Sunday, March 3, 2013

Happiness and meaningfulness (and Frankl)

Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is one of the most well-loved books in the philosophical-psychological literature.  Meaning in life is a central concern for everyone who lives an examined life (and perhaps everyone or nearly everyone lives one, to some extent or other).  Perhaps, as human beings, living an examined life is the very thing that makes it meaningful or worth living, per Socrates's ages-old dictum.  (My modification on his dictum would likely be this: "The extent to which a (human) life is unexamined, is the extent to which it isn't worth living.")

To those who examine the issues and questions surrounding life's meaning, the relation of happiness to meaning is almost sure to arise at some point.  Don't we humans want to be happy more than anything?  Isn't that what ultimately makes live worth living?  Isn't the pursuit of happiness what confers meaning upon our activities?

A recent article by Emily Esfhani Smith in The Atlantic suggests otherwise.  In it, she explicitly distinguishes a life of happiness or happiness-pursuit from a life of meaning, and brings in Frankl as a key figure for the discussion.  By "siding" with Frankl on the fundamental importance of meaningfulness in life, she claims to place herself in opposition to the idea that happiness is what ultimately matters.  As the title of her article indicates, she thinks that "there is more to life than being happy."  But is there some kind of opposition, much less a distinction, between the two (happiness and meaningfulness)?

Smith quotes the authors of a study in the Journal of Positive Psychology:
"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors write. 
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry. 
Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior -- being, as mentioned, a "taker" rather than a "giver." The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire -- like hunger -- you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out. 
"Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others," explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need," the researchers, which include Stanford University's Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, write.
(Bolded emphases mine.)

There are some familiar themes being sounded here, yes?  The pursuit of happiness being linked to selfishness would certainly not be troublesome to an influential ethical egoist such as Ayn Rand, right? (Keep in mind that Rand's conception of egoism and of happiness isn't about "receiving benefits from others" but rather, in its noblest and fully-formed manifestation, about producing or creating benefits for oneself - like Halley and his fifth concerto, for instance.)

What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was namedan ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003. 
The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life "you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self." For instance, having more meaning in one's life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television. 
"Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy," Baumeister told me in an interview.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment -- which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning. 
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. "Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life," the researchers write. "Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future." That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy. 
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. "If there is meaning in life at all," Frankl wrote, "then there must be meaning in suffering."
I imagine Miss Rand having a field day with all this; my present task is to re-create such a field day in my own style and given my background in eudaimonist ethics broadly speaking, notably David L. Norton's version.  Supplementing Rand's eudaimonism with Norton's, do we get any meaningful (ahem) contrast between the meaningful life and the happy life?

In the first bolded emphasis above, in the first quoted text, I highlight the notion of "happiness without meaning."  Does this mean (ahem) that happiness is without meaning, or does it mean that there can be happiness with meaning?  If the latter, it doesn't appear to be addressed at all in the article, so we're left hanging with the impression that happiness and meaning may indeed be quite separate from one another.  After all, happiness is associated with "selfish" behavior while meaning is associated with transcending the self for a "higher" purpose beyond oneself.

I should mention that this supposed dichotomy pervades the popular literature these days, including the "self-help" literature but also the "spirituality" literature (meaningfulness being rightfully associated with a concept of spirituality), with spirituality conflated in many people's minds with belief in God.  (Or, in many cases, this is necessarily associated with the belief that an ancient person named Jesus was born of a virgin and was resurrected from the dead; without believing this, it would seem, a great number of people would find their lives devoid of meaning.  I find this decidedly bizarre, but I've yet to "see the light," as they say.)  Indeed, well-known pastor Rick Warren declares that a purpose-driven life is one that is Christ-centered, not self-centered.  Similarly, rabbi Simon Jacobson writes (in a more intellectually-informed way) that a meaningful life is a "G-d"-informed one.  Eastern spiritual leaders such as Swami Prabhupada tell us that self-realization comes about through becoming one with the divine.  And on and on it goes.

I, on the other hand, think of happiness and meaning as intertwined so closely that I have a term that subsumes them both: a life of fulfillment.  Now, meaningfulness tends to be associated in the non-philosophical popular consciousness with spiritual fulfillment, which is associated either with (again) belief in God (or Christ), or treated in such a way as to be a separate and distinct matter from fulfillment of the rest of one's life, or both.  This latter reeks of a soul-body dichotomy [*], while the former begs all sorts of important questions.  The former tends to associate meaningfulness with hope, and hope with belief in an afterlife.  I offer the film The Shawshank Redemption as evidence that hope need not be bound up in ideas of the supernatural.

([*] - "Happiness," according to the researchers in Smith's article, is about doing the same things other animals do, satisfying animalistic bodily needs.  "Meaning" is doing what is distinctive to us.  Or something like that.  Point being, there's a purported dichotomy here.  Why can't meaningfulness include satisfying the bodily urges?  Hmmm?  Or, alternatively, can we distinguish meaningful bodily-urge-satisfaction from non-meaningful bodily-urge-satisfaction, or degrees (or kinds?) of meaningfulness in such activities?  Eating a delicious and nutritious meal capped off by a perfectly sweet creme brulee sounds a lot more, well, meaningful than eating ordinary potato chips; or, it has more dimensions of meaning to it.  Potato chips do provide some meaningful benefit; so do bland rice and beans.  But what if the good dimensions of these can be integrated while excluding the not-so-good, as per Aristotelian dialectic?  Ah, now we're getting somewhere!)

I think we begin to see here the confusions piled upon confusions in much of the (popular) literature on happiness, meaning, spirituality, hope, and related concepts.  Thankfully there is a philosophical literature that typically seeks precision in these matters, and wouldn't you know it, it's the (neo-)Aristotelian literature that best exemplifies the reaching of said precision.

In the philosophical literature, the concept of eudaimonia goes back to the ancients.  Now, to be sure, the concept of eudaimonia raised many questions and concerns among the ancients, namely: what is it, exactly?  But given what the greatest of the ancient thinkers had to say about it, and what modern descendants of the idea have had to say about it, the questions and concerns have been more productive than confusion-propagating.  It should be noted that the ancients - the Greeks - were worldly enough in their worldview as not to find a dichotomy between life's ultimate meaning and this-worldly pursuits, with all the confusions perpetuated by acceptance of such a dichotomy.  It should further be noted that Plato's ideal of a transcendent Good was radical for his time and place in comparison to Aristotle's much more naturalistic, empirical, worldly ideas about success in life.

(Besides, an Aristotelian might ask, What if a person's belief in the supernatural is indeed mistaken or groundless?  Does that leave the person in the dark when it comes to life's ultimate questions?  Or are there answers to be had through the normal procedures of secular scientific discovery?  Can we locate a telos for us in our nature, a standard by which to determine right conduct given our distinctively human potentialities?  Hell, what would the likes of Thomas Jefferson (a deist - which is practically distinct from an atheist how exactly?) say?)

The concept of eudaimonia is associated in the Aristotelian literature with a concept of perfection (or in the Greek, teleois) of our natures, of bringing to explicit completion (actuality) that which is implicit at the outset (potentiality).  In modern lingo, this lines up perhaps perfectly (ahem) with the concept of self-actualization, defined by Merriam-Webster as reaching fully one's potential.  Then again, it might line up more perfectly with Alan Gewirth's concept of self-fulfillment.  (There's that term again: fulfillment.)  Anyway, let's say that eudaimonia lines up with a concept of perfection in one's life, that is, a life that is not lacking in any significant way - that is to say, that it is an all-encompassing concept that subsumes all the goods one might want out of life.  That includes both happiness and meaning.  Isn't it synonymous indeed with life fulfillment?  What else does it mean to realize fully one's potential?  There's potential in humans that (when actualized) is manifested in both happiness and meaning.  Indeed, what else does self-actualization involve if not the full array of goods; in Maslow's terminology there is a hierarchy of needs at the top of which there is meaning, fulfillment, "transcendence" of some base conception of the self, spirituality, hope, and so forth (including - hell, why not? - happiness).

There is a modern conception of happiness that has been widely recognized as being spiritually impoverished.  The most influential of modern philosophers, Immanuel Kant, apparently had this conception of happiness (the satisfaction of inclination) in mind when rejecting the thesis that happiness is the highest ethical aim in life.  There are materialistic connotations to this conception of happiness, associated with the pursuit of economic good that so preocuppied modern political economists in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.  But even that had its limitations, as when John Stuart Mill, leading philosopher of utilitarianism ("the greatest balance of happiness over unhappiness, for the greatest number"), distinguished between the "higher" and the "lower" pleasures, illustrated most famously by his dictum that "it is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied."  (It bears mentioning here that before writing on ethics and political philosophy, Mill was himself among those devoted to questions of political economy - indeed, he wrote the treatise in which classical/Anglo/Smithian/Ricardian political economy culminated, Principles of Political Economy (1848), before the Marxian interpretation and marginalist revolution took things in different directions.  That Marx's comprehensive worldview was so deeply immersed in questions of political economy, should indicate how central political economy has been to so much modern philosophizing.)

But the ancient and Aristotelian conception of happiness as eudaimonia doesn't line up with this modern conception of happiness as pleasure, and it is the modern conception of happiness that evidently infuses the discussion in Ms. Smith's Atlantic piece.  Moreover, there is most definitely a confusion when "wants" and "needs" are discussed the way they are.  (See again the third paragraph of the first section of quoted text above.)  In one sentence there is the talk of "a need or a desire" and in the very next there is mention only of getting what one wants (desires?).  But (a) There is a distinction among eudaimonists (and Norton is explicit about this) between mere desire and right desire, the satisfaction of which he defines in terms of eudaimonia or self-actualization; and (b) Maslow's hierarchy is a hierarchy of needs and not of wants per se; it is in getting what we need that we self-actualize.  (Surely the distinction between want and need in that Rolling Stones song is apropos?  There's also surely a tie-in to the House, M.D. television series, as the wiki article points out.  What we have here is an absence of failure to integrate.)  Finally on this point, it's commonly understood that self-actualization has an interpersonal or social dimension that goes beyond the "selfish" satisfaction of one's desires to the exclusion of others (a point that Rand did not disagree with, but might have been much more explicit about).

I'm intrigued by the last quotation above, from Frankl, that if there is meaning in life at all, then there's meaning in suffering.  I don't see a real problem with this as long as we distinguish suffering from despair, that is, a suffering without hope.  And when I, personally, think of hope, my thoughts almost invariably go to that movie with Andy Dufresne and Red.

I think a useful distinction that might be made between happiness and meaningfulness is as follows: happiness is a psychological state or condition that amounts, qua psychological phenomenon, to a feeling of life-satisfaction - or, better yet, life-fulfillment, whereas meaningfulness refers to one's existential condition.  (Existentialism is primarily concerned, after all, with meaning in a world devoid of a discernible cosmic telos.)  Norton, meanwhile, identifies eudaimonia as both a feeling and a condition attendant upon the satisfaction of right desire (which is understood in Aristotelian terms - as the actualization of the potentialities which constitute the self).

Frankl's book on man's search for meaning is a must-read in any event.  There is a clear-cut parallel in my mind between that book (particularly the first half) and the idea behind the Shawshank story - namely, how one can have or discover hope amid suffering.  Indeed, even when happiness or eudaimonia does elude us, e.g., under extreme conditions of unfreedom as found in a prison or concentration camp - even as much as happiness or eudaimonia serves as some kind of ultimate standard of successful human living that justifies pursuits in that direction - there is something we can nonetheless hold onto in such dire times to give our lives meaning (and which needn't imply affirmation of the supernatural), and that is hope.  In Randian terms, this emerges as the benevolent universe premise and is reflected in Roark's attitude toward life as he works in a quarry (when he might have pursued the life of "happiness" by accepting a commission that would compromise his architectural integrity).  In Aristotelian terms, all of this emerges as an endorsement of harmonious integration of the seemingly disparate ends (aims) of human life.

1 comment:

  1. I agree strongly with Emily Esfhani Smith. Thanks for posting that article- it's very insightful (in my opinion).