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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Meaning and Happiness

An article in SA got me meditating about the difference between meaning and happiness which led me to research some articles starting with social scientist Roy Baumeister and colleagues.

Here is an abstract from one of their papers which is illustrative:

Being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences. A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Concerns with personal identity and expressing the self contributed to meaning but not happiness. We offer brief composite sketches of the unhappy but meaningful life and of the happy but meaningless life.

Some reflections:

Elsewhere I discovered/conjectured three basic desires in humankind:

  1. to life: satisfaction of organic needs--from food to sex to actualization (Mazlow)
  2. to recognition: belonging, love, respect
  3. to meaning: sense of purpose, value, efficacy,and self-worth
These correspond to the three realms of human being:

  1. economy or ecosystem
  2. polity or social system
  3. culture or belief system

Happiness seems to relate to #1 the ecosystem and satisfying the biological life drive.
Meaning seems to relate more to #3 the belief system and satisfying the need for purpose and value.
And #2 the social system cuts across the other 2 -- e.g. love/belonging and respect/worth.

Also happiness is more an immediate present gratification and meaning a more longer term temporal merging of past to future.

So according to these studies, while we can't have happiness without meaning or meaning without some happiness, we can sacrifice happiness for meaning or meaning for happiness in life style and behavior.

Then I read a wonderful piece by MGT Kwee on Relational Buddhism as Applied Psychology in which he better explains and integrates happiness and meaning.  (To be continued)

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