Happiness and meaning in life


On the face of it, there are many situations in which doing something that makes us happier fails to make our lives more meaningful.

Professional philosophers illustrate this point with “fantastic” or “hypothetical” thought experiments, imagining a life spent in a virtual reality machine that gives the occupant the vivid impression he is doing interesting things that he is not, or a life of rolling a rock up a hill for eternity but enjoying it because of the way the gods have structured one’s brain.

Conversely, there are many occasions when doing something that makes our lives meaningful appears not to make them happier. Consider taking care of a sick, elderly parent who needs constant attention, or slaving away at an alienating job so as to provide for one’s children.

Nursing, then dancing

My perspective is different. I think that the best sort of life, or at least a really good one, would include both happiness and meaningfulness. Although one sometimes has to choose between these two values, one ought to strive for a life in which there is plenty of both.

Another strategy, however, would be to seek out a life in which there were both happiness and meaning at the same time, so that one did not have to give up on one in order to have the other.

Flower garden

Think of working hard to cultivate a flower garden for one’s family. Or of writing poetry that is well received. Or making an intellectual discovery that influences a field. Or creating a new device that helps improve people’s lives. Or taking pride in having overcome a neurosis. Or exercising and taking note of one’s gains in fitness and athleticism. Or caring for a pet.

I am not suggesting that nurses should quit, or that one should not eat chocolate ice cream. But if you’re like me in wanting as much happiness and meaning in your life as you can get, you’ll spend a good amount of time living in the sweet spot where they meet.


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