Happiness, Pleasure and Meaning

If someone asked me, “What’s more important to you, being happy or finding meaning in life?” I’d have trouble answering. Like some kind of trick question in a fairytale, I’m thinking, Why not have both?

This question came up after I read a NY Times Opinionator piece citing a new study that showed today’s generation of young people born after 1980, called millennials or Generation Y, are so altruistic that they are choosing professions that bring meaning to life—rather than seeking personal happiness or more money.

In the forthcoming study conducted by Jennifer L. Aaker, Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs and Emily N. Garbinsky, 397 Americans were followed over a month-long period and asked the degree to which they considered their lives to be meaningful or happy, as well as what beliefs and values they held, and what type of choices they had made in their lives.

This is the part that gets confusing to me—because the study was based on the premise that although meaning and happiness can overlap in some ways, they are ultimately different. Although meaning can vary from person to person, the authors Emily Esfanhani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker explained that “a defining feature is connection to something bigger than the self. People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”On the other hand they said that people who want happiness are looking for more money or having an easier, more fun job. People who seek meaning in life are more “givers,” while people who seek happiness tend to be “takers.”

Well. I think it does boil down to semantics to a great degree. I think the study would have made perfect sense to me if they had used the word “pleasure” instead of “happiness.” Then, certainly, I would say that people who seek pleasure above all else tend to be takers. Pleasure is more about fleeting, sensory gratification. To my mind, happiness has a deeper, more spiritual value, and is an important component of living a meaningful life.

In fact, for women, who in general tend to put other’s desires ahead of their own and to give and give and give—to their children and spouses and careers—it’s a good idea to remind ourselves that only a lit bulb can shed light. Only a full cup can overflow. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s when a woman has taken care of herself and is happy inside that she is in a position to give to others without depleting herself.

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique, referred to this as “200% of life.” By meditating twice a day and releasing stress and fatigue and tapping into the state of pure happiness (sometimes called bliss consciousness) that dwells within us all, we can meet the world refreshed, ready to give to others. We can develop inner happiness, and on that basis, enjoy outer prosperity and spontaneously bring that happiness and prosperity to others as well. When the heart is full, when life is lived in fullness in every moment, then it’s natural and easy to give to others.

Maharishi also said in the The Science of Being and Art of Living that “the purpose of creation is the expansion of happiness.” It is our nature to be happy. Think of a healthy child exploring the world with wonder and joy. Think of the birds greeting the morning with vibrant song. Think of the flowers bursting into bloom in spring. It’s a crazily exuberant world. And we can tap into that state of pure happiness inside us, twice a day, every day.

So I say to the millennials—how completely wonderful that you seek to find meaning in life by choosing careers that will help others. This is a credit to your generation and a step forward for our country. But don’t forget about taking care of yourself, too.

About the Author

Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.

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