Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

1.25.2013

The Difference Between the Pursuit of Meaning and the Pursuit of Happiness in Life



I recently came across an article that I found very insightful: There's More to Life Than Being Happy.  It takes an interesting look at two concepts that people often pursue in life, happiness and meaning, and says that: A) they are mutually exclusive as often as they overlap, and B) they don't both necessarily lead to a satisfied and fulfilled life.  From the article:
According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high -- as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word "happiness" in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. 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."

Way back when I was new to blogging and just getting into really debating politics online, before even the creation of this particular blog, I reacted to a George Will article about the difference between liberals and conservatives in relation to happiness.  It's a little self-righteous, generalizing, and blustery, but so was the material it was reacting to.  In "It's Not All About Me," I wrote:
It talks about the fact that in every poll since 1972 conservatives have rated themselves happier than liberals. Both Will and Jeremy seem to indicate that because they are happier they obviously have the more correct outlook; they are closer to figuring out the key to happiness and life and thus somehow smarter. But they seem to miss the point that conservatives always miss--of course it's easy to be happy if you only have your own happiness to worry about. If you care only about yourself and pursue only your own gain, you have a decent chance of succeeding. The thing that distinguishes liberals is that they actually care about others and, in fact, tie their own sense of happiness into the happiness of the rest of the world. I know, no matter how individually successful I am, I can never really feel this world is a good place as long as there is poverty and war and unnecessary suffering. My privileges shouldn't come at the expense of anyone else, and I can't be self-satisfied if there's something I can do the make life better for others. So, sure, I'm less likely to be happy, but only because I care.
I don't believe the dichotomy I establish necessarily has to be base on political leanings, but there is a definite insight in noting that happiness is based on an inward, individual focus on self while meaning comes from caring for others and the world around us.  From the article:
Researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a "giver.". . . 

Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. . . . Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior . . . If you have a need or a desire -- like hunger -- you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. . . . 

"Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others." . . .  In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need," the researchers write. . . . 

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life "you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self." For instance, having more meaning in one's life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. . . . 

Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment -- which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.

 Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. "Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life," the researchers write. "Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future." That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

The article goes into much more detail and illustrates its points with examples from the life of noted author, psychologist, and Holocaust concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl.  I'm partly creating this post in the hopes of revisiting the article every so often as a reminder to keep myself centered on meaningful priorities.

The dichotomy the article establishes between meaning and happiness reminds me of the dichotomy described in the final chapter of You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself by David McRaney, based on the blog of the same name.  I first included this information in the post "Objectivity: A Concept That Only Exists as Truthiness."  McRaney carefully defines and differentiates two different types of happiness, one based on immediate gratification and satisfying short-term needs in the present and the other based on having meaningful experiences that become lasting memories and leave a feeling of purpose and accomplishment when looking back on the past.  From the book:

THE MISCONCEPTION: You are one person, and your happiness is based on being content with your life.

THE TRUTH: You are multiple selves, and happiness is based on satisfying all of them.

 . . . Kahneman's research suggests there are two channels through which you decide whether or not you are happy.  The current self is happy when experiencing things.  The remembering self is happy when you look back on your life and pull up plenty of positive memories. . . . 

Life for you and many others is full of conflict between these two selves over how best to be happy.  Kahneman's research shows that happiness can't be all one or all the other.  You have to be happy in the flow of time while simultaneously creating memories you can look back on later.

To be happy now and content later, you can't be focused only on reaching goals, because once you reach them, the experience ends.  To truly by happy, you must satisfy both of your selves.  Go get the ice cream, but do so in a meaningful way that creates a long-term memory.  Grind away to have money for later, but do so in a way that generates happiness as you work. 

Even though McRaney's focus is on the self and individual happiness, he says that what matters is making life meaningful as often as possible.  He examines ways to make selfish experiences ones that last in the memory as significant events.  Yet I find even the smaller, daily activities can be meaningful when I can take my focus off of myself and feel that I'm doing things for others.  It's why, no matter how introverted I am, my library job seems drab and pointless without customer service interactions and helping patrons is a necessary ingredient of any happy day at work; I can't simply spend all my time in an office getting work done because my happiness derives from my relations with others.  Whether you call it happiness or meaning, I can't ultimately get it in a lasting way alone.

One final, related thought, part of another post from not too long ago titled "My Philosophy":

What you choose to see in others is what you project for others to see in you.

If you assume others have selfish motives and bad intentions you will treat them as such, and that's what they'll assume about you. If you see them as greedy hoarders out to take from you, then you'll preemptively hoard from them before they can. If you see the world as a threat and a danger to you, then you'll build your defenses to ward the world off and become a danger to others. If you see others as competition, then you'll always compete with everyone and do your best to put yourself at the top at everyone else's expense. If you find others ugly, stupid, incapable, or otherwise lacking, they'll see it in your eyes and know you are someone who holds them in disdain.

If, on the other hand, you can find the positive motives and good intentions behind others' actions, you'll treat them with understanding and respect. If you see them as generous, then you'll be freer with your generosity toward them and become a more giving person. If you assume others are interested in working with you and finding ways to mutually succeed, you'll find yourself practicing teamwork and working to create cohesive wholes of all your various groups. If you see the beauty, wisdom, and talents of others, you'll treat them with a warmth and kindness that brings out your own beauty.

If you want to be a good person, you must learn to find the goodness in others.

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