Choosing Between Happiness and Meaning

Around this time of year, many people start to get a little reflective about what they’ve been able to accomplish thus far, how they’ve been leading their lives, and where they want to go in the future. We think about our relationship with the world and how we can improve our experience within it.

An Inherent Incompatibility?

I don’t recall exactly where I first read this, but the concept can be incredibly profound for all you introspective people (that includes me). The author posited that most of us want to be happy. That much makes sense. We also want to find some deeper meaning in our lives, whether it be through service to others or through the legacy we leave behind. That also makes sense. However, the author says that the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of meaning are inherently incompatible.

If you choose to pursue happiness, you don’t let the little things nag at you. More likely than not, you choose to go with the flow and extract as much joy from this world as you can. If you want to be happy, you probably want to be as carefree as possible.

What is the Meaning of Life?

On the flip side, the pursuit of meaning can be filled with strife and struggle. It is through this search for the meaning of life that you may experience incredible existential angst. You may witness all kinds of suffering and that can’t make you feel very good. However, you may have a more powerful impact on the world at large and you may gain a greater understanding too. They say that ignorance is bliss and more knowledge can be painful, but meaning-seekers are willing to endure the pain to gain that knowledge.

This is not unlike the discussion we had nearly two years ago. In it, we talked about how the pursuit of success may not necessarily be compatible with the pursuit of happiness. Do you have to choose between success and happiness in the same way that you have to choose between meaning and happiness? That’s debatable.

The Best of Both Worlds?

For me, I think that there is a way for all of us to achieve both happiness and meaning in our lives. Going right back to the beginning, it is through our service to others and the lasting legacy that we leave behind. If I can leave this world knowing that I have, in some small way, made it a better place for everyone, then I can be happy.

What do you think? Do you think happiness and meaning are incompatible?