When we discuss poverty and economic development, I can always count on a student to thoughtfully remark that people in the video and photographs of the "poor" Sub-Saharan or South Asian countries seem happy. Genuinely happy. Which is when I give them my usual spiel that once we go beyond the absolute poverty (those rates have been falling) we notice that getting rich is not the same the as being happy. I discuss that without the academic language behind the Easterlin Paradox.
A psychology professor at Florida State University observes in this essay that "happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning":
To be sure, happiness and meaningfulness frequently overlap. Perhaps some degree of meaning is a prerequisite for happiness, a necessary but insufficient condition. If that were the case, people might pursue meaning for purely instrumental reasons, as a step on the road towards happiness. But then, is there any reason to want meaning for its own sake? And if there isn’t, why would people ever choose lives that are more meaningful than happy, as they sometimes do?These days, I am suspicious about anything that psychology researchers have to offer based on the experiments that they conduct. There is a "reproducibility crisis" in psychology:
A study out last summer tried to replicate 100 psychology experiments one-for-one and found that just 40 percent of those replications were successful. A critique of that study just appeared last week, claiming that the original authors made statistical errors—but that critique has itself been attacked for misconstruing facts, ignoring evidence, and indulging in some wishful thinking.But, we will set that aside for now and consider the essay, which argues that "happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning"--after all, this is also something that I have been talking, and blogging, about for years. If it agrees with my view, then--of course--the research is true ;)
Kidding aside, the author writes:
If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story.Increasingly, it seems like people would rather focus on the present and seek a meaning of happiness that comes via instant gratification. So much so that they even use technology that helps them assemble a past in order to tell a story that airbrushes out the misery. Is all that really happiness, and is the meaning thus created really any meaning at all? Ah, I digress. Back to the essay at hand. Why do we care about meaning anyway?
Perhaps the idea is to make happiness last. Happiness seems present-focused and fleeting, whereas meaning extends into the future and the past and looks fairly stable. For this reason, people might think that pursuing a meaningful life helps them to stay happy in the long run. They might even be right — though, in empirical fact, happiness is often fairly consistent over time. Those of us who are happy today are also likely to be happy months or even years from now, and those who are unhappy about something today commonly turn out to be unhappy about other things in the distant future. It feels as though happiness comes from outside, but the weight of evidence suggests that a big part of it comes from inside. Despite these realities, people experience happiness as something that is felt here and now, and that cannot be counted on to last. By contrast, meaning is seen as lasting, and so people might think they can establish a basis for a more lasting kind of happiness by cultivating meaning.You are perhaps thinking, well, what is the meaning of life then? That is for you to figure out.
People ask what is the meaning of life, as if there is a single answer. There is no one answer: there are thousands of different ones. A life will be meaningful if it finds responses to the four questions of purpose, value, efficacy, and self-worth. It is these questions, not the answers, that endure and unify.
Find your meaning. And be happy!