Sunday, October 11, 2015

Meaning, happiness and the good life

Let's say you are a successful novelist. In fact, Wikipedia describes you as the author of an entire genre: the Philosopical Bodice Ripper, steamy romances that explore philosophical ideas with surprising depth and subtlety. It is a form you have entirely mastered, and it is earning you a tidy living. You have a devoted readership and you take real satisfaction in exposing the fans of romantic fiction to philosophy. Still, there is a part of you that wants more.

>>>Fast forward >>>

For the last five grueling years you have been working on the great American philosophical novel: The Rigid Designation. You care more intensely about this project than all of your previous work combined. But it is undeniably a source of enormous frustration and anxiety. You are working at the absolute limit of your creative potential and experiencing disappointment far more often and more intensely than success. You do not know if you can finish; and even if you do, you have no idea how it will be received.

One night, over a bottle of Glenlivet, you are waxing nostalgic about your previous life to your good friend Piotr, who has heard it all one too many times: Just toss that damned manuscript into the fire, delete the file, and go back to doing what what you do best!

And, perhaps surprisingly, you agree. You really would be a happier person if you were to do exactly as Piotr advised. Perhaps not immediately afterwards, but soon. You still feel that way the next morning as you log into your computer.

What do you do?


What do we want from life?

Well, lots of stuff, of course. But at a basic level, I say there are only two things: happiness and meaning.

What is happiness? Easy. Your life is happy to the extent that you are feeling good, both in it and about it. There are lots of different ways of feeling good: joy, hope, gratitude, contentment, elation, inspiration, affection, a panoply of sensual pleasures. They all count. Somehow.

What is meaning? Easy again. Your life has meaning to the extent that you are doing things you care about. Generally speaking, you care when you have a sense of purpose, commitment to personal goals, the wellbeing of family and friends, to discovery, to creation, to work, to serving a higher cause, like God or country.

Ok, clear enough so far, but not too interesting. Nobody denies that meaning and happiness are fine things, and we all agree that anyone with plenty of both is very lucky indeed.

But I said that meaning and happiness are basic. By this I mean that they are distinct ends. We desire them both, but we do not seek one simply as a means to achieving the other.

This is more interesting because it contradicts conventional wisdom, which is based on a strong and widely felt intuition that happiness is, almost by definition, the summum bonum of every self-interested person. According to this view, whatever we want in life (power, freedom, safety, love, respect, and meaning) we want because we believe it will contribute to our happiness.

Put differently, it is to deny the quite plausible view that the only reason we would ever want a more meaningful life is that we think we will be happier as a result. It is to assert that someone may rationally opt for a more meaningful life knowing full well that it will come at the expense of her personal happiness.

Now, in fact, many others disagree with the conventional view, but they typically need to play a wild card to say why. For example, one common way of arguing against it is to point to altruism: people willingly sacrifice their own happiness for the benefit of others. The problem with that gambit is that many of those we are trying to convince think of altruistic behavior either as an illusion, or as fundamentally irrational. I don’t, but I also don't want to get mired in the debate. So what I say here I mean to be understood strictly within the framework of rational self-interest.

Consider a related but slightly different implication of the conventional view:

No rational person would refuse to do something that would reduce the meaning in her life if she were convinced that doing so would result in greater personal happiness.

This is not really a strict implication of the view, as you might always have other options. But you get the gist; I won't complicate the thought with a bunch of qualifications.

This, I think, is more easily shown to be false. To see why, let's return to you.


Did you delete the file?

I don't know, but that is enough to make my point.

You might have. In this case, you would indeed be exchanging a more meaningful life for a happier one. That does not seem irrational and it is obviously consistent with the conventional view.

But, then again, you might not. You might have decided to keep toiling away in all your unhappiness and frustration, not in hope of some greater happiness to be achieved later, but simply because it is a more meaningful activity to you now. In this case you have expressed, contrary to the conventional view, a reflective preference for a less happy, but more meaningful life.

The Happiness Fundamentalist rejoins:

1. But if you decide to stay at it, it can only be because the thought of quitting makes you unhappy.

No. The thought of quitting does make you unhappy, but it is not an adequate explanation of your decision either way. For you sincerely believe this unhappiness would dissipate were you to return to your old life.

2. Well, then deciding to keep at it may be understandable, but it is surely irrational.

Maybe. But we'll need an argument. And we won't be listening if yours just stipulates that happiness is the only thing that truly matters. Because we think we just proved that it ain't.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State


  1. Randy, there's so much to like in this post, but let me just start with three things.

    First, when I started, I thought you were working on what some philosophers call the nature of well-being. (Some say you are well off when you are happy, others say when you are subjectively satisfied, others say 'wait a minute, happiness just is subjective satisfaction!' and on we go.) But when I look closer, it seems like you are not really interested in the nature of well-being but the structure of our desires themselves…As you put it after the first break, "what do we want from life?" That seems like it could be different from "what makes a life go well?" Is this a fair characterization of your aim here?

    Second, I wonder what you think of a challenge to your thesis that "happiness and meaning are basic" coming from someone who wants to see them both as contributing to some third thing more basic than either. Like well-being...

    1. Russell, nice points. It looks like you signed off before getting to your third thing, but let me see if I can respond to the first two.

      Regarding your first question, I think you are right. It's not so much that I'm not interested in well-being, but more that I think we have to look to what we in fact desire if we are to develop a useful notion of wellbeing. It seems to me that one reason for taking well-being seriously is the recognition that happiness is not the only thing that is desirable in itself.

      I'm not sure whether to think of your second point as a challenge or a friendly amendment. I think that it will be useful to have a single word that stands for the degree to which we have satisfied our basic desires in life, and wellbeing might be it. And I'm not in any way committed to the idea that meaning and happiness must remain distinct notions. Perhaps they are both modes of wellbeing in the way that mind and matter are modes of plain old being. But for now I suppose the important question would be what is it in virtue of which we see wellbeing as a third thing rather than a name for the collection of things we desire for themselves.

    2. Randy, yes, it looks like I outnumbered myself again. The third point I was going to make was this: does your suggestion that meaning and happiness are each basic allow for the phenomenon that, at least some of the time, we can see one as done for the sake of the other?

      Put differently, could a person still agree with your view and say, truthfully, "sometimes I do try to make my life a bit happier, precisely because I think that additional happiness will make my life will be a bit more meaningful"? Or "sometimes I do try to make my life a bit more meaningful, precisely because I think that additional meaningfulness will make my life will be a bit happier"?

    3. Russell, yes, I do think exactly that. I don't see how there is anything to be gained by insisting that something that we value for itself can not be valued instrumentally as well.

  2. "They say we are indifferent to everything but self-interest; yet we find our consolation in our sufferings in the charms of friendship and humanity, and even in our pleasures we should be too lonely and miserable if we had no one to share them with us. If there is no such thing as morality in man's heart, what is the source of his rapturous admiration of noble deeds, hi passionate devotion to great men? What connection is there between self-interest and this enthusiasm for virtue? Why should I choose to be Cato dying by his own hand, rather than Caesar in his triumphs? Take from our hearts this love of what is noble and you rob us of the joy of life. The mean-spirited man...loves[s] no one but himself...delights in nothing; the wretch has neither life nor feeling, he is dead already." - Rousseau

  3. Beautiful. Though I think today we are very much alive to the fact that it is not at all in our self-interest to be constantly pursuing it. The happiest people on earth are people who care least about their happiness, and the people who care most about it are just as often the undead wretches Rousseau despises. But all of this is consistent with the claim that we are happier for valuing the things Rousseau admires, and so that is what makes them valuable. Not so, I suggest, for meaning.

  4. Randy, This is great material for a class happiness I'm teaching in the Spring.
    One point occurs to me. You say, "your life has meaning to the extent that you are doing things you care about." Isn't this a problematically subjectivist notion of a meaningful life? Suppose someone cares greatly about and centers their life around something most of us would consider foolish, pointless, or trivial. We may not be able to prove that raising money to help fight malaria as more meaningful than compiling the world's largest collection of bus tickets; but I assume most people would say that the former activity gives that person's life a better meaning. And that has nothing to do with how the person feels or thinks about what they are doing. To me this suggests that we typically employ criteria for judging lives more or less meaningful which don't reduce to the subjective states of the people involved.

  5. Emrys, good to hear from you. I guess I would say that it is definitely subjectivist, but, given my aims, not problematically so. I would prefer to speak of degrees of meaning in subjectivist terms, and allow that ones life might be very meaningful without being morally exemplary. And, of course, the same goes for happiness. I think the contribution of this perspective on meaning, if it is correct, is that it shows that self-interest is a richer notion than it might appear, that it can account for a greater range of human behavior.

    In general terms, someone might respond to my post by saying that there is at least one other thing that we want from life, and that is to be good. But, as I hinted, that is a tougher sell, since being good seems to involve cooperating at the expense of our interests. It may be human beings just are creatures who want to do this, but I'm suggesting it's more plausible that we are creatures who want meaning, and rely on the empirical fact that making meaning is very often an exercise in cooperation.

  6. Hi Randy,

    This is very relevant to the 100 class I'm teaching. Your position sounds much like Susan Wolf's in "Meaning in Life and Why it Matters." There is a significant difference, however, in that it sounds like you want to include meaningfulness within self-interest, while Wolf thinks it provides a kind of practical reason distinct from self-interest or morality.

    She argues that traditional discussions of the good life, which have focused primarily on self-interest or morality, have missed out on meaningfulness as a separate category of good. Like you, she argues that something that gives our life meaning need not be something that makes our lives happier, or even in our self-interest. In fact, she claims that it might sometimes be reasonable to prefer a life of meaning at the expense of both self-interest and morality.

    She also tries to deal with the subjectivism that Emrys mentions by claiming that what gives our lives meaning is engaging in projects of objective worth. Which projects we prefer to engage in is a subjective matter, but some projects, like having the largest collection of train tickets, do not make our lives meaningful because they have no objective worth. Other projects, like raising children, are objectively worthy, and so engaging in them does make for a meaningful life. Raising children, by the way, seems to me to be a good candidate for something that gives our life meaning but doesn't necessarily make our lives happier.

    Wolf does admit to difficulties in identifying "projects of objective worth," but her account is interesting and is worth thinking about.

  7. Dave, thanks, that's a nice connection. I'm not sure if I've read that article or not. If so, it's been a while. It sounds to me like the difference between Wolf and me regarding the relation between meaning and self-interest is probably just semantic. There are so many equally acceptable ways of explicating these terms in my opinion.

    I think we have more significant differences with respect to the subjectivity issue, though. I don't think it's useful to say that people who care deeply about their collection of train tickets aren't leading meaningful lives. I think its clearer to say that their lives are meaningful, but not all that morally admirable, or whatever. Suppose we switch it up and imagine that someone is doing something morally admirable, such as caring for children, and doing a good job, but in fact does not care about the wellbeing of the children at all. I think it's best to say that she is doing good work but that this is not contributing to the meaning in her life. Perhaps she can come to care about what she is doing, in which case her life would then become more meaningful, but it just isn't now.

    I should clarify, too, (though nothing you said really depends on it) that I don't think a subjective notion of meaning or happiness commits us to the idea that people know best how happy or meaningful their lives are. Saying it is subjective just means that it is mind dependent and that people have a distinctive first person pespective on it. But the first person perspective varies in its reliability, and often other people know as well or better than we do how meaningful or happy our lives really are.

  8. Dear Prof. Mayes,
    I am afraid the premise of the problem is false. There is no dichotomy of happiness versus meaning. The writer in your case study has already revealed a preference for writing his complex, meaningful novel: he has been doing so for five years! If writing it doesn't make him happy, how did he get this far?

    In general, meaning is necessary for happiness, so the dichotomy is a false one. It relies on an "excluded middle" assumption, which is a convenient device in formal logic, but unfortunately it is too simplistic to think of happiness an un-interrupted state. In real life, complex, protracted enterprises bring about psychological ups and downs. Anybody who has tried to learn to play a musical instrument, or to speak a foreign language, will have observed it: there are moments of elation, and moments of frustration.

    On the other hand, our minds rapidly become habituated to any static situation. "Meaning" is really shorthand for continually moving the goal posts forward, so that a challenge is created, the overcoming of which creates a new spike of happiness. Then rinse and repeat.
    So, what your writer needs is not a delete button, but a bit of psychological advice. It is very likely that hitting delete now will lead to deep depression in the future. Of course, there is chance that the current version of his novel is flawed, and he would benefit from abandoning it and starting over, but it is pretty safe to predict that his life would be empty and lacking in satisfaction without the challenge of writing something more than a stereotyped pot-boiler.

    But given how badly his penchant for "excluded middle" thinking is misleading him, maybe he should tone down the philosophical part of his writing, and pump up the bodice ripping part. That would be my advice to him.

    1. I concur wholeheartedly. I attempted to show the flaws in the psychology of the writer a little bit in my post directly below this one. Let me know what you think.

    2. Since you agree with me, you are obviously a genius :-)

    3. Erga, those are very interesting points, thank you.

      I actually agree with you that meaning and happiness tend to be causally related. In fact, this is part of the problem. Because they do tend to be causally related in this way, it can be hard to see that they are both valuable in themselves.

      In regard to your question: "If writing it doesn't make him happy, how did he get this far?" I think one answer is our ability to defer gratification. But the other more relevant answer is that it is meaningful. Meaning sustains us even when we are not happy. So, possibly my hypothetical novelist is not a convincing demonstration of this, but I suggest there are plenty of real life examples in which this is a very plausible analysis of the situation.

      As I suggest in the post, it is possible to simply insist that if a person is continuing to do something, it must be making them happy. But I think that is dogmatic and very often just does not ring true.

  9. I'm going to play devil's advocate.

    Firstly, I don't buy the narrative. The main character doesn't seem like a real person. I went ahead and recreated parts of the story based on what I consider to be a more honest fellow:

    "Still, there is a part of you that wants more." Of course there is. I want to be taken seriously as a philosopher rather than merely a philosophically inclined romance novelist. I want respect and admiration because deep down I believe these will make me happier.

    My friend Piotr isn't the most logical guy. His recommendation for my current dilemma is to quit because it will make me happier in the long run. But that is just choosing instant gratification over delayed gratification. I would be happier in the short term if I quit working on my magnum opus, but I'd likely be unhappier in the long run because I'd feel like a quitter for not reaching my full potential. My ego tells me I'm better than romance novels, and I aim to prove it right. But what if I'm not?

    The real issue here is simply not knowing what's going to make me happier because I can't predict the future. "You do not know if you can finish; and even if you do, you have no idea how it will be received." So in the midst of this tumultuous creative process, I'm not sure whether my masterpiece is worth the effort. Will it reward me with comparable happiness in the end? Or am I merely torturing myself while developing a taste for alcohol?

    That is the dilemma. We don't know what's best for us. We don't know what will make us happier. It's all guesswork. But the goal is clear.

    1. Well, you seem to be advocating for the side of the happiness fundamentalist, I'm not sure that's the devil. You might be right that the possibility of happiness is the only thing that would motivate a rational person to continue to work. But since I've stipulated that, by the author's own lights, the probability of this outcome is very low, then the happiness fundamentalist is required to assess his or her decision as irrational.

      I'm not entirely sure what you mean to conclude from your third paragraph, but, regardless whether or not my writer seems real, I think real people are constantly having to face their own limitations and make their peace with what they are good at. I love Stephen King's remark: "I'm a salami writer. I try to write good salami, but salami is salami. You can't sell it as caviar." I bet he tried making caviar once or twice and decided that he just wasn't very good at it. I do not imagine him unhappy.

    2. The happiness fundamentalist is essentially a hedonist, which some would equate with the devil.

      What I'm stipulating is that this writer you've created just doesn't know his/her own mind. S/he thinks s/he is motivated by meaning rather than happiness, but really this person is deceiving his/herself. The happiness fundamentalist doesn't believe there is anything other than happiness to drive a person to do anything. So this whole stipulation that s/he doesn't care about the that is, in the happiness fundamentalist's eyes, nonsense. It's not the decision that's irrational, it's this writer's understanding of his own decision making process.

      Now if you came stated that the writer somehow, magically, knows that s/he will be happier in the future if s/he forgoes the important work, and yet s/he still chooses the less happy life, then I would have to say s/he's being irrational. But s/he doesn't know. That's my point about not knowing what the future has in store. We can only guess at what will make us happy, and the happiness fundamentalist believes we are constantly doing so. Every act is a perceived step towards happiness. So the writer's decision is irrelevant to the happiness fundamentalist. Either way, the happiness fundamentalist is going to interpret the decision as the writer taking his or her best guess at what will make him/her happy.

      My third paragraph was pointing out the flawed logic of Piotr, who recommends quitting as if that will make the writer happier. Piotr doesn't understand instant vs delayed gratification. The writer will be happiest if he finishes his great work and enjoys the satisfaction of giving his all to something. This enjoyment is still just a form of happiness though.

      My argument is essentially the same as Erga's. Meaning is just another means to an end. The only end is happiness.

    3. I think you state your position well. In order to preserve your view that the only end is happiness, you must explain any reasoning or decision to act against one's own happiness for self-interested reasons as irrational, delusional, or confused. My position is that rational, non delusional, clear-headed people not only can choose meaning over happiness, but actually do it routinely. We are drawn to meaning like moths to a flame.

    4. "I think you state your position well." Thanks professor. I was a student of yours, after all.

  10. Randy,

    One of the most tragic figures I know of is Sir Arthur Sullivan.

    Sullivan was the most financially and commercially successful British composer of the late 19th century. His string of light operas earned him a knighthood from a Grateful Nation.

    He lived and died a disappointed man. He quit his successful collaboration with librettist W. K. Gilbert to pursue his ambition to compose grand opera. But his only grand opera, Ivanhoe, is never performed. (And it’s not as if opera doesn’t need a larger repertoire!)

    The light operas, The Pirates of Penzance, The Mikado, and others, are immortal. There is a Gilbert and Sullivan Society in every town - including Sacramento - formed for the sheer loony joy of putting them on..

    As a thoroughgoing externalist, I would submit that we (as individuals) are not the World Authority on the meaningfulness of what we ourselves do.
    So we should be careful in pursuing happiness defined in this first-person way.

    1. Tom, I agree with you. In fact, due to the draconian 1000 word limit imposed by the jerk that runs this blog, I had to delete a paragraph making exactly that point. I think you agree with me, though, that the fact that it is subjective does not entail that you are the world's greatest authority on it. See my last paragraph responding to Dave Denman's comment.

    2. A good reminder that you don't have to be an externalist to believe that first-person evidence is not infallible!

    3. Alternatively, just because we are externalists doesn't mean that we have to deny the reality and significance of the subjective.

  11. As Wilfrid Sellars once said to Daniel Dennett, after a nice dinner and bottle of wine...
    "But Dan, qualia are what make life worth living!"

  12. Would deleting the file truly "be exchanging a more meaningful life for a happier one?"

    On the surface, engaging in activities that elate us seem to make us happy, but certain activities are not necessarily contributing to our happiness. Susan Wolf (Denman's example) uses exemplars like a habitual pot smoker or sudoku player, to illustrate that, while these activities give these persons some sort of elative feeling, they are still left feeling devoid of fulfillment, because there is no real meaning to these activities, which is essential to one's happiness. All we know of this riveting Philosophical Bodice Ripper is that they find fulfillment in writing, so how can it be that they are exchanging one for the other, a meaningful life for a happier one, by deleting the file?

    Surely, if fulfillment is a key to happiness, then a temporary lack of elation in pursuing some meaningful objective (continuing to write), cannot be "irrational."

    Because..."happiness is [not] the only thing that truly matters."

    *just two cents from an amateur*

  13. Kris, I think I agree with you on the specifics. It's hard to come up with examples that are perfectly satisfying, because it is easy for people to just stipulate that if someone is not feeling fulfilled (i.e., not experiencing meaning) then they are not TRULY happy. But I think that is an unfortunate philosophical sense of the word in which true happiness is just basically equated with the perfect life. Some philosophers, e.g., will claim that bad people can't be truly happy just bu defining the term in this way. Here I want to set up a situation where it is plausible that the novelist will very clearly be much more happy than she is now, yet she may decide not to delete the file because she would lose meaning, which is different and has independent value. Someone could use the term 'happiness' philosophically and claim that if she doesn't delete the file that just shows she really is happier now, but I think when we do that we cause confusion. You can tell Denman that.