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. Still, I’d say that the meaningful life is 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 generally satisfying and happy. 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.
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2 thoughts on “Happiness and the Meaning of Life

  1. Here is a contrarian argument, that happiness and meaning can and should be connected, and that meaning is essential for happiness. This perspective comes from affective neuroscience, as explained in the argument and links below.

    Happiness and Affective Neuroscience

    Happiness is an elusive property, but it can be argued that it should meet certain objective criteria. This is the argument of the affective neuroscientists Kent Berridge and Morton Kringelbach. Per this model (linked below), happiness is a function of affective states of arousal and pleasure mediated respectively by the activation of mid brain dopamine and opioid systems. However, this analysis neglects the fact that these systems when jointly activated co-stimulate each other and provide an enhanced affective experience that is subjectively reported as ‘peak’ or ‘flow’ experience. This observation can also be easily repeated procedurally, as demonstrated below.

    Simple Procedure
    Just attain and sustain a state of rest (mindfulness practice is the best way to achieve this) and simultaneously and consistently engage exclusively in meaningful or important behavior and you will feel relaxed, pleasurably aroused, and ‘intrinsically’ motivated. The more meaningful the behavior, the greater the affective response. That’s it.

    Simple Explanation
    Individuals who engage in tasks that have a consistent and high degree of ‘meaning’ (e.g. sporting events, creative activity) naturally experience a state of high alertness and arousal (but not pleasure) that maps neurologically to the activation of mid-brain dopamine systems. However, many of these individuals also report a concurrent feeling of pleasure or bliss, but these reports are evidenced only in non-stressed situations when the covert musculature is inactive or relaxed. Since relaxation engages opioid systems in the brain, and because opioid (pleasure) and dopamine (arousal) systems stimulate each other, blissful states require the simultaneous engagement of resting protocols and meaningful cognitive states, behaviors that can be very easily achieved and sustained.

    I offer a more detailed theoretical explanation in pp. 47-52, and pp 82-86 of my open source book on the neuroscience of resting states, ‘The Book of Rest’, linked below.

    The Psychology of Rest
    https://www.scribd.com/doc/284056765/The-Book-of-Rest-The-Odd-Psychology-of-Doing-Nothing

    Meditation and Rest
    from the International Journal of Stress Management, by this author
    https://www.scribd.com/doc/121345732/Relaxation-and-Muscular-Tension-A-bio-behavioristic-explanation

    Berridge-Kringelbach on the Neuroscience of Happiness

    https://sites.lsa.umich.edu/berridge-lab/wp-content/uploads/sites/743/2019/10/Berridge-Kringelbach-2011-Building-neuroscience-of-pleasure-well-being-Psychol-of-Well-Being.pdf

  2. Thanks for the comments. I agree that meaning and happiness are closely connected. Here is how I’ve conceptualized the relationship previously. “Meaning is conceptually distinct from happiness or moral goodness. We can imagine happy or morally upright lives that aren’t particularly meaningful and meaningful lives that aren’t especially happy or moral. Still, I’d argue that happy and moral lives tend to be meaningful, and unhappiness and immorality detract from the meaning of life. So, while happy, moral, and meaningful lives aren’t identical, I believe they mostly overlap.”

    I’m no expert in neuroscience but I’ve taken a general stab at the psychology before wo/ discussing neurobiology. Here is a sample”Positive psychology studies what makes life good, fulfilling, or meaningful. This research has found that we experience meaning and life satisfaction by 1) fully engaging in activities; 2) mastering challenging tasks; 3) increasing our understanding; 4) enjoying satisfying relationships and social connections; 5) experiencing mindfulness; 6) having a sense of purpose; 7) being optimistic; and 8) feeling concern with something larger than the self—nature, family, social groups, progress, belief systems, political causes, cosmic evolution, etc.

    Research also shows that having meaning and purpose in our lives predicts better physical and mental health outcomes.Notably, research on wellbeing and meaning reveals that they aren’t related to age, sex, gender, physical attractiveness, educational level, climate, or money (after one’s basic needs are met). Furthermore, the research strongly suggests that having many material possessions and excess wealth are not related to happiness, well-being, or meaning.

    These results overlap with what philosophers have said for millennia—that certain universal human goods provide the deepest fulfillment and meaning. These goods include knowledge, friendship, health, skill, love, autonomy, fulfilling work, and aesthetic enjoyment. Such goods benefit us independently of whether we desire them because they fulfill our biological, psychological and social nature. The idea that good, happy, and meaningful lives involve universal human goods and that wealth and material possessions are but a small part of such lives goes back at least to Aristotle. So modern research largely confirms ancient wisdom.  

    Putting this all together gives us a basic conception of good, happy, or meaningful lives. They are lives in which our fundamental needs for food, clothing, shelter, parental love, education, health-care, and physical safety are met; we are not obsessed with material possessions or wealth; we engage in productive work of our own choosing that allows for autonomy, mastery, and purpose; we care for and love both ourselves and others; and we show concern for the best things in life—like truth, beauty, goodness, justice, joy, and love. We might even say that by living a meaningful life we experience self-transcendence—by living them we transcend the ego.

    So it isn’t too hard to find meaning in life—assuming our basic needs are met—what’s hard is choosing between the many different ways that life can be meaningful. Nonetheless, some claim that life is meaningless. Maybe such people are ignorant about what truly gives life meaning, or perhaps they lack life’s necessities, meaningful work, loving relationships, personal freedom, or physical and mental health. Many obstacles exist to finding meaning in life and if we find it we are indeed fortunate.”

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