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Happiness and meaning in life

Discovering the sweet spot where one does not have to give up one for the other

By Thaddeus Metz

On the face of it, there are many situations in which doing something that makes us happier fails to make our lives more meaningful. Some recent examples from my life include: having taken a gloriously hot shower, watched several episodes of the HBO comedy series “Veep” while eating chocolate ice cream, and having worn a particularly smart looking suit.

Professional philosophers illustrate this point with “fantastic” or “hypothetical” thought experiments, imagining a life spent in a virtual reality machine that gives the occupant the vivid impression he is doing interesting things that he is not, or a life of rolling a rock up a hill for eternity but enjoying it because of the way the gods have structured one’s brain.

Conversely, there are many occasions when doing something that makes our lives meaningful appears not to make them happier. Consider taking care of a sick, elderly parent who needs constant attention, or slaving away at an alienating job so as to provide for one’s children. For less frequent but even more intense examples, think of those who have struggled against injustice at great cost to their own peace and satisfaction, such as Nelson Mandela having spent 27 years in prison in his struggle against apartheid, or heroes who have given up their lives for others, perhaps by having volunteered to relinquish a spot on a lifeboat that would not hold everyone.

Intuitively, these are cases of happy meaninglessness and unhappy meaningfulness, respectively. A promising way to make sense of how these two human values can diverge is to think of happiness in terms of pleasant experiences and of meaningfulness as what merits great esteem or admiration.

The world’s great religions tend to suggest ways in which happiness and meaning can go together. Fulfilling their God’s purpose and then entering Heaven is one (monotheism). Realising one’s unity with everything else in the world and thereby overcoming a sense of isolation is another (Hinduism). These strategies crucially depend on the existence of a spiritual realm that includes a soul.

However, even if we might have faith in a spiritual reality, few of us think we have strong evidence of it. If we in fact lack souls, or if we otherwise want to focus on this-worldly matters, how should we live when it appears that happiness and meaning are competing values?

Nursing, then dancing

When confronted with the prospect of happiness and meaningfulness taking us on different paths in an earthly life, some lighthearted folks (“hedonists”) would recommend going for happiness, doing whatever they can to maximise pleasure in the long run, while other, heavier souls (“stoics”) would maintain that happiness is overrated and that meaning is what counts.

My perspective is different. I think that the best sort of life, or at least a really good one, would include both happiness and meaningfulness. Although one sometimes has to choose between these two values, one ought to strive for a life in which there is plenty of both.

How to do that? Sometimes the best one can do is to alternate pursuit of them. Nurses who confront intense suffering and death on a daily basis might have no choice but to put in their “meaning time”, and then afterwards go dancing at a nightclub or play on their iPad over a glass of wine.

Another strategy, however, would be to seek out a life in which there were both happiness and meaning at the same time, so that one did not have to give up on one in order to have the other. That probably should not mean just taking a “happy pill” so that one can withstand the monotony of an assembly line. Instead, one could engage in activities that both particularly deserve reactions of esteem and admiration and that, by their nature, tend to produce pleasant experiences.

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