More to Life than Being Happy

This article in the Atlantic a chord with me.  It’s about how, in life, searching for meaning can leave people more satisfied than searching for happiness.

As [Viktor Frankl] saw in the [concentration] camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing”.

Meaning, more than happiness, is long-term.  The article describes our modern meaning for happiness as a satisfaction of needs and wants.  When those needs and wants cease to be satisfied, that happiness turns out to have only been temporary.  Meaning in life, the article describes, requires considering more than just the needs and wants of the moment.

“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.”

This has always been a bit of a paradox for me.  Studies show that adults without children are happier, other studies show that parents with children are more satisfied in life (and live longer, and other good things).  I considered this a paradox because I equated happiness and satisfaction, and the solution to the paradox is that happiness is not satisfaction.

“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,”

A major criticism of my generation, mostly by older generations, is that we demand instant gratification.  This is certainly true.  I think instant gratification produces more happiness of the type the article describes.  Whatever we’re receiving satisfies a need or want, and today we can satisfy those needs/wants faster than at any point in the past.

This criticism is misplaced.  Happiness and meaning, as defined by the article, are two separate things in life.  Short-term gratification is independent of long-term meaning.  A more appropriate/useful criticism is that my generation does not concern itself with seeking long-term meaning.  I’m not sure that criticism is any more true for my generation than for those of the past, though.

Finally, here’s part of a comment on the article from another reader, Robert Chow:

it is instructive to consider how the term [happiness] has evolved since the time Thomas Jefferson enshrined the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. […] Jefferson most likely borrowed this idea from John Locke, one Jefferson’s key intellectual influences.  Locke was not referring to the pursuit of sensual pleasure, but to the Aristotelian meaning of “happiness”.  [Not] the satisfaction of our desire for sensual pleasures, but a person’s active pursuit of virtue or excellence, […] the pursuit of meaning. […] So during the 18th Century and at the time of the birth of this nation, the search for happiness and the search for meaning in life were actually one in the same.

That’s a much better definition for happiness.  In my head I give both meanings to the word, and that’s what truly lead to the parent happiness paradox I describe above.  One happiness is satisfaction with life, the other happiness is having short-term needs satisfied.  The studies really show that parents have more of the former and less of the latter.

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