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

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Do We Need Meaning For Happiness?

In an article in The Atlantic (8.2.13) Emily Esfahani Smith cited 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:

[Researcher] 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.

Happy Face

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 “eudemonic 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.


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

Image result for images beautiful caribbean beach


A fly fisherman I know 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.  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 the fisherman simply likes to fish.  He enjoys fishing like he does hunting.

Image result for images yellowstone river


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. Meaning had nothing to do with his happiness.

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.

Image result for chariots of fire images


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 eudemonism 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?


One of the most influential books of the 20th Century was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning (1946), reviewed in The Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith (1.19.13). Frankl was a Nazi concentration camp survivor and wrote the book while imprisoned.  He argued that finding meaning life and in one’s own life especially, was the key to survival.  Those who had found meaning lived, and those who did not, died.  Those who felt that life was worth living, had purpose, and subscribed to something larger than themselves, had the will, determination, and fortitude to survive where others succumbed.

As he saw in the 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," Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, "the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

Image result for images viktor frankl


Smith observes that the search for meaning honored by Frankl has become secondary in a ‘pursuit of happiness’ society which values taking over giving and personal gratification for its own sake. Her words echo Thomas Jefferson who, when he wrote about ‘the pursuit of happiness' in the Declaration of Independence,  was influenced by the philosophy of John Locke – one did not pursue happiness for personal pleasure or satisfaction, but for the well-being of society – the aggregation of individuals.

Image result for images thomas jefferson

There is no doubt that meaning has an important role to play in both individual spiritual development and in social cohesion; but is it essential for happiness?  There are far too many cases of individuals whose happiness is derived uniquely from the expression and achievement of personal desires.

This focus on giving and selflessness seems to be a very politically correct interpretation of human ambition, desire, and fulfillment. It seems as though the researchers cited in Esfahani Smith’s article 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.

For Delia Weaver, a close friend and radical theologian, the combination of Nietzsche's nihilistic philosophy and the devil-may-care Epicurean love of life, pleasure, and ease the inherited from her mother was irresistible. If immortality was a convenient fiction; if there was no such thing as Platonic dualism and the permanence of ‘morality’; if there was no logos which existed before God and for all eternity, then one was on one’s own.  Goodness would not be rewarded nor evil punished in some Final Judgment. Secular laws were created to keep order and facilitate economic productivity and must be obeyed; but looking for greater benefits from doing or being good was sheer nonsense. Having fun – happiness, pleasure – was all the mattered in a Hobbesian world.

Nothing has ever made more sense.

Image result for images thomas hobbes


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