The Source of Both Infinite Happiness and Meaning

Must we always choose between doing good and feeling good? Does a life of meaning require the sacrifice of personal happiness?

My friend Emily Esfahani-Smith explores these questions in a new piece at The Atlantic on the apparent conflict some in today’s secular culture have discovered between a “happy” life and a “meaningful” one (“There’s More to Life Than Being Happy“):


According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “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.

How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.


Read the whole thing.

Related, earlier this month at Fox News, from Dr. Keith Ablow, “We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists”:

Psychologist Jean Twenge, the lead author of the analysis, is also the author of a study showing that the tendency toward narcissism in students is up 30 percent in the last thirty-odd years.

This data is not unexpected.  I have been writing a great deal over the past few years about the toxic psychological impact of media and technology on children, adolescents and young adults, particularly as it regards turning them into faux celebrities—the equivalent of lead actors in their own fictionalized life stories.


Distractions, however, are temporary, and the truth is eternal. Watch for an epidemic of depression and suicidality, not to mention homicidality, as the real self-loathing and hatred of others that lies beneath all this narcissism rises to the surface.  I see it happening and, no doubt, many of you do, too.

We had better get a plan together to combat this greatest epidemic as it takes shape.  Because it will dwarf the toll of any epidemic we have ever known. And it will be the hardest to defeat. Because, by the time we see the scope and destructiveness of this enemy clearly, we will also realize, as the saying goes, that it is us.

Among the big paradoxes in America today that it’s impolite to mention: how we’re willing to work for happiness. If you offer to sell someone a happy pill, they’ll gladly sacrifice a meaningful chunk of income and endure a host of annoying side effects to have the chance of it. But provide them with free instructions on behaviors proven to generate happiness and instead you’ll receive insult, ridicule, and dismissal. None of the unhappy will even consider experimenting with the solution. Instead they’ll continue to seek happiness through trolling internet forums and expounding on their superiority while hiding behind an anonymous handle.


The root of being “happy” is in how one chooses to define what the word means. Everyone has the freedom to decide for themselves what set of life circumstances will satisfy them. Or, in the Dennis Prager, Abraham Lincoln mode of putting it: You are as happy as you choose to be.

How can you choose to bring happiness to yourself? In the America of 2013 it’s necessary to say explicitly what Esfahani-Smith and Ablow infer. The easiest, cheapest, most effective path to a joyful life is also the squarest: prayer and the sincere practice of other religious rituals. Pray to a Higher Power for happiness on a consistent basis and it will indeed begin to come. Now long-term happiness, that’s a more challenging prospect, but still wholly within the grasp of every human being on the planet who makes the choice to pursue it…

Some of the books on religion that I hope to blog about more this year:


(New Year’s Resolution #7 — Promote Interfaith Dialogue on Sundays)

“Which religion is true?”

I’ve wrestled with variations of this question for the last 14 years. Today its answer finally arrives in a new question that I’m going to pursue on Sundays at PJ Lifestyle this year:

“Which religious practices transform us into better, happier people?”

I’ve shifted on one of the fault lines of a debate that cuts across faiths East and West. Is religion primarily something you believe or something you do?

Obviously every religion makes demands for both, but not all answer the same way with comparable ratios of dogma and ritual. And not all even pursue the same directions. As Stephen Prothero demonstrates in God Is Not One, religions each provide varying diagnoses of the core problem of human existence and then provide diverse treatments. We discover this when we engage in discussions with those who practice other religions.


Many of a traditionalist temperament bristle at the term “interfaith dialogue” — and for good reason. They’re on the defense against those who want to promote the falsehood that all religions are basically the same, we’re all worshiping the same god by different names, the differences don’t really matter, and thus we should tolerate all practices, even those we find barbaric and disgusting. All too often an interfaith sheepskin obscures such wolves as postmodernism, moral relativism, and, ultimately, their grandmother nihilism. If we must “tolerate” all religious beliefs as equal then we must also “tolerate” when those beliefs inspire men to marry multiple wives and kidnap girls to keep as slaves.

But there’s another way to approach interfaith spirituality, not as a competitor or a replacement to traditional, Judeo-Christian ethical monotheism, but as a logical continuation of its conclusions about the path we must pursue to bring about a more peaceful, prosperous world.

George Wolfe is a professor, musician, and ordained interfaith minister. We became friends after I interviewed him for my undergraduate political science senior thesis in 2006. When I returned to live in Muncie in December of 2007 — only becoming engaged to a woman not yet graduated would inspire me to move back to my college town — he and I reconnected. My fiancee and I attended George’s inter-faith worship services and his Gandharva meditation classes. When it came time to find someone to marry us in May 2009, George was the obvious choice. We had an interfaith marriage service, utilizing rituals from numerous traditions.

As George and I grew closer in synch spiritually we drifted apart politically. In 2006, when we met, we both fit in the mainstream of today’s Democratic Party. MSNBC, New York Times, NPR, Academic Baby Boomer Liberalism. Today, my ideological labels of choice after enduring a number of rightward kicks: Counterculture Conservative, Tea Party Occultist, Capitalist Wizard, and Anti-Slavery Republican. But this hasn’t disrupted our friendship. On the handful of occasions were we’ve stumbled into political discussions, we’ve managed to disagree respectfully and learn from one another.


That’s what I hope for in the coming weeks as George and I discuss the new edition of his book The Spiritual Power of Nonviolence: Interfaith Understanding for a Future Without War in a dialogue on Sundays here at PJ Lifestyle. In it, he argues both points I still agree with enthusiastically and others that I’ve now spent years opposing full time. George’s overall approach is one with which I continue to empathize: he seeks to integrate together a personal interfaith-spirituality with the practical, real-world task of peacemaking. Through greater understanding of common stories and mythological concepts, we can recognize a common path forward for all human beings to pursue in freedom and harmony. Where we disagree is in our interpretations of key mythological stories and the order we emphasize and value various religious concepts.

I hope that our dialogue can serve as both a discourse on the issues and an encouragement for others to pursue intra-religious discussions across the political lines. Because it’s truly a strange day in this country when conservative Jews, Christians, secularists, and Buddhists are more likely to get along than they would with their faiths’ progressive counterparts…

But we’re only going to change this intolerably polarized status quo and find that elusive happiness and meaning if we start talking. The last word to Emily Esfahani-Smith from her great Atlantic piece:

What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.

The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing.



Images courtesy  Jurand / snake3d / Maksim Dubinsky /

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