Perhaps meaning is the natural progression, an advanced form of happiness. It not only benefits the individual, but also society.
By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here
In every culture, at the center of life is happiness. It is the natural conclusion for living, why we do anything that we do. Even poor decisions may be misguided attempts at happiness — that everything we do will ultimately lead to happiness (either for ourselves, our group, those we care about, or for a future generation). Much of the world's disorders stem from dissenting pursuits of happiness (and who should have it and who shouldn't). We think we know how it should feel, but the path has been uncertain. Then we should begin by asking ourselves: What is happiness? Is it a destination or is it a state of being that is built into our nature? Something that can only come from within. An internal decision.
Socrates asked, "Is happiness a choice?" The philosophers of the time argued happiness was a matter of god(s)-given luck. We did, however, have some dominion over personal pleasure (hedonism). Socrates believed happiness was attained through effort; created by virtuous activities that served society.
Sentenced to death for corrupting the youth, Socrates said:
Stoicism explains: you may not be able to control your circumstances, however, you can control your reactions. You can drown in the tidal wave of life or you can surf. The choice is yours to make.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes:
The prevailing attitude was (and still is) to lament anything unfortunate. Misery would find us in the end. "Hap," the root of "happiness," means fortune and luck. Happiness was a state of being in luck, and luck by its very nature cannot be controlled. If it could be dictated, it would no longer be luck. Anything we could control thus would not be happiness. Making such a claim would be heresy. Stealing moments of pleasure and forgetting our woes was an adequate consolation. Most people today still define happiness as random occurrence. Alternatively, self-taking and personal pleasure has evolved into the other definition of happiness.
Socratic happiness is one based on meaningfulness — selfless giving and purpose. (The same message was shared by Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and most other great leaders and prophets.) When gauged by a feeling of bliss, studies have shown meaning was more uplifting than self-taking. The opposite was also true, as Socrates stated:
By pursuing self-satisfaction, we attempt to avoid difficult, stressful, and taxing situations. Taking care of others and contributing to society can be thankless and fraught with challenge. We sometimes do them because we have to. That’s not always a bad thing. Serving a purpose gives meaning to our work.
How We Define Happiness Can Be Part of Our Misery
Self-pleasure, just like stress, can cause inflammation on a cellular level. In return, meaning and compassion are our bodies' natural anti-inflammatories. Depression suppresses the immune system, but studies have shown, so does self-indulgent happiness. Altruistic happiness improves health, including the immune system.
If self-taking is happiness, then beyond happiness is meaning, for meaning provides all the benefit. Perhaps meaning is the natural progression, an advanced form of happiness. It not only benefits the individual, but also society. Without a collective interest, where would civilization be? This is what the wisest among us believed.
According to psychologist Peter Kramer, resilience, not happiness, is the opposite of depression. A therapist may help manage depression, but from resilience to happiness, that is on the individual. Like an emotional immune system, the more obstacles we overcome, the more resilient we become. When we avoid these situations, resilience has no need to grow, and sensitivity rises in its place. As a sailor hones her skills on turbulent waters, resilience keeps happiness afloat. Like most things, it gets better with practice.
There is no catharsis in expressing negative emotions just to express them. In fact, it may amplify those perceptions. It acts as a constant reminder of feelings that may have dissipated on its own. We're not releasing unhappiness, we're asking for sympathy. Sympathy is about validation, that we're supposed to be miserable. That somehow suffering proves our uniqueness, for a hero always suffers trials and tribulations. Yet this increases disconnection; sadness is disconnection.
English teacher David McCullough Jr. at Wellesley High School said in a commencement speech:
Professor Brené Brown explains empathy is when others feel what we feel. No judgment, no validation, just connection. Happiness is connection.
Confusing Pleasure and Passion With Happiness
Pleasure and happiness may overlap, but they're not the same. School can be at times unpleasurable, but one can be happy they went. Eating junk food may give one pleasure, but it can also cause dissatisfaction. With the superficial, it is easier to see it as pleasure seeking. There is less clarity in understanding passion, love, and individuality as self-interests.
Why do we chase passion if it makes us unhappy; if it stifles our progress in other areas? If it is for a noble cause that is greater than ourselves, unhappiness is fleeting.
However, if we answer: I do it for myself, my love, my expression, my art, my identity, my recognition, my validation, or for anything else that only benefits the self — we may be confusing unhappiness for happiness. That feeling of never living up to our own expectations becomes our de facto happiness. Sometimes the reason for chasing passion is passion itself — it needs no reason. We randomly found something we enjoy, and without any real cause, we believe we're supposed to spend the rest of our lives chasing it. Like a broken record that haphazardly selects a beat that will repeat over and over — because that is what broken records do — until they break. These are the same primitive beliefs as the time of Socrates. And when that status quo becomes challenged, the reactions are similarly adverse.
Then where is free-will? There is only destiny — only superstition and mechanical living and predictable thinking. If happiness is a flip of the coin, how can we intellectually consider this happiness and not just random dumb luck? Then a casino is the bastion for happiness, and many are convinced it is, to the delight of the casino.
If our happiness starts and stops with us, why would we care about the welfare of our friends and family? How would laughter and a sunny day bring us happiness? If we only find these things to be nice, what natural resources do we have to shield ourselves from misery?
Passion by itself is not inherently good. Without compassion, empathy, and virtue, passion can be dangerous. From crimes of passion to some of the world's worst atrocities — committed by passionate leaders, supported by passionate followers. Wars start with passion; cool heads make sound decisions.
Trust in Effort Then Add Passion
The previous generation told us to chase our dreams, but they were reacting to the lessons of the previous generation — the value of hard work, service, duty, loving thy neighbor, and being our brother's keeper. Our grandparents' generation taught us we are not separate from the herd, that we are the herd. This change in message has created a shift in the college majors of American students, impacting the economy and creating an employment gap in sectors like STEM and education, but a surplus in majors related to business (money) or self-expression (fame).
We have voluntarily eliminated the middle. Average is bad. We are either a star or we're not, with nothing in the middle. And for most of us who are not stars, with no average for context, we become failures because we only compare ourselves to the top. The middle-distance to failure, bridged. As a country, chasing our dreams sounds nice, but it has not made us any happier.
Georgetown University professor, Cal Newport writes:
We expect the future to have a balance of ideas, in truth, we only learn the most recent lessons. We believe happiness is based on the universe delivering our fantasies. We believe the universe only exists to bring us pleasure (atheists and believers alike). Yet the universe will exist whether we do or not. It does not care what we think because it is greater than us and it does not think. We are naive to give it human qualities. God is the name for a universe with human qualities, morals, and fairness. Yet even the Bible says:
Within us. Our own efforts.
"Others" give us meaning, passion is for "ourselves." We can readily add passion (self-benefit) to meaningful things. But what are we good at, where is there a need, who can we benefit? Instead of trying to find our own happiness, what if we made others happy? Helping others is not a form of weakness, in fact, only the strong are in positions to help others. Helping others does not make one a fool, it makes one a good person.
There are numerous things we love and are passionate about. It's constantly changing and new things are always being added. Passion is an unreliable way to live. Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban writes:
"What Would Make 'Me' Happy," Is the Wrong Question
In a spiritual sense, meaning is the most compassionate form of happiness. In the business sense, an investor will not invest any sum of money if it only benefits you. They will need to know: does the world need this thing? Does it serve others? Will it make others happy? Are you good at making this thing? Will you put in the effort to earn their money back? Concern for others is the most productive form of happiness.
Biochemist turned Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard said we can train our minds in habits of happiness. We can even be happy when we're sad because it's about fulfillment and connection. Like spreading light in a cancer ward or working with lepers, you may be sad, but your work is too meaningful to make you unhappy. Sadness is not unhappiness, sadness is an emotion and as human beings, we are free to paint our lives with a whole palette of emotions, for that is wholeness. Happiness is like meditation, it is beyond emotions, it requires practice; it becomes a skill, a habit, but above all else, it is a philosophical way of existence. This is also true of self-sabotage, it too can be a way of existence.
Eastern philosophy is about happiness as service of others (connection and altruism). Somehow, the message was lost and all we're left with is spiritual hedonism. Karma (beneficial connections) reduced to a universal revenge system. Eastern practices have been co-opted by Western ideas of self-love and "you can't love others unless you love yourself first." Yet the opposite is truer in practice and in therapy: you can't love yourself unless you forgive and learn to love others. As infants, we first become aware of our parents before we become aware of ourselves. Our love of parents arises before the love of self; in an evolutionary sense, that love for our parents will keep us alive. We are not in a position yet to self-care and self-protect. Love of others is dualistically also a love of self-preservation. Our eyes face out for a reason.
In The Geography of Thought, Richard E. Nisbett writes:
If one is aware of their level of self-absorption, then can one love themselves? Or does one compensate and pretend? Continuously looking to fill the void, synthetically or organically.
It is not so radical to ask what the universe can do for us. What can we do for the universe? That is more radical in an era of "me."
We document acts of kindness and virtue for a reason. It feels good. It is also about control; there is no worse feeling than the loss of control. The worst thing a human can be is a slave. Doing good things for others, that we can control. Happiness based on things we cannot control, like random occurrences of good luck, doom us to misery. We willfully give up control over our lives to embrace suffering with a promise of a big payday down the line that will never meet expectations. This is "impact bias," when we overestimate our emotional reactions. "I thought I'd be happier than this."
Yet we do not like to give up control. Rather than shift our focus to the things we can control (the rational), we attempt to control what cannot be controlled — all the things that will ever happen to us (the irrational). Since this is impossible, we grow more dire, more obsessive, more controlling, more compulsive, more stubborn. Does this paradox bring about neuroticism or does neuroticism lend itself to this paradox? The answer does not matter as they influence each other for the worse.
The Era of the Self/ Selfies
The focus now is clearly on the self. Psychologists worry it's worsening self-esteem, stress, anxiety, and depression. Dr. Pamela Rutledge writes:
According to psychiatrist Dr. David Veal:
By design, we can only see others, we cannot actually see ourselves. Our biology is about connecting with the outside world. We are one of the only animals who can recognize themselves in the mirror; we are the only animal that falls in love with our reflection. Then it only makes sense when this extreme love of the self causes our brain to haywire. So unnatural is this want to see the self that we needed to invent ways to look at ourselves because it wasn't conveniently provided in nature. (Other than obscured portraits against water or warped silhouettes from our shadows). How much have we adapted to this intervention? Our eyes can see miles out on a clear day yet we still have no sense of what we look like without a mirror.
The "selfie" used to be a photo we took of ourselves, but now it is any photo with just ourselves in it. (Here, let me take a picture only of me.) Me only taking a picture of me, for you to enjoy me.
It used to be a rare sight, now for many human beings, it's done at least once a day. What is interesting with the "selfie" is it is not a mirror, it is this idealized self. No longer how we actually look but how we want to look. We don't take it for ourselves, we want others to see it. A photo of ourselves that we are telling others to enjoy. We want them to participate in our new construct of ourselves. To take part in this fictionalized self-image, to validate its reality. It's almost as if it is not real unless others recognize it. But it does not bring us closer together, it pushes people away, damaging relationship and intimacy.
This is not the same as it was in the past, where someone invited you to their home to look at their travel photos, and you had the free-choice to accept or decline. This is more like someone going to your home and plastering your walls with their photos without your consent, and doing it every day. One could say many things about this process, even that it somehow helps with identity and confidence, but few could argue that it is altruistic.
One could argue this behavior has been around, pointing to a few similar instances in our history. But it was not this accessible, and not at this magnitude where it is shaping how we think about ourselves. Qualities are not what create an issue, many of us have some obsessive qualities for instance, yet it is not a problem. The problem arises in the severity. It is that subtle act of balance. In the right balance you have medicine, in the wrong balance you have poison. Saying this is how it always was is to say nothing changes; therefore, nothing more needs to change. (Untrue and oppressive; imagine if during the Civil Rights Movement, if everyone said, there are always complainers, nothing needs to change. And some people did, they were the opposition.)
The pinnacle of recognition is fame, yet fame has been a better guarantor for misery than for happiness. With those who are famous and happy, they claim their happiness is independent of recognition. (The rich claim the same about money.) It is not that fame brings joy, it is that famous people are in a better position to tell us about their joy because they are famous. However, sometimes fame is so detrimental to their happiness, many leave their fame for a higher calling.
Isn't trying to be important an attempt at connecting to as many people as possible? Yet thoughtfulness and kindness are more long lasting and special. Seeking to be unique is not all that unique, that is the default. In a world growing smaller through digital information, it pays to be kind.
Ego Blocks Happiness
A leader needs a cause, a business needs a mission, an artist needs a message, and a workaholic needs loved ones to work for. Something that tethers them to shore.
Researcher Paul Harvey who studies the attitudinal change in the workface said:
If we follow the path of personal desire, there is no other choice but for our sense of self to inflate. We're the star of our own movie and we can only win if we get everything we want. We're not part of an ensemble nor do we want to be. That want to be unique and extra-ordinary is no different from covert narcissism. Narcissism has little to do with how vocal we are, it's about our internal demands and thoughts. Narcissism and introversion are not contradictions; loud narcissists are just more noticeable than the quiet ones. But in the world of social media, it is hard to tell the introverts from the extroverts, they can act identically online. (Most millennials identify as introverts; then who are the extroverts anyhow? Everyone thinks they are humble.)
Happiness Is a Journey, Not a Destination
Narcissism is about you standing out in the world. You beating the world, not you and the world. This only leads to anger. Seneca writes:
If you're the protagonist of your own life story, happiness is something that happens at the end, not a process. Not something you can live in every day, just something you hope for in the final chapter of your life or the last moment before you die.
In a Pew Research study, 81% of 18- to 25-year-olds said getting rich was their most important or second-most-important goal in life; 51% felt the same about fame. We see happiness as a big payoff when big payoffs are unpredictable. Why delay happiness? Why make it conditional? Why make it so difficult? Incremental improvement is much easier to predict and control. Happiness is about the time spent being happy, not the size of the payday.
Cultural historian Richard Tarnas writes in The Passion of the Western Mind:
If happiness is based on a goal, simply declaring we've made the goal can partially bring us the pleasure we can get from goal attainment since it still provides us with social recognition and positive self-talk. (Another reason to eat cake.) In the long run, however, it is what robs us of our resolve to complete the goal — one of the many things we start and never finish, which makes us feel guilty. (We also feel guilty about the weight we gained from eating the cake prematurely.)
Yet it is the goal that sometimes robs of us peace. We assert happiness as a destination, rather than a journey. That is the paradox: high expectation is the longest path to happiness and the quickest path to despair.
Marcus Aurelius writes:
Happiness is not an event, but an indefinite state. Seeing it as a result rather than a condition only increases the dissonance. Perceptions must be reconciled before any fruitful change.
Happiness Contingent on Wants
If you can only be happy after getting what you want, and the chance of getting that want is 1 in 10 million, are you not 9,999,999 more likely to be miserable? Sometimes people will base their happiness on something that is ultimately unattainable: having a perfect look, changing what is unchangeable, becoming something they are not. A happiness based on wants is no different than the excitement of fool's gold.
The best way to guarantee despair is to approach life with an all-or-nothing attitude. A happiness based on having it all is no different than misery.
Interconnected and Interwoven in a Web of Humanity
One of the most influential minds of the modern era, Albert Einstein, thought long and hard about happiness, humanity, and individuality. Happiness is about bringing value to the collective; individuality is about the special few who are able to use their talents to elevate the rest of us, not just elevate themselves. In Ideas and Opinions, Einstein writes:
The "If and When" Paradox
If and when I retire, I'll finally take those trips and be happy.
If and when I find true love, I'll be happy.
If and when I look the way I want, I'll be happy.
If and when my life becomes secure, I'll stop saving all my money and start enjoying it.
And in the meantime? What if it doesn't pan out? If you're waiting for perfect conditions in an imperfect world, you'll never be happy. A good life is not a perfect one.
If a musician is only happy when they're on stage, what about all the other hours in the day? When dealing with preparation, logistics, money, taxes, hassle, and making sure everyone gets paid? Do you vacillate from misery to grandiose? Passion is too specific and too rigid. Happiness should flow like water, able to fit into the biggest or tiniest of spaces.
"If" is illusory, we don't know anything about it, so why hang happiness on an uncertainty? Why not just be happy?
In a Harvard study, when people thought about things they wanted, they showed less patience, self-control, and willpower. When they thought about things they were grateful for, they showed more patience, willpower, and logic. This is self-demagoguery, emotions and aspirations over logic and gratitude. We do this because "want" makes us agitated. We're agitated about not having what we want. If we get what we want, we are temporarily satisfied, but since we have a habit of "want," we'll be agitated again shortly.
Yet how do we know what we truly want? Will that object of desire actually make you happy? We think we know everything already; that's the problem. On this Socrates said:
Happiness Is Not Universally Important
For many purists, there are things more important than happiness. They're willing to sacrifice for something they think is more crucial. They may dive deep into the darkness to produce their art. Perhaps their sense of identity is so important they need to disconnect from the world. Maybe it's about the bottom line because money is how they keep score and the final score is all that matters. Maybe it's about feeling superior to other people (a sociopathic pleasure). Their want of recognition is more important than the feeling of adding value to the world. They willingly live in a toxic environment to get what they want.
Then there are materialists who think happiness is silly. There are people who are too severe and too busy for happiness. It is something for children, for the ignorant masses. Want becomes more important than happiness because it is tangible, it is quantifiable. We can count want and hold it in our hands. It is a commodified happiness, ruled by more spending power, always in need of more spending power. However, the greedy may still be better off than those who are completely unaware of their values. They are not misguidedly chasing happiness, they know they don't want it.
Choose Your Words Wisely
Words affect our happiness. (Like "if" and "when.") The subjunctive is a type of verbiage found in many Western languages. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality: such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred. It gives thoughts a mood and moralistically shapes our perception of the world.
Most other languages are indicative, meaning their words and thoughts are indicative of their actions. If one were to only speak English in the indicative, one would sound like Yoda. Yoda is not trying to sound funny, it is the inability of English to express the indicative that makes it sound funny. Speaking only to indicate intent and action is that unusual for English.
Part of unhappiness rises from people saying things they do not mean or plan to do — or the things that have not happened. (It allows one to live in fantasy, creating a barrier from real happiness.) Romantic languages romanticize language. It sounds more poetic when written, but it is a hard way to write an instruction manual. (Or a manual on living.) In fact, the more subjunctive you speak, the unhappier you tend to get. You can think about thinking about how unhappy you are, you can appreciate unhappiness on figurative and poetically tragic levels. Your imagination can run wild with unhappiness and you can come to believe it to be true.
You can choose to be an artist of unhappiness.
In Proverbial Philosophy, Martin Farquhar Tupper writes:
Globalization of Unhappy Talk
Talk of money was once considered rude, lacking in decorum, and not something that made people generally happy. Things have changed and the rich flaunting their lifestyle with their Instagram photos and reality shows have made it trendy — aspirational. Countries entering the First World are beginning to think that money can buy happiness. In areas where money was seldom talked about, it is now dominating every conversation. Part of globalism means "keeping up with the Joneses," even in parts of the world where they have no idea who the "Joneses" are. In actuality, none of us know who the "Joneses" are, it's this imaginary "other" we use to compare ourselves and remind ourselves of how we are never good enough.
Evolved For Meaning
Evolution asks questions: Why? Why will this keep me alive? Why will this keep us alive? We evolved to reward or punish these responses. Help the collective, you feel good. Self-serve and you feel isolated and stressed. The lone wolf sounds "romantic" but you die without a pack. We survived as a species through collective effort. Neuroscientists have proven that empathy is hardwired into our brains. A threat to one of us is a threat to our collective resource. Still today, the cultures with the longest lifespans have the most tightly knit communities. People who work for prestige die sooner whereas people who do altruistic work live longer. The better the group does, the better we do. The more we live in a vacuum, the less we care for other people, the less they care for us. The more we take care of others, the more hands take care of us back. When we feel like we have no one to live for, we stop living.
Try cooking for one and see how difficult it is; see how enjoyable eating alone is. We make the extra effort when there is another person involved; these efforts accumulate.
Individuality and self-love are necessary, but it's a balancing act along with interconnectedness. One of the best determiners of early mortality is social isolation. In fact, new research is challenging our beliefs on addiction. We may stick to drugs because of chemical dependency, but what got us started may be unhappiness, isolation, and loneliness. When disconnected, we literally self-destruct.
Are We Any Closer?
Martin Seligman founded the field of positive psychology only in 2000. The clinical study of happiness is still a relatively new phenomena. It wasn't until Abraham Maslow (April 1, 1908 - June 8, 1970) that patients began to be seen as clients. This may seem natural but at the time this was revolutionary. Rather than indirectly treating a sick patient, directly collaborating to improve the individual. Maslow theorized that during every stage of one's life, no matter how many comforts one attains, man will always look for meaning.
Important progress has been made in understanding happiness in a clinical setting. But along with science, we must look to philosophy, the behavior of happy people, to stories, parables, and mythology — to the wisdom of the past if we are to live the good life.
What is happiness and how do we attain it? These questions have been argued over for thousands of years yet are we any closer to the truth? Not surprisingly, there is no disagreement among today's experts; the discord exists between those who are already happy and those who are not.
The key to happiness then begins with our definition and our discipline to follow through. If happiness is a choice, we can get better at making those decisions. Even in times of strife and protest, we can unite and make each other happy, and in doing so we make ourselves happy.
Useful Companions (Improve Your Education and This Site by Buying a Book):
-  A study on the happy life and the meaningful life
-  A study of the genomic perspective on human well-being
-  A study of the health aspects of altruism
-  Against Depression - Peter D. Kramer
-  Daring Greatly - Brené Brown
-  A study on unhealthy eating and mood
-  "What College Students Were Studying 40 Years Ago vs. Today" - Mic
-  Within the Context of No Context - George W.S. Trow
-  "Solving Gen Y’s Passion Problem" - Harvard Business Review
-  How to Win at the Sport of Business - Mark Cuban
-  Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill - Matthieu Ricard
-  The Geography of Thought - Richard E. Nisbett
-  "Making Sense of Selfies" - Psychology Today
-  "Selfies Linked to Narcissism, Addiction and Mental Illness, Say Scientists" - International Business Times
-  A study on the the effects of sharing photographs online
-  "11 Celebs Who Gave Up Hollywood For A Higher Calling" - Refinery29
-  "As College Graduates Hit The Workforce, So Do More Entitlement-Minded Workers" - University of New Hampshire
-  "23 Signs You’re Secretly a Narcissist Masquerading as a Sensitive Introvert" - Scientific American
-  "How Young People View Their Lives, Futures, And Politics" - The Pew Research Center
-  The Passion of the Western Mind - Richard Tarnas
-  A study on high aspirations and depression
-  Ideas And Opinions - Albert Einstein
-  A Harvard study on gratitude
-  "Subjunctive mood" - Wikipedia
-  "Lost in Translation" - The Wall Street Journal
-  "Does The Subjunctive Have A Dark Side?" - NPR
-  "Sylvia Plath effect" - Wikipedia
-  "More Teenagers Believe Money Can Buy Happiness" - Korea Bizwire
-  "In Rural China, Going To College Is Just Another Way To Disappoint Your Parents" - Quartz
-  A neurobiological study on empathy
-  Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way - Dan Buettner
-  "Hazard of the Trade: Bankers' Health" - The Wall Street Journal
-  "Altruistic Volunteering Can Lead to Longer Life" - American Psychological Association
-  A study on social isolation and mortality
-  Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs - Johann Hari
-  Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being - Martin Seligman
-  A Theory of Human Motivation - Abraham H. Maslow
- Socrates Cafe: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy - Christopher Phillips
- The Nicomachean Ethics - Aristotle
- Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
- Letters from a Stoic - Lucius Annaeus Seneca
- So Good They Can't Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love - Cal Newport
- The Good Life - Hugh Mackay
- Mike Rowe: Learning from Dirty Jobs - TED
- You Are Not Special Commencement Speech - David McCullough Jr.
- "JFK's Words Still Inspire 50 Years Later" - NPR
- "Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy" - The Huffington Post
- "The Power of Being Thoughtful and Kind" - Inc.