Happiness Versus Meaning

The pursuit of happiness has become controversial — so much so that many will read this text and vehemently disagree with my pontifications. Happiness as a concept seems to have fallen out of favor. It appears too one-dimensional and extreme to reflect how people feel and live their lives, and is commonly considered to be a selfish and unrealistic aim. Happiness is seen as out of reach for a lot of people and often contrasted with meaningful actions. Many prefer to live a meaningful life and regard happiness as an impossible ideal and a highly subjective experience that cannot be the ultimate goal. Despite the strong reasons for their skepticism given by the critics of happiness, there are things to be said in its defense. I would argue that the juxtaposition of meaning and happiness in recent debates about living a good life is counterproductive and ill-conceived because both can peacefully coexist. It is a fallacy that the pursuit of happiness and the meaning of life are mutually exclusive.

At first blush, these two concepts appear to be quite different. Happiness is not a neutral or objective state. It has to be felt and imagined by human beings. Meaning, on the other hand, could dispense with humanity. After all, it does not need to be good or bad, humane or inhumane. It can easily be either of those things. Happiness has a humane dimension which acquires meaning only in certain contexts, but its pursuit encourages us to discuss what makes people be, feel and do good. By contrast, meaning is anything that makes sense.

Living a meaningful life might be detrimental to others if the meaning is inhumane. It might also be dispassionate or destructive. The focus on meaning sweeps under the rug the issues of morality and ethics, whereas happiness spotlights the question of what is good. Happiness makes it imperative to find things that are good and right.

A meaningful life can be dull or self-destructive. Even a miserable life full of suffering might make sense at some level. People pursue happiness because it is intimately related to being human. Fetishizing meaning substitutes significance for humanity. Not every meaning deserves to form the cornerstone of one’s life.

Meaning is a challenging concept to comprehend. At its most fundamental, it is what matters. Meaning is implicitly pretentious and potentially vacuous. For something to have meaning, other things need to lack it, so the meaning of a thing naturally tends to become overstretched. Life can be absurd in the eye of the beholder. It can become apparent that there is no meaning to life, and such a meaningless existence might be preferable to delusions of significance. Yet a life without a glimpse of happiness is a nightmare. What lies at the core of happiness is not vanity, pride, importance or significance, but the idea of being good. If you want to be happy, you want to be good. Happiness is much less pretentious than meaning and intuitively makes sense at the human level.

By some interpretations, anything can have a meaning. Every life has a meaning. Happiness appears to be more exclusive. Not everybody can be happy. Only certain things make people happy. Happiness is not always available, whereas meaning can be found at all times. This is how people imagine hell—meaning is abundant there, but happiness in short supply. If anything can have a meaning, then happiness is a much loftier ideal towards which to strive.

From another perspective, both meaning and happiness can be scarce. Both meaning and happiness can be subtle and elusive. If life is fundamentally absurd, then there is not much meaning to be gleaned from living it. If life is miserable and short, then happiness may be hard to find. In this context, happiness is a more congenial goal because it is not neutral with regard to human flourishing. Meaning can be found in the wrong places. If a meaningful life leads to hardship and despair, it cannot be good or right. It all depends on what meaning underlies one’s life, and I do not believe that life can be meaningful without happiness.

There may be more similarities between meaning and happiness than the current happiness skeptics are ready to admit. Happiness can be the meaning of life. When people say that they would prefer to lead a meaningful life than to seek happiness, one could ask why the meaning of life no longer encompasses, among other things, the feeling of happiness. Why have some of us given up on the idea that the pursuit of happiness can be the meaning of life? Have we become so miserable that happiness is now out of the question? How can there be a meaningful life without happiness?

When meaning comes to the fore it is usually about something more important than its pursuer, while happiness is a private experience that does not pretend to shoulder a burden larger than life. When the pursuer is the conduit of meaning, how can meaning be more than, or separate from the pursuer? Those who pursue happiness know that it works at the human scale, whereas the worshippers of pure meaning can disregard the human. Moreover, happiness does not need to be individually contained: we often desire to share it or to avail ourselves of others in its pursuit. It is important to keep in mind that happiness can be about altruistic help, which leads to less pain and sorrow in the world. The pursuit of happiness can be both inherently meaningful and socially responsible.

Suffering can be reduced, but it is challenging to get rid of the absurdity of life. Experience may bring the realization that happiness is much more accessible than meaning. We might start out thinking that happiness is too difficult to achieve and hence prefer to find a meaningful pursuit that does not necessarily bring happiness. As we mature and see the many facets of human existence, it becomes clear that happiness is much more tangible than the elusive meaning of life.

While the pursuit of meaning is justified when it brings happiness, not all such happiness makes sense or makes life better. Even so, happiness appears to be deeply meaningful to the person experiencing it. Happiness can be cherished as an end in itself. Importantly, social responsibility and environmental awareness inform our feelings of happiness and our understanding of a meaningful life. These broader contexts can frame feelings and imbue life with meaning.

 

Neither meaning—nor happiness—is a legitimate end if its pursuit does more harm than good. Happiness, at least, highlights this problem, whereas meaning has a loose relationship to the common weal. Happiness seems to be selfish, but meaning likewise depends on the human scale. Far from being delusional, anthropocentrism is crucial to a meaningful life. A humane vision is a prerequisite for meaningful actions because it prevents the nihilism that would dismantle any sense of significance. Those who claim to focus on meaning instead of happiness overlook the fact that happiness is the human element that provides the correct framework for our understanding of our place in the world. There is not much meaningful social life without happiness because there is no solidarity without fellow humans. One of the values that helps us build a common ground for social interaction is happiness. It is a deeply human feeling, and its denial speaks volumes about the modern condition. Various forms of non-human spirituality, such as transhumanism and panpsychism, are fashionable in narrow circles of highbrow intellectuals, but most people want to know how to make the world a better place for human beings. Happiness is an essential value and target in this sociopolitical effort.

In limit situations—which are more extreme than everyday experiences—a meaningless life is still better than death. Actually, there is nothing good or bad about life’s lack of meaning. But an unhappy life full of pain and suffering might not be worth living. Few suicides are caused by the loss of meaning and many by the impossibility of happiness.

Happiness does not have to be the meaning of life, but there are few goals that are as humane. If some of us had the humility to recognize that happiness was our life goal, the world could become a better place, even if somewhat less meaningful. Humility is an important part of the equation. If your version of sense is imposed onto others it is because you lack humility—you deny any chance that you are wrong and deny others the right to pursue their own sense of meaning. Many people have been sacrificed in the name of meaning. Totalitarian ideologies create meanings in order to crush individuals and deny them their aspirations towards happiness. Such ideologies exploit the intuitive idea that the loss of individual wellbeing can bring valuable gains: there is a common belief that suffering can lead to progress. While this philosophy is appealing, a rigorous adherence to it can lead to the proliferation of immense misery and pain. Happiness can help people stay humble in their aspirations and not erase humanity from the picture.

Meaning is a cover that can be wrapped around different things, whereas happiness is the warmth of the human body. These concepts overlap and have a productive relationship in human language and thought. Contrasting these notions leads to misunderstandings. Their juxtaposition is misguided. People can find meaning in happiness and obtain happiness by leading a meaningful life. Ultimately, the pursuit of happiness and the search for the meaning of life complement each other.

Divorcing meaning from happiness may be appealing because many people lead miserable lives and want to justify their current plight. None of these justifications work. First, some may think they should devote their lives to things that do not bring happiness for the sake of other meanings. Sacrificing happiness for a greater good is a poor decision that may increase suffering. Second, one might come to believe that happiness is impossible in real life, in order to render its absence less disconcerting. Denying its existence is a form of escapism. Third, vilifying the pursuit of happiness as selfish or ephemeral is wrong because wellbeing and positive feelings are essential to human flourishing. Finally, postulating that happiness does not matter leaves no humanistic frame of reference for living a meaningful life.

Happiness is meaningful because the need to find it is deeply ingrained in us, part of what it means to be human. We need to build social relations that rely on and allow for the fundamental freedom to pursue happiness. Whatever arguments are advanced by desperate killjoys in order to banish happiness from the public imagination, people will continue to look for positive feelings and want to feel good, for life without happiness loses its meaning.

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4 comments

  1. This is an extremely confused essay. The author’s conveyance of the terms seems to change from sentence to sentence, often contradictorily.

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