Aim for meaning, not happiness

In “Happiness is Other People,” Ruth Whippman says that Americans spend too much time looking within:

In an individualistic culture powered by self-actualization, the idea that happiness should be engineered from the inside out, rather than the outside in, is slowly taking on the status of a default truism. This is happiness framed as journey of self-discovery, rather than the natural byproduct of engaging with the world; a happiness that stresses emotional independence rather than interdependence; one based on the idea that meaningful contentment can be found only by a full exploration of the self, a deep dive into our innermost souls and the intricacies and tripwires of our own personalities. Step 1: Find Yourself. Step 2: Be Yourself.

And then she concludes with this advice:

Given all that, the next time you have the choice between meditating and sitting in a bar with your friends complaining about meditation class, you should probably seriously consider going to the bar, no matter what your happiness app says.

This all assumes that the main goal of life is to achieve happiness. That’s Whippman’s unstated assumption — but it’s too simplistic. And so is her advice.

What about aiming for meaning instead of happiness? Psychology researchers consider these two different though interrelated life goals. Baumeister et al (2013) suggest that a focus on happiness relative to a focus on meaningfulness is associated with:

  • Satisfying one’s needs and wants
  • Present-orientation
  • Being a taker rather than a giver
  • Lower levels of worry, stress, and anxiety compared with a focus on meaning

Whereas meaningfulness is associated with:

  • Integration of past, present, and future along with attention to longer time frames
  • Being a giver rather than a taker
  • Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety (the meaningful course often requires more work and angst than the happy path!)
  • Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self.

Happiness is usually conceived of as positive affect in the moment; it’s mostly emotional, without much cognitive component to it. Sometimes psychological researchers define happiness as “subjective well-being” which can be judged both in momentary fashion or as some sort of global evaluation. A global evaluation will likely involve some cognitive appraisal, but still evaluates emotional experience. A global evaluation of subjective well-being could actually refer to someone’s meaningfulness goals, rather than happiness goals.

Meaningfulness is “a cognitive and emotional assessment of whether one’s life has purpose and value (Baumeister et al, 2013). So it is distinct from the emotional experience of life. We may suffer a lot of depression or anxiety but still find our lives meaningful, though they may not be judged as particularly happy.

Aiming for meaningfulness doesn’t imply that you need to go off and meditate silently or spend all your time in deep solitary introspection. Positive psychology researchers Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer Aaker share their results about people focused on happiness vs those focused on meaning:

In two studies tracking over 400 Americans and published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, one of us (Jennifer) and her colleagues studied the type of people who fell into the last two groups — high on happiness but low on meaningfulness, and high on meaning but low on happiness —and found important differences in how they led their lives. Those in the happy group tended to avoid difficult or taxing entanglements, described themselves as relatively self-oriented, and spent more time thinking about how they felt in the moment. In contrast, those high in meaning spent more time helping others, being with friends or taking care of children, and thinking about the past, present and future.

So a meaningful life will likely involve significant engagement with other people — it doesn’t mean running off to the forest and joining a monastery. Yet in addition to social connectedness such a life will likely often include ample time focused on the “deep dive into our innermost souls” that Whippman questions.

I listened to a talk from Audio Dharma yesterday on Cultivating Happiness. Whippman might say that by spending an hour of my life with ear buds on, by myself, learning Buddhist ideas about becoming happy rather than going out to a bar with friends I was wasting my time. But time alone engaged in introspection, meditation, and learning contributes to my ability to be a better, more engaged, more useful citizen of the world. (By the way – I highly recommend that talk as well as pretty much anything you find on Audio Dharma).

I seriously doubt that going to a bar and complaining about meditation with friends will contribute to a meaningful experience of life. Maybe it will make you happy in the moment, but I bet cultivating a rigorous meditation practice will result in a better life overall, especially if you combine it with rich social connectedness and a focus on giving generously to the people you love. Happiness may be other people, but a meaningful life requires more than simple socializing.