior to another, I don’t know how we could decide that question.

        Very thought-provoking comments, dear.


  2. Plenty of interesting thoughts there!

    Regarding high taxes: think of it as a matter of economy of scale. Let’s for example look at health care, as it’s one thing everyone needs and no one can agree what to do with. Medical operations often have ridiculously high material costs, and while it only makes sense that the customer pays for it, them paying a single set of materials is much less cost-efficient than paying in bulk, and causes more work for the clinic in organizational costs. Taxes are a way to pool up the money we would need to pay anyway, split the cost between everyone to avoid pesky surprises, and allows for organising more effective ways of getting the bang for the buck. When you multiply that with all the other public services taxes pay for, I dare claim that high taxes lead to less debt and better services for everyone involved.


  3. I see you kow this from your comment, but I’ll spell this out anyway: you are among those advocating a modern version of Stoicism, which is not a passive attitude but the active cultivation fo the linked virtues of courage (and here I’d signal out intellectual and emotional courage; most of us never have much need these days for physical cnourage), practical wisdom, temperance, and justice, to produce self-development. Central to this is the distinction between what you cannot affect (which you should not allow to affect your inner equilibirium), and what you can (where you should act in a way that develops your virtue, as described above).


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