In my cautionary post on the constant temptation to indulge in earthbound economics, I mentioned that even seemingly noble, intangible features such as “happiness” can be just as futile and vain when pursued on our own terms and for our own limited purposes.
If we don’t order and define things properly, the “pursuit of happiness” can easily distract us away from our eternal quest for widespread spiritual transformation. As the author of Ecclesiastes points out, when “testing ourselves” with mere pleasure—even the pleasure of “toil”—all is ultimately “vanity and a striving after the wind.”
In an article for The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith offers some fascinating insights on this broader intersection of happiness and meaning, building initially off of psychiatrist and neurologist Viktor Frankl, who believed that “it is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”
“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors write…
…”Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need… (more…)