The Meaninglessness of Happiness

Last year, for her birthday, I gave my mom a copy of “The Happiness Project.” It was one of those gifts I hoped she might enjoy…and that she’d read quickly and pass on to me. (I’m still waiting. Drat.) So I haven’t actually gotten to read it yet, but it’s a really brilliant concept that can be a little tricky to understand: if happiness is fleeting, how do we make ourselves more happy?

“Happiness Project” author tried a different set of suggested ideas for a month each: a year of happiness, if you will. I wish I could get that book to find out how it turned out (except I do know she’s doing quite well as an author, so I imagine that gives her some happiness now, too).

I read two articles on happiness this week that reminded me of that book.

First, The Atlantic posted “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”

It says pretty much what it sounds like, but I think it suffers from a lack of clarity in the word “happiness.” I mean, there are different kinds of happiness. There’s the “oh yay I found my lost sock!” happiness; there’s “hurray I’ve been cleared of all charges!” happiness; there’s “I got the big-screen TV I wanted on sale!” happiness; and there’s “I won a Pulitzer/Nobel Peace Prize/best thing ever” happiness.

It turns out that the “TV-level” type of happiness–happiness related to food or things, the kind of happiness we can be sold in a 30-second Super Bowl commercial–is very fleeting. We get used to it, we get over it, there’s something newer to be excited about. But I think that’s pretty intuitive. I mean, you can’t just keep big-screen-TVing your way to happiness, right?

And then there’s the other kind of happiness, the kind promoted by Viktor Frankl, the psychologist in the article, talks about. That might be better called “contentment.” It’s happiness achieved through purpose and meaning. And the things that give us happiness that way aren’t always happy-producing. I mean, you can love your pets/spouse/kids/job and they can still drive you absolutely crazy, right?  Right.

The other article, “Happiness Inc” in the New York Times, talks a little more about the science of happiness research. Which in and of itself is pretty fascinating. Did you know that for the longest time, psychologists never studied “normal” people: they only bothered to research people with obvious issues. But without studying “regular” folks, how would you know what was truly aberrant?

Similarly, it’s taken psychologists a long time to get around to studying happiness. The thing known as “hedonic adaptation” is that big-screen-TV-effect I mentioned earlier.

Personally, I don’t go much for that kind of happiness. I think I’m just not wired that way. I mean, yes, I can admire a big screen TV or a fancy car with the best of them, and I’ve been known to heartily enjoy some chocolate, but I think my life is very much grounded on things that provide meaning. In fact, I don’t think I could try to live “without meaning,” if  wanted to. I look for meaning all the time. Meaning is why I write. Why I edit. Heck, it’s why I’m blogging right now (because I might as well send these thoughts to an audience somewhere. I’d be thinking them anyway.)

How important is meaning to your happiness? Could you be happy without it?


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5 responses to “The Meaninglessness of Happiness

  1. No, I need meaning. Even if it’s nothing more than making a random stranger smile, I need to feel that the world is better by having me in it than without. Otherwise, all the big screen tv’s don’t matter much to me no matter how shiny and bright.

  2. Adam M.

    For me the best kind of joy comes from meaning, or purpose. Knowing your role, so to speak, gives me comfort. Less comfort if I don’t like the role, but still more than being uncertain.

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