HAPPINESS VIS-À-VIS MEANINGFULNESS

We want to lead a happy as well as meaningful life. The goals of these, however, are in conflict. Happiness and meaningfulness have substantially different roots. We are happy when our needs and desires are fulfilled. We are happy when we are free from unpleasant events. Meaningfulness reflects our life’s purpose and values. A meaningful life may make one feel worthwhile and happy, but life could be meaningful even when one is unhappy. Meaningfulness does not always have to bank on morality or goodness. A good athlete may be a good human being but he may not necessarily be good to his competitors. Happiness is present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness is not. Meaningfulness assimilates past, present, and future. It takes into account ‘spatially distant realities (and even possibilities)’. If happiness is ‘a taker rather than a giver’, meaningfulness is ‘a giver rather than a taker’. Meaningfulness may lead one to unhappiness, as to achieve it one may have to go through a lot of stress and anxiety. This unhappiness, perhaps, is temporary in nature, as one expects happiness to return, once stress and anxiety are over.

Happiness is natural. Meaningfulness is cultural. Meaning is more linked to one’s cultural identity than happiness is. Although both happiness and meaningfulness may involve interpersonal connection, they differ in how one relates to others. Happiness is about having one’s needs satisfied. It means interpersonal involvements that benefit the self should improve happiness. Meaningfulness, on the other hand, comes from making positive contributions to other people.

Money matters to both happiness and meaningfulness; scarcity of money reduces both meaningfulness and happiness. It appears spending money in ways relevant to one’s own values, goals, and motivations contribute more to happiness than to meaningfulness. Social connections are important for both happiness and meaningfulness, but their direction and focus differ. Happiness is intertwined with the benefits one receives from others. Meaningfulness is associated with the benefits that others receive from the self.

It is said that happiness set points can be relatively stable throughout the course of an individual’s life, but the life satisfaction and subjective wellbeing set points change over time. Psychologists say that the amount of fluctuation a person undergoes around their set point is largely dependent on that individual’s ability to adapt. Once an interviewer asked Stephen Hawking how he kept his spirits up. Hawking said that was possible because his expectations were reduced to zero when he was 21. Everything since then has been a bonus for him. But most of us don’t have the limitations or the strengths of Hawking. Men of science are the happiest because they remain busy with their work, and thus have little time to intrude into regions where they have no function to perform. Bertrand Russell said scientists have another advantage. When the general public doesn’t understand the theory of relativity, they blame it on their lack of knowledge, but when the public can’t understand a picture or a poem, they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem.

Bertrand Russell suggested a novel way to achieve happiness. There was a phase when he hated life. He was continually on the verge of suicide. Once he discovered the meaning of “diminishing preoccupation with myself,” he began to feel happy, began to enjoy life. He felt good by deliberating less on his “sins, follies, and shortcomings.” He gradually learnt to be indifferent towards himself and his deficiencies. He directed his attention more towards the external world. “External interests, it is true, bring its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged into war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with the self.”

The memories of the yesteryears begin to appear more and more frequently as one approaches the end. When people reflect on old age, they think of the people they grew up with. The more one comes nearer the end, the more one thinks of his childhood years. It is said that when you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood. The happy memories of childhood do wonders. George Vaillant gives us a simple happiness tip - There is an age to watch your cholesterol and an age to ignore it.