>>>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