"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 2, 2013

Meaning, Happiness, And Nietzsche

In a recent article in The Atlantic (8.2.13) Emily Esfahani Smith cites evidence that “people who are happy but have little-to-no sense of meaning in their lives have the same gene expression patterns as people who are enduring chronic adversity”.  In other words, those who seek self gratification and are more concerned about themselves than others end up with compromised genes.  A person leading a happy but meaningless life is as bad off as someone who has experienced loss, illness, or tragedy:

Cole’s past work has linked various kinds of chronic adversity to a particular gene expression pattern. When people feel lonely, are grieving the loss of a loved one, or are struggling to make ends meet, their bodies go into threat mode. This triggers the activation of a stress-related gene pattern that has two features: an increase in the activity of pro-inflammatory genes and a decrease in the activity of genes involved in anti-viral responses.

The authors of the study arbitrarily chose a life of ‘giving’ or filled with generosity as meaningful:

Meaning was defined as an orientation to something bigger than the self. They measured meaning by asking questions like “How often did you feel that you had something to contribute to society?”, and “How often did you feel that you belonged to a community/social group?” The more people endorsed these measures of “eudaimonic well-being” — or, simply put, virtue — the more meaning they felt in life.

By contrast, happy people are simply blissfully happy – not really happy, but only maintaining the illusion of well-being by satisfying immediate and self-serving needs:

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors of the study wrote.

This, of course, is a lot of hokum since there are many ways to define ‘meaning’ and ‘happiness’. Where, for example, does intellectual inquiry fit? An intellectual whose only ambition is to understand evolution, the nature of history, or the genius of Shakespeare may have no desire to find meaning – God, for example – and is quite happy to have ‘aha’ moments when finding surprising links between events.

I travelled for over 40 years throughout the developing world, working on projects to promote economic and social development.  I learned early on that these projects would never attain this lofty end. Politics, corruption, and xenophobic design assured failure; and for  the rest of my career both enjoyed life (I was happy), and learned (intellectual meaning).  I learned about culture, economics, social dynamics, and local history; and enjoyed the best restaurants, beaches, and hotels in the world. Helping others was not an issue.  My motivation was distinctly and uncompromisingly personal.

I cannot imagine that my genes would look twisted and malformed simply because I did not shed a tear for the poor or beam with satisfaction at the sight of a vaccinated child.  By the end of my long career I felt I understood much about how the world works, how societies behave, and how the gears of history keep turning in predictable ways; and that was more than enough.

I know a fly fisherman who teaches people how to fish. His instruction pays the rent, and he can cast for trout on the Yellowstone or the White River in Arkansas, alone and perfectly happy and his life has meaning.  He sees nothing mystical about fly fishing; and the grace and elegance of his perfect casting are no more than means to an end.  Others may see ‘meaning’ in the poetry of the line, the spiritual link between fish and fisherman, but my friend simply likes to fish.  He enjoys fishing like he does hunting. He has spent much of his life learning to be an expert fly fisherman.  He knows how to hand-tie flies.  He can cast into tangled overhangs without getting hung up.  He has learned how moving or still water give clues to where the fish are.  He gives nothing to others, but has combined personal pleasure and challenge into a good life.

A good example of the relativity of meaning is found in the movie Chariots of Fire. Based on a true story, the movie tells of two Englishmen who won medals in track at the 1924 Olympics.  Eric Liddell was a Scotsman who said he ran for God.  “God made me fast”, he says, and he cannot waste what his Creator endowed.  For him running was an expression of his faith and drew him closer to God.  As importantly, he felt that by preaching this message of Divine intervention and human godliness, he would serve the Lord.

Harold Abrahams, on the other hand, ran only for himself.  As a Jew who was an exception at Cambridge, and a man acutely aware of discrimination and hostility, his running was a means to legitimacy and acceptance.  He ran for himself.  While he might have had some thoughts about his fellow Jews, he ran for personal glory.

Who can say that the outward-motivated Liddell had found a higher meaning in life and was better-off than the gene-compromised, self-centered Abrahams? Who can possibly judge the importance of personal, inward, self-satisfaction and triumph?

Smith reaches back into the history of philosophy to justify her conclusions and that of the researchers she cites in the article:

The terms hedonism and eudaimonism bring to mind the great philosophical debate, which has shaped Western civilization for over 2,000 years, about the nature of the good life. Does happiness lie in feeling good, as hedonists think, or in doing and being good, as Aristotle and his intellectual descendants, the virtue ethicists, think? From the evidence of this study, it seems that feeling good is not enough. People need meaning to thrive. In the words of Carl Jung, “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” Jung’s wisdom certainly seems to apply to our bodies, if not also to our hearts and our minds.

However, she ignores the influential philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw the world as a dismal and meaningless place, trampled by unthinking human herds.  Only a few Supermen could rise above the herd and exist in a world Beyond Good and Evil, a world of pure individual expression and satisfaction. Where do these special individuals fit in the happiness-meaning divide? Where do we put the super-intelligent, talented, and ambitious people who solve the challenges of Wall Street, or overcome all obstacles to bring new software to market; or the gifted and driven athletes like Harold Abrahams?

This focus on giving and selflessness seems to me a very politically correct interpretation of human ambition, desire, and fulfillment. It seems as though the researchers have started with an assumption – giving is good – and set out to prove it.  With a different political persuasion, they might have chosen the type of subject to whom I have referred here, those who have achieved personal, individual satisfaction, and for whom the meaning of life is to understand, to succeed, or to create.

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