February 14, 2013

Happy vs. Meaningful

 A Young Boy from Belsen Concentration Camp, Eric Taylor (via)

A great article in The Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith about happiness. 

It begins with the story of Viktor Frankl, who was a Jewish psychiatrist who survived a Nazi concentration camp.  While in the camp, he counseled young men who were suicidal, even as he lost his parents and his pregnant wife.  There is so much to unpack in that, so much irony and paradox.

But the article is about why he lived, what made him go on?  His assertion in Man’s Search for Meaning, Smith says, is that those who went on had meaning in their lives.  They had a purpose. 

Smith goes on to make the distinction between happiness and meaning. 

Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior -- being, as mentioned, a "taker" rather than a "giver." The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. 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. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.
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. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.
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.

This is a brilliant distinction, I think.  If we are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” it is critical to think about the definition of happiness.  If you consider Smith’s definition ~ the satisfaction of basic needs ~ rather than today’s definition ~ an ecstatically positive emotion ~ you get something very different.  Maybe what the Declaration of Independence meant was not that we all have the right to satisfy our most outrageious desires but rather that we have the right to have our basic needs fulfilled. 

And then, as Smith says, true happiness comes from having meaning, of having this greater thing outside ourselves that gives us purpose and focuses outward and puts us on a journey.


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