23 Mar / What is more valuable to human life: Happiness or Meaning?
It’s all about happiness, right? If I were only happy, everything would be okay. I would be satisfied with my life, the universe, and just about everything else. Everybody knows that happiness delivers the good life, a life well-lived is a happy one. Yet, it seems to me that there is something too simplistic about this statement. If happiness were the sole goal of life, then we would have no problem avoiding the hardest parts of our existence, shirking responsibility and fleeing from the smallest of hardships.
I see good people everyday who enjoy wealth, health, and the happiness that comes with it. They smile and describe their lives in terms of their social relations and material possessions. I see them in the morning at the gym and pass by them in the city I live in. I hear them talk their politics and trade their stories for affirmation. I see the beautiful people who know they are beautiful. The world has given them much and they are happy because of it. Who am I to argue with a person who measures his or her life in terms of their happiness? Few can disagree that being happy is a desirable thing.
Yet, if happiness were the highest value in the universe, life, in my view, would hardly be worth living. One need only read the great religious books to appreciate that there is so much more to life than mere happiness. After all, happiness without context, is meaningless. Humankind needs meaning first and foremost. As Nietzsche declared: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Man then needs a myth to live by, a description and a prescription for life. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with happiness. In fact, I would encourage people to strive toward it, however, happiness should not be thought of as an end goal, but a means to a greater end, through which the individual can throw light on the mere darkness of being.
When my clients tell me they “want to be happy.” I tell them that’s great while reminding them that happiness is meaningless absent lived experience which sorrow and despair are also a part of. I try to help my clients draw on their own experiences, connecting the dots, to scaffold their life into a meaningful existential framework from which they can advance. Happiness will come and go throughout life, I tell them. Find meaning in one’s momentary despair and use the transitory darkness to define the light.