Pursue Meaning, Not Happiness
Someone recently asked me, "What makes for a happy life?" The very question itself bothered me. I've always been agitated by the "pursuit of happiness." I know that sounds un-American, but is our life's end all about being happy? Am I a boring curmudgeon or a Debbie Downer for not being a fan of "happiness?"
I felt vindicated upon reading this article from The Atlantic Monthly by Emily Esfahani Smith. She highlights a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl and his emphasis on meaning as opposed to happiness. "His emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self - this seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness." I often hear the phrase, "I just want to be happy." Frankl writes, "Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'" In other words, happiness is an outcome of a meaningful life, not something that life should pursue.
A recent study done by psychological scientists tracked the difference between happiness and meaning. One of the great findings was that from a social perspective, "the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior - being a 'taker' rather than a 'giver.'" Wanting to "be happy" implies selfish things - lavish vacations, buying toys for yourself, etc. By contrast, "meaning" finds significance in doing meaningful work that affects other people. A teacher's job is not always "happy," a but a teacher finds meaning in helping young people learn and grow.
I have to tread lightly here, but I contend that marriage isn’t meant to make you happy, nor does it ensure happiness. The goals I have for my marriage have nothing to do with happiness, but with meaning and significance that come from love. Happiness is tied to emotions, which come and go. Happiness can be an outcome of love, but it’s never the pursuit. Love, unlike emotions, doesn’t ebb and flow. It must remain constant, even proving itself in suffering, pain, and hardship. In fact, love is proven precisely in the “unhappy” times.
Scripture never really talks about "happiness." It talks about meaning found in God-given identity. It reveals joy found in grace. It shows the deep value of love-centered service to others. A biblical doctrine of vocation, or calling, tells us that we all have value in the God-given things He has for us to do. Loving our neighbor - as a friend, family member, spouse, employee, classmate, etc. - is not about being happy. Rather it gives us the deep meaning of knowing that God called us to this important work.
Am I Debbie Downer? I hope not. In this Lenten season, we see that Good Friday was not “happy,” but it means that there is a deeper love than I could ever pursue. More than happiness, this fact gives me meaningful joy.
3/26/2013 06:59:29 am
I really appreciate your distinction between meaning and happiness. You caused me to pause and think about how often we interchange these two words.
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