I had a conversation over dinner recently where I was told “people don’t actually want happiness, they want meaning.” I disagreed instinctively, but I wasn’t able to clearly articulate why at the time. This is my explanation.
I pursue individual happiness because it makes me better: more joyous, funny, down-to-earth, approachable, optimistic, excited, ambitious… Happiness gives me strength and passion both in micro moments — when I look around at the smiling faces of my best friends as we laugh at our own dumb jokes and realize there is no place I’d rather be than with them — and in macro pursuits — when I spend difficult hours focusing intensely on a hard problem, knowing that the momentary pain of struggle will eventually become a satisfying, long-lasting feeling of happiness due to accomplishment and skill.
I’m strongly goal-oriented, and goal acquisition is one of the premier arguments in favor of happiness-later life strategies; however, I’d argue that a happiness-first approach makes me significantly more effective. Building my life around activities that maximize happiness (spending time with my friends, choosing a company with coworkers that spark joy, pursuing sports that inspire me instead of weight-lifting) is what gives me the strength to face every obstacle in the way of my goals. There are moments where I find myself strolling along the street, swinging my arms, with a goofy smile plastered to my face because I’m walking from one joyful activity to the next — my entire life a symphony of smiles, waves, giggles, and the challenges they allow me to overcome. In my healthiest and most effective times, I move from happily focusing on my work goals, to happily focusing on my relationship goals, to happily focusing on my fitness goals, to happily focusing on my social goals, intentionally filling myself with joy in everything I do. I’m never more productive than in these times, and I’m never more inspired to help others.
There are times where I’ve believed in the counter-narrative, of postponing pursuits of happiness until after pursuits of meaning. This happiness-later approach contests the “frivolous and selfish” focus on individual happiness in favor of more measurable and meaningful life strategies. For example, instead of focusing on building joyous and playful relationships, a focus on meaning might instead desire helpful or strategic relationships in order to achieve some grander vision. To truly change the world, to truly produce meaning, I need to do something great, something so great I may need to suffer for it. But the desire for “something greater than happiness” is fraught. I can’t help others most effectively unless I’m at my best; I can’t put on the breathing mask of others before I’ve put on my own.
When I heard “people want meaning more than they want happiness”, my instinctive reaction was disagreement. I certainly don’t. Take away my meaning, take away my purpose, take away my vision. But leave me with the feeling I get when I’m truly on top of the world — when there’s so much joy inside me that I can’t help but have a spring in my step and a smile on my face, or when I can hardly breathe because I’ve been laughing so hard that I’m wheezing, or when I silently hug my loved ones after a long absence.
Maybe you want meaning, but I want happiness.