Sunday, January 13, 2013

When I say "happiness isn't good enough", is "meaning" the other half?

I've written about happiness at least a few times. I often get frustrated because "happiness" becomes a catch-all term for anything good. The Atlantic awakens this old itch. They toss out "meaning" as the foil to "happiness": "happiness" is what feels good, "meaning" is this other amorphous blob of stuff you need to have a good life.

I guess Martin Seligman would agree; "meaning" is one of the 5 things he suggested to have a flourishing life. (The others are positive emotion (aka happiness), engagement/flow, relationships, and accomplishment.) Indeed, that feels like a more complete picture than just hammering on about meaning and slagging on happiness. But whether it's 1/2 or 1/5 of a good life, meaning is worth pursuing. But how do you find it?

The Atlantic article notes that many people find meaning through their kids. But that just feels like punting! Like deciding we don't really know what to do on this planet, so let's lovingly create a new generation and let them figure it out. (meanwhile contributing to overcrowding and pretty much every problem.) (again, *sigh*, hi Mom and Dad, yes, I'm still mostly glad you had kids. your generation did punt a lot of junk to us, though.)

The other examples of meaning they give are mostly the typical Mother-Theresa stuff: helping others, giving not taking, resigning yourself to life in a concentration camp so you can help your parents. I guess. The problem with finding goodness in suffering is that there's a lot of suffering that is just bad, and if you go on seeking suffering, or just being neutral about suffering, you'll probably stumble into a lot of meaningless suffering that is just bad.

Can you search for meaning and happiness at the same time? Or search for meaning without forsaking happiness? After all, happiness at least helps productivity.

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