Happiness or Meaning?

Following on the heals of my recently posted essay, “The Cushion or the World?,” the present post may establish what we can call the “or” series. This is not really an essay as much as a report of some interesting things I have been reading on the Internet about the difference between happiness and meaning, along with a few comments from the Buddhist perspective.

I ran across these readings while doing background research for an upcoming essay on rebirth. As many of you know, who have read my previous writings on rebirth, I feel the most relevant question we can ask is not “Is rebith literally (objectively or rationally) true?” but “Why would the Buddha teach such a thing?” The short answer is not “Because everybody happened to believe in it at the time and place of the Buddha,” but “Because it confers upon Buddhist practice and understanding, transcendental meaning of epic proportions.”

Since meaningfulness is not commonly discussed in Buddhism, and happiness, for its part, tends to be eclipsed by suffering, I googled around for some interdisciplinary discussion and found some articles in psychology with provocative titles like, “Why a Life without Meaning will Make you Sick,” “The Problem with Happiness,” and “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy.”

Happiness is the American Way! “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is right there in our Declaration of Independence and the pursuit of happiness is the engine of our economic system, both as titillated consumers and avaricious investors. In fact, many of us tend to think of pursuit of happiness as the very meaning of our lives. However, the research I uncovered seems to put the wisdom of the pursuit of happiness into grave doubt.

Meaningfulness is, in all of the reported research, understood as something beyond ourselves or our personal happiness. It is to have a stake in something larger than ourselves: our family, our nation, mankind, the health of the planet, knowledge, the march of human understanding, artistic creation. “Being happy is about feeling good, meaning is derived from contributing to others or to society in a bigger way” (Smith 1) Generally meaningfulness is equated with virtue, while happiness is equated with getting what one wants. It is a matter of giving rather than taking.

Yet, we all want to live happily. The dilemma around happiness, as around Awakening, is that it is so illusive. The psychologist Victor Frankl, developer of Logotherapy, wrote, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.” He also wrote, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness” (Cooper). This brings to mind the classical Zen koan:

Chao-chou aked Nan-chuan, “What is the Way?”
Nan-chuan said, “Ordinary mind is the Way.”
Chao-chou asked, “Then may I direct myself towards it or not?”
Nan-chuan said, “To turn toward it is to turn away from it.”

This dilemma is borne out by recent psychological research that finds that people “putting the greatest emphasis” (which I assume means “pursuing”) on being happy, enjoy “positive emotions” 50 percent less frequently, have 35 percent less “satisfaction,” and suffer from 75 percent more depression and 17 percent less “psychological well-being,” than people with priorities beyond personal happiness. (Kashdan)

Another, startling, recent study by Barbara Fredrickson and Steve Cole finds health risks in the lack of meaning, even in those that are otherwise “happy.” They found that people who are happy, but lack meaning in their lives (roughly those “simply here for the party”), exhibit similar immune system responses to those who are struggling with prolonged adversity, such as grief at loss of a loved one. It is if their bodies were preparing to fight off bacterial infections. An immune system in this state for a prolonged period can increase the risk of illnesses like cancer and heart disease, because the body will be in a constant state of inflammation (Cooper, Smith 1). “Empty positive emotions are about as good for you for as adversity,” says Fredrickson (Smith 1).

Another study shows that a short-term drive for happiness will have immediate consequences as well: Subjects deliberately primed through a simple exercise temporarily to value happiness in a test environment, then immediately subjected to a positive event, such as watching a funny film clip, appreciate the positive event less than those primed toward other values (Kashdan).

Meaningfulness, for its part, is correlated with improved resilience, that is ability to overcome adverse circumstances. This was reported by Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning, which correlates survival of victims of the Holocaust, like himself, with having something meaningful to live for beyond the fence. Recent research correlates ego- and spiritual transcendence with resilience (Hanfstingl).

The difference between pursuit of happiness and pursuit of meaning brings “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?” (Smith 1).

As I was reading about these studies, the temple cat, Maung Wah, came to visit me in my kuti. He planted himself on my lap and purred effusively, which I suppose the researchers in these studies would have regarded as a species-specific indicator of transitory happiness. I was surprised, though, that after about five minutes Maung Wah had had enough, and wanted to be let out and be on his little way. I surmise that he did not find me all that meaningful.

Now, what does Buddhism have to say about all of this? These concerns shaped Buddhism well over 2,000 years ago. The modern research exemplifies the way in which modern science can fruitfully intersect with Buddhist ideas.

The pursuit of happiness flies directly into the face of the second of the Four Noble Truths, that the origin of suffering is craving, since the pursuit of something desirable is at most a short and perilous step away from craving. This research verifies that the Buddha knew what he was talking about, and usefully begins to qualify and quantify at least some of the kinds of suffering the Buddha discusses. Notice that for the Buddha, happiness is not the problem; in fact happiness (sukha = su+kha) is the opposite of suffering (dukkha = dur+kha, where su and dur are opposing prefixes meaning ‘good’ and ‘bad’). Craving happiness is the problem, which is why happiness is almost impossible to pursue successfully, except for that fleeting moment when, as a result of excruciating craving, a need is temporarily satisfied.

Buddhism is un-American, insofar as it shrinks from the pursuit of happiness, though not from life nor, uh, liberation. This is why Buddhism is called the Path of Renunciation. This is why I am a monk. Still happiness readily ensues for the Buddhist when practice is directed beyond personal interest. Nuns and monks are naturally subversive of the American way simply by being, as a group, just about the happiest people there are, in astonishing defiance of conventional norms or common sense that prevails in our (or any other) land.

Meaning is something we rarely identify as such in Buddhism, but nonetheless pervades the Buddhist life as it displaces pursuit of happiness or personal advantage. The most foundational Buddhist practice is generosity, learned in Buddhist lands almost from infancy, then virtue through training in precepts and attention to merit-making, then virtue through the development of the mental qualities of kindness, compassion and renunciation. All of this turns us away from self-concern, self-absorption, self-advantage,and towards self-transcendent meaning. As our practice advances we bring the same concerns to the micro-level through close attention to our own intentionality and through our meditation practice. Ultimately we enter the path toward Awakening, which for us has a transcendent meaning of epic proportions and which leads to the perfection of human character as ideally selfless, compassionate, serene and wise.

Furthermore, whereas common-sense tends to view virtue and pursuit of personal happiness as rough opposites, the law of karma equates personal well-being with the enactment of virtue and self-transcendence. This captures the lesson of this psychological research, that happiness cannot be effectively pursued for itself, but instead ensues from pursuing what is most meaningful beyond the self. Pursuit of self-interest, driven by greed, hatred and delusion (the triple fire of desire, ire and mire), is bad karma, while pursuit of virtue is good karma. The accrual of good karma results in personal benefit. The practice of merit-making is the pursuit of virtue, generally of generosity, reinforced, should one’s intentions otherwise weaken, with the constant reminder that personal benefit will accrue.

In short, as Buddhist we turn away from the pursuit of happiness and toward the pursuit of meaning, more and more as we advance in our practice. But thereby happiness, otherwise so illusive, ensues.

(Cooper) Bell Beth Cooper, Happiness Is Not Enough: Why A Life Without Meaning Will Make You Sick, LINK.

(Hanfstingl) Barbara Hanfstingl, Ego and Spiritual Transcendence: Relevance to Psychological Resilience and the Role of Age, LINK.

(Kashdan) Todd Kashdan, The Problem with Happiness, LINK.

(Smith 1) Emily Esfahani Smith, Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness, LINK.

(Smith 2) Emily Esfahani Smith, There’s More to Life Than Being Happy, LINK.

4 Responses to “Happiness or Meaning?”

  1. Ross David H Says:

    Very nicely done! I am somehow reminded of how it is difficult to teach a child not to pursue a cat, when they want to pet it. Children do better with problems that have physical analogies, and when you want a toy, you have to go get it. Rather, it is better to busy yourself with something else (e.g. a computer), and the cat will come up to you. So perhaps happiness is more like a cat than a toy. If I were a Zen master I could express this more eloquently. Thanks for the column and the links!

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  3. Brian Dillon Says:

    Thanks for the excellent article – i particularly appreciated the attention given to recent scholarly work. One correction, however (although, hopefully, a useful one) : Thomas Jefferson, the creator of the “pursuit of happiness” phrase, was once asked to give his own definition of “happiness.” His answer? – “Tranquility and occupation.”
    In other words, he defined happiness as something much more along the lines of the kind of happiness you are advocating, and more in keeping with Buddhist ideas like “tranquil abiding” and “right livelihood” …

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