Happiness versus Meaning

Source: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/meaning-is-healthier-than-happiness/278250/

I’m finding that one of the toughest things about Epicureanism is that it doesn’t seem to offer any solution to what I believe is my fundamental problem: a lack of meaning in my day-to-day life.

Epicurean philosophy is very smart about what brings us pain and what brings us pleasure. It provides a solid analytical framework for assessing whether to do or not do something. It asks you to weigh the short term and long term impacts of your actions on your level of happiness and to live accordingly. Epicurus gave concrete advice and advocated a somewhat ascetic lifestyle.

Those things are good, and my experiment to date has shown that embracing elements of an Epicurean lifestyle can increase happiness (or rather, decrease unhappiness). But when I think about the natural end result of this lifestyle (a sort of minimalist retirement), I can’t help but think there really is no point to it. Living a pleasurable life, achieving ataraxia, seems appealing on the surface, but unsustainable as a lifetime pursuit.

This might be one of those core Eastern vs. Western philosophical differences. Eastern thought seems to emphasize a sort of “things are as they are, be joyful and generous” mentality. Western thought seems to say “the world can be a cruel place and you should make it less cruel via good works and this will give your life meaning.”

Epicurus, though he is a part of the Western philosophical tradition, seems to think more like a Buddhist than a Christian.

Both schools of thought appeal to me. I like the idea of having a personal “mission.” For example, reconceiving The Ancient Wisdom Project as a mission to convince people that studying the ancients and adopting their teachings can be smart is very attractive to me. Proselytizing for Ancient Wisdom seems like a viable way to give my life some sort of meaning.

On the other hand, I’m aware that this mission could fail, and by embracing Stoic/Buddhist/Hindu/Epicurean principles of detachment and pleasure, I can learn to enjoy my life as it is and not concern myself too much with materially changing the world. Embracing “don’t worry, be happy” as my core life principle could be a very viable and enlightening path.

It seems likely that these aren’t mutually exclusive. Consider a piece of the abstract from the journal article titled Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life

Being happy and finding life meaningful overlap, but there are important differences. A large survey revealed multiple differing predictors of happiness (controlling for meaning) and meaningfulness (controlling for happiness). Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future.

This seems to line up with East vs. West dichotomy. When you think of Buddhism, for example, you think of mindfulness, which is a way to be focused on the present. When you think of Christianity, you think of the story of Adam and Eve and the fall of man, man’s redemption through Christ, and the rewards of embracing Christianity (salvation).

Buddhism seems very much happiness focused, while Christianity seems meaning focused. Buddhism is focused on the present, while Christianity creates a story about man that links past, present, and future.

I am, of course, oversimplifying, but I think it’s a useful simplification because it may help us diagnose our own problems.

For example, let’s say you are struggling with your job.

If it’s because it is high stress, low paying, and time consuming, you may have a happiness problem.

If your job is relatively easy and pays well, but you think it is pointless, you may have a meaning problem.

Depending on which problem you have, the actions you take will vary dramatically. If it’s a happiness problem, you just need to find a job that pays better, reduces stress, etc.

If it’s a meaning problem, you either need to find a way to inject more meaning if your life, or reject the meaning-centric philosophy entirely and embrace the happiness philosophy.

It’s likely that you’ll have a combination of both happiness problems and meaning problems, and thus will need to adopt a mixed strategy. Perhaps you could start with Epicurean minimalist approach, and then when you have reduced the anxiety in your life, you can free up time to pursue meaningful projects.

Thoughts on this subject are always welcome. I’m particularly interested in any experiences you’ve had that clearly distinguishes meaning and happiness.

  • MarcHamann

    I think we can resolve this dichotomy by digging a bit deeper into the causes of happiness and meaning.

    Happiness is not wanting things to be different than they are.
    Meaning is having a sense of purpose and place in the world.

    There is only an opposition if you can only imagine meaning arising from “changing the world”. And certainly our great western hero fantasies are about “changing the world” or “saving the world” (the Christian story is perhaps the prototype here.)

    But I think our actual problem with meaning is that, unlike even our recent ancestors, we don’t have solid connections to our families, our communities or our roles in either. We take it for granted that we will have a different home, different friends, a different job, maybe in a different city or country, in a few years. We are just interchangeable cogs, just like the 7 billion other cogs in the world, each wanting to be special, but doing it in exactly the same way.

    There is a solution: combine the happiness and meaning approaches. Find a new way to look at the current situation to find satisfactory meaning in spite of the lifestyle and global awareness challenges our lot has imposed upon us. Accept that the “obvious” forms of meaning are weakened by mass culture, and that we will have to be creative to mine the meaning that can still be found.

    • I like your meaning vs. happiness distinction. It sounds like you are a big advocate for the “civil society” model of living. I do think there is something about the mobility of modern life that causes some existential anxiety. I have moved around a lot since college, but I’ve been in the DC area for the last 3 years and it’s beginning to grow on me. I have more of a desire to stick around and potentially get involved in things.

      So, a good meaning and happiness approach, in my case, would be to actively commit to participating in a community but maintaining a level of mental detachment from it.

      But, of course, this is more difficult than it sounds.

      Have you found a specific way to find purpose in your everyday live? Not just to change your mindset, but actually doing things?

      • MarcHamann

        Calling me an “advocate” might be too strong, but I’ve observed that people who embrace that approach usually have a higher sense of meaning.

        I often find it challenging to embrace myself. Like anything worth doing, I think it is a balancing act.

        • In David Brook’s latest book, he makes the point that there are virtuous people who aren’t religious but think that others should be.

          We might be of the type that don’t participate in civil society type activities but believe others should do so 😉

          • MarcHamann

            I’m not a fan of “should”.

            I just think that civil society people (and many religious people for that matter) have solved the “meaning problem”. And that if I want to solve my own, I could do worse than to emulate them.

            In a way, that sums up your whole project! 😉

  • Miguel


    I really think that you’re in a more than valid path to meaning in your life with this project. It’s definately one of the most interesting things I found on internet in the last months, and even if I’m not here commenting on every single post you can be sure that I never miss one! You are doing experiments of living, crafting the way you live cousciously: that is freaking awesome and (I think) the key strategy to a life of meaning. Creating your life as a piece of art, like Nietzsche or Foucault would say. Nevertheless, even if it’s just another possibility in an infinite collection of possible decisions, you still have the last resource of changing your job to something that creates more meaning in your life, it’s actually not so difficult and, if you want, with your newly adquired epicurean wisdom you can definately live a more minimal life that will allow you to not be so worried about finding a job with a big salary 🙂
    The difficulty of a decision like this is never in the reality around us, only in our heads. Again to borrow some phrase from Foucault, we are always freer than we think we are 🙂

    Nevertheless, in my opinion, you are creating meaning and delivery a very unique project and beautiful knowledge to thousands of people. If this is not crafting a life of meaning so I don’t know what that will be!

    Cheers, continuations of great life experimentations!

    PS: about meaning, Viktor Frankl wrote a lot about it, how man’s search for meaning can be achieve through creation (stuff that we put in the world), through reception (stuff that we experience in the world, apreciation of art, feeling love from other people, traveling and having new experiences, etc), and through suffering, having an attitude of finding meaning in the stuff that we cannot change and in the stuffe that we cannot receive from the world. Quite incredible the life of this guy (inventor of logotherapy, a meaning-focused psychotherapy school, when he was imprisoned in nazi concentration camps for some years, and where he use that time to reflect on how the people there could managed to find reasons to continue living…)

    • Thanks for the kind words Miguel. Nice reader comments make my day!

      I actually just finished Man’s Search for Meaning recently and he hits on a lot of things I’ve been thinking about over the past year. I will have to write a post on his ideas soon….

  • mjr

    Great video on creating meaning:

    Nice project, I’ll look forward to your musings on ancient wisdom in a modern world 🙂

  • Bryan Moss

    I thought this was very nicely presented, fair, open, and pointed. I think an over-arching theme that needs to be highlighted is that in this overall project, you are investigating the use of worldviews that have central truth claims that contradict each other. Also, each view has a meaning, for instance Buddhism vs Christianity, where Buddhism by and large incorporates a view of reality that is an illusion in order to eliminate the reality of pain and suffering, and Christianity accepts the reality of pain and suffering as part of a created universe that is broken and not working as designed.

    Buddhism would say that everything is god, and Christianity would say God created everything. Depending on which of these are actually true, or if both are false and another worldview is true, then meaning and happiness can be viewed more clearly through that lens.

    If we think that post-modernism is true, where post-modernism claims that nothing can be true, and only subjective opinions exist (thereby making post-modern claims not true and absurd), then we will have a hard time seeking which worldview is true.

    So I think having confidence in which worldview is true, then yields a clearer understanding of our meaning in the world, both from a high level, and slowly being discovered down to some specifics. I don’t think we create our meaning, but instead if meaning objectively exists, then we discover it. If it objectively exists, then something outside ourselves must have created that meaning. Happiness is different, because if we don’t want to embrace the meaning of our lives that something else created, but instead want to create our own meaning, which may be opposite of the objective meaning, then I can imagine the unhappiness can could ultimately come from living contrary to reality.

  • Claudio Gomez

    Don’t you think that stoicism is a mixture of both?

    Stoicism has the presence and acceptance (of that one cannot control) of the Buddhism, but on the othe hand promotes virtues, specifically courage, justice, wisdom and temperance.

    • Aajaxx

      Buddhist texts also have a long lists of virtues.

  • newjlo

    Meaning in Epicureanism depends, to some extent, on how engaged you are in the “teaching mission” of the Epicurean Gardens, and the celebration on the 20th of every month. This makes you feel connected with those that came before. Norman DeWitt talks about the teaching mission and how the system of “each one teach one” was instituted and followed.
    Also, ever since Epicurus rebelled against his Platonist teacher in his childhood, he dedicated his entire life to developing a natural cosmology. Together with the sense of community with like minded friends, and with the teaching mission, the commitment with the teaching of the study of nature, with science, is another source of meaning.

    • Community and evangelism seem like powerful sources of meaning!

  • Aajaxx

    I think the original Epicureans found meaning by spreading that therapeutic philosophy to others. We know they did this. Why? And Vatican Saying #52 is: “Friendship dances around the world bidding us all to awaken to the recognition of happiness.” Sounds like a meaningful enterprise to me.

  • Aajaxx

    If you have unease which is due to lack of meaning (in your job, e.g.), Epicurus would probably call this a happiness problem. If ‘meaning’ is a natural and necessary desire for humans, then you need to create/find meaning somehow. If it is natural but unnecessary, then you need to realize it is unnecessary and not put undue effort into it even though it may be ‘nice to have’. But Epicureanism seems silent on whether it is necessary or not (unlike wisdom, honorableness pleasure or justice).

    • I like your framing. Meaning is fairly abstract so I’m not sure how much Epicurus discussed it in the form of other pursuits like the ones you mneionted (wisdom, justice, etc.).