Category Archives: Happiness

Happiness and the Meaning of Life


Happiness and meaning while connected, don’t seem to be the same thing. We can imagine a paradigmatic meaningful life that is unhappy and vice versa. For example, one might seek truth, do good things, or produce beauty—paradigms of meaningful lives—and still be unhappy. Or one might have health, wealth, friends, and knowledge—things associated with happy lives—and yet live a meaningless life, say because individual or universal death undermine meaning. We could be happy, but think our lives ultimately meaningless.

Nonetheless it would seem that happiness and meaning are closely connected. Subjectively meaningful lives are generally happy ones, and happiness typically follows as a by-product of a meaningful life. In other words, meaning is an element of a happy life, and happiness an element of a meaningful life. So there is a reciprocal relationship between the two. If pressed I’d say that the meaningful life is somewhat more fundamental than the happy life. What I mean is that, similar to the way a good or happy life is more than just a pleasurable one, a meaningful life is more than just a happy one.
As for happiness, many people mistakenly think that happiness is a fleeting feeling pursued for its own sake, when instead it’s often a by-product of meaningful activities like helping others, seeking knowledge, creating beauty, becoming wise, or working for justice. Nonetheless, happiness may be determined more by our happiness set point, the average level of happiness set by our neurobiology and basic temperament, rather than by achievement or level of engagement.

Of course we can’t be sure that an individual life or the whole universe is objectively meaningful, but we can still derive subjective meaning by engaging in the worthwhile activities. And such meaningful lives are the most satisfying, the best, and the happiest. As the philosopher James Rachels put it:

When we step outside our personal perspective and consider humanity from an impersonal standpoint, we still find that human beings are the kinds of creatures who can enjoy life best by devoting themselves to such things as family and friends, work, music, mountain climbing, and all the rest. It would be foolish, then, for creatures like us to live in any other way.[i] 
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[i] James Rachels, Problems from Philosophy, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), 174-75.

Summary of the Harvard Grant Study: Triumphs of Experience

A Harvard study followed 268 undergraduates from the classes of 1938-1940 for 75 years, regularly collecting data on various aspects of their lives. The findings were reported in a recent book by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant: Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study.

Here are five lessons from the study pertaining to a happy and meaningful life. First, the most important ingredient for meaning and happiness is loving relationships. Even individuals with successful careers and good physical health were not fulfilled without loving relationships. Second, money and power are small parts of a fulfilling life; they correlate poorly with happiness. Those most proud of their achievements are those most content in their work, not the ones who make the most money. Third, we can become happier in life as we proceed through it, despite how we started our lives. Fourth, connection with others and work is essential for joy; and this seems to be increasingly true as one ages. Finally, coping well with challenges makes you happier. The key is to replace narcissism with mature coping mechanisms like concerns for others and productive work.

Robert Waldinger, who now heads the Grant Study that began in 1938, recently gave a TedTalk about it that has been viewed more than 6 million times. While the study only includes white males, it does include those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. What the study show unequivocally is that the happiest and healthiest people are those who maintained close, intimate relationships. Moreover, personal relationships are just as important to your health as diet and exercise

“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely,” Waldinger said in his TedTalk. Something about satisfying relationships protects us from some of the harm done by aging. Furthermore, other things associated with happiness, like wealth and fame, do not make much difference.  Instead what matters is the quality and stability of our relationships. So casual friends or abusive relationships don’t improve the quality of our lives. (Waldinger also has a blog about what makes a good life.)

While many of us want easy answers to the question of how to be happy, Waldinger says that says that “relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.” But the evidence shows that that is how we find real happiness.

Reflections

Noteworthy is that these findings overlap almost perfectly with what Victor Frankl’s discovered about the meaningful life in his classic: Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl says we find meaning through: 1) personal relationships, 2) productive work, and 3) by nobly enduring suffering. The only difference is that Frankl doesn’t talk specifically about money, although no doubt he would agree that it is of secondary concern. Also noteworthy is how the findings of Vaillant and Frankl agree with modern happiness research. Here are just a few of the excellent books whose social science research supports these basic findings.

The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

William James: Once Born and Twice Born People

A black and white photograph of James

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 28, 2016.)

William James, in his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience,  draws a contrast between what he calls “once born” and the “twice born” people.  Once born people appear biologically predisposed to happiness. They are relatively untroubled by their own setbacks as well as by the suffering the world; they rarely speak ill of others; they don’t complain much; they tend not to be fearful or angry. Today we might call them happy-go-lucky, easy-going or upbeat.

By contrast twice borns feel there is something wrong with reality that must be rectified. They have a pessimistic view of the world; they experience more ups and downs in life; they wish the world could be different from it is. Today we might call them neurotic, anxious, or unstable. James describes them like this:

There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes. (p.169)

However this doesn’t mean that twice borns are unhappy. The reason is that their attitude often leads to a crisis, experienced as clinical depression, in a desire to understand the meaning of life. But the incompatibility of their desire for making sense of things and their pessimism demands a resolution if life is to be loved again. And it is this demand that can lead to rebirth. As an example, James considers the crisis of meaning experienced by Leo Tolstoy. (I have written about his crisis here.) James describes Tolstoy’s transformation like this: “The process is one of redemption, not of mere reversion to natural health, and the sufferer, when saved, is saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before. ” (p.157)

While the sense of being “born again” often describes so-called religious or mystical experiences, James uses the term to describe any experience where there is a strong sense of renewal after a tragic event. The point is that challenges and tragedies can be seen as a means to a happier and more meaningful life.

As for the happy life, James said it consists of four main ingredients. First we must choose to view the world as positive even though life contains sorrow and pain. Second we must take risks by acting from the demands of our hearts. Third we must act as if we are free and life is meaningful even though we can’t be sure that any of this is true. Finally we should remember that a crisis of meaning often leads to the happiest life. Thus a crisis for twice borns presents the possibility of renewal.

Postscript – William James knew a lot about all this, as he suffered from depression for much of his life. A number of other people of historic importance suffered from major depression as well including: Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Tecumseh Sherman, Franz Kafka, and the Buddha.

I really think there is a lot to this. Given the reality we live in and the ubiquity of suffering, we do best by trying to learn from it and thereby reduce its power over us as much as possible. Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, Gift Edition that enduring suffering nobly was one of the ways we find meaning in life. Perhaps we all must endure our own self-made purgatories in order to experience true happiness. (On the other hand I don’t believe that twice-borns are necessarily led to clinical depression. Perhaps, for example, they are led to a philosophical search for meaning instead.)

Still I don’t believe that pain and suffering are intrinsically good no matter what good outcome they might lead to. Like my colleague David Pierce, who first articulated the hedonistic imperative, I too believe that all pain and suffering in life should be eliminated. The meaning of life is to create a heaven on earth.

As for the contrary view, that suffering is somehow necessary for redemption, it was best captured in these lines by Shelley from his “Ode To A Skylark,”

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.

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Quotes are from William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Penguin Books, 1902, 1982)

(This entry borrows from this article on the website The Pursuit of Happiness.)

Summary of the Harvard Grant Study

(Note – I wrote about this study previously here.)

The longest running study of human development by Harvard researchers confirms that satisfying personal relationships are the key to human happiness. Moreover, personal relationships are just as important to your health as diet and exercise

Robert Waldinger, who heads the Grant Study that began in 1938, recently gave a TedTalk about it that has been viewed more than 6 million times in the last few months. While the study only includes white males, it does include those from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. What the study show unequivocally is that the happiest and healthiest people are those who maintained close, intimate relationships.

“People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely,” Waldinger said in his TedTalk. Something about satisfying relationships protects us from some of the harm done by aging. Furthermore, other things associated with happiness, like wealth and fame, do not make much difference.  Instead what matters is the quality and stability of our relationships. So casual friends or abusive relationships don’t improve the quality of our lives. (Waldinger also has a blog about what makes a good life.)

While many of us want easy answers to the question of how to be happy, Waldinger says that says that “relationships are messy and they’re complicated and the hard work of tending to family and friends, it’s not sexy or glamorous. It’s also lifelong. It never ends.” But the evidence shows that that is how we find real happiness.

All of this reminds me of Sartre’s dictum that “hell is other people.” While this can sometimes be true, as a general pronouncement it is surely false. We are social animals and through engagement with others we encounter one of the very few things that gives our lives meaning.

Finally, there was a book published about the study in 2012 by the Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant about which I wrote previously.

Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study

Predicting Our Own Happiness


Stumbling on Happiness

In the last few decades there has been a lot of research on human happiness. Surprisingly, Daniel Gilbert found that we are bad at predicting our own happiness, thus we don’t so much steer our way to happiness as stumble into it.  (See links to books below.) Gilbert’s researches something called “affective forecasting,” the forecasting of future emotional states. Needless to say this is important since our decisions, preferences, behaviors, and the quality of our lives depend on our assessment of future states.

Why are we so bad at predicting future happiness? Researchers have found that cognitive biases–impact bias, focalism, immune neglect, projection bias, misconstruels,  cause forecasting errors, time discounting, expectation effects, memory, and emotional evanescence–are the cause. I accept the research, but what should we do with this knowledge?

Obviously, if the goal is to be happy, we should minimize the cognitive biases that mislead us. To do this we might develop our critical thinking skills, reflect more deeply about our choices, study the feelings of, and consult with, others, and try to better understand our own psychology. But there is no foolproof way to proceed. We would do best to cultivate wisdom, that slow accumulation of experiences as to how best to live. For instance, experience has taught me that I need to exercise to be emotionally stable, write to express myself, drink and eat less to think more clearly, and converse with others to escape the prison of loneliness. As Socrates advised long ago, we should strive to “know thyself.”

But there are no shortcuts.

If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very difficult, still, it can be found. Indeed, what is so rarely discovered must be hard. For if salvation were ready at hand, and could be found without great effort, how could nearly everyone neglect it? But all things noble are as difficult as they are rare. ~ Baruch Spinoza


The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want


Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being


Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience