Happiness or meaning! Which would you choose?
Happiness is about how we feel, physically and mentally, so its attainment is a matter of attention to one’s self. Meaning, on the other hand, is about how we are spiritually oriented toward the other, an activity that by nature must aim at something beyond and greater than one’s own self. This problematic situation reminds me of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
The problem with the pursuit of happiness is that no matter how much we improve our surrounding conditions to be conducive of our happiness, we will soon get accustomed to those very conditions and the good feelings wear off. As a result, we lose ourselves to an endless project of an ever more intricate maintenance of our physical and mental states. Unlike the pursuit of meaning that opens us to the other, the sole pursuit of happiness shuts us off from the other.
Pursuit of happiness is the most unsustainable way of being happy
But we can still participate in a deeper and more lasting sense of happiness when we choose the life of meaning over that of mere happiness. Happiness stays with us longer when we let it come uninvited rather than on-demand. It’s just the way it is.
It is not far fetched to say that the pursuit of happiness is the root cause of unhappiness. Happiness seems to be something that can’t be manufactured, at least in a sustainable way, but must come organically and as a byproduct of another human activity, an activity of the human spirit. I think that this noble activity is the soul’s pursuit of meaning. Now, this meaning could be found in being useful, being giving, being loving, etc., all of which are ways of being open to something other than ourselves, ways of participating in the alchemy of freedom from the self.
But the pursuit of meaning, too, can often be misguided as a search for the meaning of life in the form of a worldview or a philosophy. However, this is a self-defeating project and a mockery of meaning. A common misunderstanding of the phenomenon of meaning is seeing it as a static mental picture of a whole in relation to its parts. As a result of this misunderstanding, much of the modern pursuit of meaning has become a pursuit after a worldview, be it scientific or psychedelic. Here one behaves as if spiritual fulfillment and intellectual fulfillment were the same thing.
That which transcends us is that which keeps us moving
Meaning, however, by its very nature is a dynamic phenomenon; it will collapse if it stops moving toward the ever-receding mystery of existence. The moment I have a complete picture of the cosmos and my role and place in it, I’ll fall back into depression and nihilism, for then I have encompassed and swallowed the “transcendent other” that kept me standing and striving. Sanity is the state of a mind with a transcendent origin whereas insanity is the state of a mind that is self-referential.
So, meaning is not in what’s pursued but in the pursuit itself, and even then only to the extent that the pursuit is not, like the pursuit of happiness, self-centered but aimed at a greater cause that ultimately includes one’s own self, however in a secondary and final way. In short, it is not the transcendent element in the pursuit that holds the meaning; meaning is generated and sustained in the very act of self-transcending.
The fact that the pursuit of meaning seems to be stronger now more than ever indicates to me our heightened awareness of our fundamental emptiness and the ensuing angst, an inevitable landscape brought about by modern human’s break from the traditional sources of meaning such as religion, spirituality, and local culture. Once held in place by the restraining ropes of salvation through collectivism, modern human is now in a terrifying free-fall reaching every which way to grab hold of a saving branch: scientism, self-improvement projects, conspiracy theories, enlightenment, or black holes and alien encounters and what not.
Now that god is dead, the market is hot for new gods.
So, what’s your meaning? Not in general, but just for today! What is your self-transcending act today? For a list of practical ideas and inspirations you can check out my post on Living Meaningfully Now.