The Meaning of Happiness

As usual, James Shelley presents a great mind-bender with his article, Unhappy With Happiness:

But as counter-cultural as it may be, I have serious misgivings about the pursuit of happiness. There is a massive, irreconcilable clash between our modern obsession with happiness and the lives of our cultural heroes like Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa — people who would have never inspired us had they simply taken the path of least resistance in order to achieve their own happiness. No, these individuals followed a trajectory set by a pursuit of meaning, justice and purpose. Values set their respective frameworks for making decisions (and significant sacrifices) in life.

This post has thrown me for a loop because I’ve been assuming happiness is the ultimate goal for quite a while now.

The people James lists above are exceptional individuals — once-in-a-lifetime human beings. It’s true that they might have endured much less adversity had they only been concerned with their own happiness, but they also wouldn’t be the heroes of humanity they are today.

Can one aspire to be an individual of the same caliber as Nelson Mandela or Mother Teresa? Sure, why not? But I question the likelihood of such an outcome given most of our comparatively sheltered existences. How can a college graduate from suburban Connecticut become a cultural hero?

Before reading James’ essay, I was always focused on my own happiness, and I don’t mean that in a selfish way. Various influences throughout my life taught me that I can’t control anything except my mind and how it deals with the world around me. That sounds pessimistic, but it was actually liberating because it showed me that no one was in control of my happiness but me.

In college, as I started to become interested in Eastern philosophy and minimalism, I began focusing on ways to eliminate friction in my life. I might not have known what job I wanted, or where I wanted to live, but I did know I wanted to be happy, content, and fulfilled — wherever I was, whatever I was doing. I thought, “We only get one shot here, so why not make it as smooth and enjoyable as possible?” It seemed like a worthwhile and achievable long-term goal.

On top of that, I also found this anonymous quote:

You must love yourself before you love another. By accepting yourself and fully being what you are, your simple presence can make others happy.

As you may know, it’s my favorite quote, and I’ve tried to ingrain it into my conscious as a way to become the person I want to be. I fully believe it, too. If you don’t love yourself, how can you possibly love another? Learning to love yourself is an act of acceptance for who you are. If you can achieve that state, that love will emanate from you and spread to others.

So, my ideal version of happiness is one that allows me to be who I truly am, which is hopefully a person other people enjoy and benefit from. I think this is different from a pursuit of happiness where you only care about yourself or material possessions.


Sheer happiness for happiness’ sake leads to numbness. I can not imagine any other consequence. For once happiness is achieved, what remains? Does not the bubble of the happiness economy eventually burst under the surplus of indulgence?

It seems like a case of “too much of a good thing”, but I don’t think happiness is a state with any sort of permanence or finality. It’s not like we finally get to the happy state and then never have to worry about it again. My happiness rises and falls multiple times over the course of a single day. I don’t think happiness can ever reach a state of an “indulgent surplus”. If you were permanently happy once you achieved happiness, then yes, I would agree that it sounds boring and unfulfilling, although you might not recognize it. It reminds me of an atheist asking what people in Heaven do all day.

Like minimalism, I believe happiness is a constant struggle. I’m constantly editing and refining my life to keep it simple and frictionless. It’s not something that’s just achieved, over, and done with. You can’t just set it and forget it. Even if I can learn to be happy most of the time, I’m still going to have bad days when I just don’t feel like doing anything. That’s human nature.

James concludes:

Once personal happiness is dethroned as the crown jewel of existence — once the dream of a tension-free life is finally disregarded as the rhetoric of infomercials — the world explodes with opportunities and possibilities to pursue causes drenched with meaning. This is, I think, what Viktor Frankl was pleading with us to acknowledge:

What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

If not today, then someday, the choice will confront each and every one of us: do we choose the path of happiness or the path of meaning?

I guess what I’m struggling with is why it has to be one or the other. Since when is happiness a meaningless pursuit? I can see how some versions of happiness could be interpreted as selfish, like buying fancy cars or a huge house because you think it’ll make you happy. The pursuit of that happiness is certainly questionable. But I think the quest to love yourself so that you may pass that love onto others is worthwhile.

To suggest that we need to have Gandhi-level achievements to have meaning in our lives is obviously unreasonable. I don’t think Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi were unhappy people just because they pursued meaning, justice, and purpose. Being happy with myself and making other people happy gives my life plenty of meaning. I value simplicity, and removing friction, and finding inner peace, among other things. The pursuit of those things makes me happy, yes, but also fulfilled.

I would think people who consider themselves to be happy don’t feel their goals and lives are meaningless. Everything you choose to include in your life should contribute to your overall sense of well-being, be it people, places, or things. That includes goals. Whatever you’re pursuing, if it brings you fulfillment, it’s okay in my book.