Susan Wolf on Happiness and Meaning

Susan R. Wolf (1952 – ) is a moral philosopher who has written extensively on meaning in human life. She is currently the Edna J. Koury Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She addressed the topic of the meaning of life, among other places, in her essay: “Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life.”

Wolf begins by asking: “In what does self-interest consist?” Now the concept of self-interest is straightforward: “Self interest is interest in one’s own good. To act self-interestedly is to act on the motive of advancing one’s own good.”  But the content of self-interest—what really is in our self-interest—is problematic.

To better understand the content of self-interest (SI) she follows Derek Parfit’s distinction between three types of SI: 1) hedonistic theories which connect SI with happiness construed as pleasure and lack of pain; 2) preference theories which hold that SI is whatever you want even those things don’t make you happy or give pleasure; and 3) objective-list theories in which SI is independent or prior to one’s preferences. Wolf argues that meaningfulness is an element or ingredient of a good or happy life, and she is thus committed to meaning being in one’s SI in the objective-list sense for the goodness of a meaningful life “does not result from making us happy or its satisfying the preferences of the person whose life it is.” Still. meaningful lives will generally be fulfilling and thereby make us happy.

Next Wolf claims that our need for meaningful lives center on questions of whether life is worth living has any point, or provides sufficient reason to go on. Paradigms of meaningful lives include lives of moral or intellectual accomplishment, whereas meaningless lives include those lived in quiet desperation or in futile labor. In short, Wolf claims that: “… meaningful lives are lives of active engagement in projects of worth.”[i]

Active engagement refers to being griped or excited by something. Active engagement relates to being passionate rather than alienated about something, whereas being engaged is not always pleasant since it may involve hard work. Projects of worth suggest that some objective value exists, and Wolf argues that meaning and objective value are linked. While Wolf offers a philosophical defense of objective value she claims that “there can be no sense to the idea of meaningfulness without a distinction between more and less worthwhile ways to spend one’s time, where the test of worth is at least partly independent of a subject’s ungrounded preferences or enjoyment.”[ii]

To see this point, first consider that people’s longings for meaning are independent of whether they find their lives enjoyable. They may have a fun life but might come to think it lacks meaning.  Second, why do we seem to have an intuitive sense of meaningful and meaningless lives? Most of us would agree that certain kinds of lives are or are not meaningful.  Both of the above suggest that objective values are related to meaning.

This leads Wolf to reiterate that meaningful lives are ones actively engaged in worthwhile projects. If one is engaged in life, then it has a point; looking for meaning is looking for worthwhile projects. In addition, this view shows us why some projects are thought of as meaningful and others are not. Some projects are meaningful but boring (like writing checks to the ACLU), whereas others are pleasurable (like riding roller coasters) but don’t seem to give meaning to life. In this context, Wolf notes Bernard Williams’ distinction between categorical desires, whose objects are worthwhile independent of our desires; and all other desires, whose objects’ worthiness, presumably, depends on our desires. In short, she is saying some values are objective.

To reiterate, meaningful lives link active engagement with objectively worthwhile projects. Lives lived without engagement lack meaning, even if what they are doing is meaningful since the person living such a life is bored or alienated. However, lives lived with engagement are not necessarily meaningful, if the objects of the engagement are worthless since those objects lack objective value. Wolf summaries her view as follows: “Meaning arises when subjective attraction meets objective attractiveness…meaning arises when a subject discovers or develops an affinity for one or typically several of the more worthwhile things…”[iii] 

Summary – Meaningful lives consist of one’s active engagement with objectively worthwhile things.


[i] Susan Wolf, “Meaning in Life” in The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke and Cahn (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008), 232.
[ii] Wolf, “Meaning in Life,” 233.
[iii] Wolf, “Meaning in Life” 234-35.

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4 thoughts on “Susan Wolf on Happiness and Meaning

  1. Thanks for this piece. It brings to mind a couple related points.

    First, is distinguishing between meaning and motivation. The first is a cognition or aspect of reason; the second, a gut reaction or impulse. The first ties to purpose, the second to emotion. Even if I find no “meaning” in certain activities, I may feel motivated to pursue them, e.g., playing tennis. Even if I potentially could find meaning in certain activities, I may or may not feel motivated to pursue them, e.g., pursuing medical school to eventually cure the sick. The two may overlap, or even merge, but are distinct.

    Second, sometimes when the two do merge, they form what psychologist Abraham Maslow called “requiredness.” As he wrote,
    “Is becomes ought. Fact becomes the same as value….
    ….facts here fused with values.”

    These ideas are more fully explored in
    “Wellsprings of Work”
    Surprising Sources of Meaning and Motivation in Work

  2. thanks for this Samuel. Your first distinction parallels one made in the literature between happiness and meaning. I may be happy playing tennis but its not particularly meaningful; I may find meaning in working at the soup kitchen but not be very happy doing so. Thus meaning and happiness, while they can overlap, often don’t. Meaning appears to be an intrinsic good distinct from what makes one happy, what conforms with desire, what is moral, etc.

  3. Love how she summarized her view: ” Meaning arises when subjective attractiveness meets objective attractiveness.” However, this also can be the Law of Fatal Attraction for many that choose unwisely. I’m struck by how little has changed since some wise Greek carved the words “Know thy self” into the walls of the Delphi Temple and have been passed down to us by Socrates. Even the wise Aristotle added to this with his: “Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” Centuries of studies seeking to uncover a universal, objective formula for living a meaningful, happy life still seems to come down to this: Knowledge is good; ignorance is bad. And while we have well researched guides to achieve a meaningful life, there are no guarantees. One’s best plans can be snuffed out in an instant by this random Nature. Ask anyone that experiences the sudden lost of a spouse, child or a terminal diagnoses. In this game of life, we have to play the cards we’ve been dealt. Knowing yourself and finding meaningful work, love and play increase your chances of ending up a success in yourself and in the eyes of others. I know, it’s a real crap game. Good Luck!

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