Happiness or Meaning?

I have often benefitted from the writing of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Although he is now deceased, I continue to receive excerpts of his writing from the Rabbi Sacks Legacy, which shares his teachings and writings.

The piece that appeared in my inbox this morning was titled The Pursuit of Meaning. It began by referencing the Declaration of Independence’s statement of the right to the pursuit of happiness, and suggested that more fundamental to the sense of a life well-lived is, meaning. I thought the piece did a good job of distinguishing happiness and meaning, and explalining why meaning is more fundamental.

The two seem similar. It’s easy to suppose that people who find meaning are happy, and people who are happy have found meaning. But the two are not the same, nor do they always overlap. Happiness is largely a matter of satisfying needs and wants. Meaning, by contrast, is about a sense of purpose in life, especially by making positive contributions to the lives of others. Happiness is largely about how you feel in the present. Meaning is about how you judge your life as a whole: past, present, and future.

Happiness is associated with taking, meaning with giving. Individuals who suffer stress, worry, or anxiety are not happy, but they may be living lives rich with meaning. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but people often connect such moments with the discovery of meaning. Furthermore, happiness is not unique to humans. Animals also experience contentment when their wants and needs are satisfied. But meaning is a distinctively human phenomenon. It has to do not with nature but with culture. It is not about what happens to us, but about how we interpret what happens to us. There can be happiness without meaning, and there can be meaning in the absence of happiness, even in the midst of darkness and pain.

The piece gives the example of Viktor Frankl, as someone who brought the question of meaning into modern discourse. Frankl understood that life could have meaning even in the unhappiest of circumstances.

Frankl used to say that the way to find meaning was not to ask what we want from life. Instead we should ask what life wants from us. We are each, he said, unique: in our gifts, our abilities, our skills and talents, and in the circumstances of our life. For each of us, then, there is a task only we can do. This does not mean that we are better than others. But if we believe we are here for a reason, then there is a tikkun, a mending, only we can perform; a fragment of light only we can redeem; an act of kindness, or courage, or generosity, or hospitality only we can perform; even a word of encouragement or a smile only we can give, because we are here, in this place, at this time, facing this person at this moment in their lives.

“Life is a task,” he used to say, and added, “The religious man differs from the apparently irreligious man only by experiencing his existence not simply as a task, but as a mission.” He or she is aware of being summoned, called, by a Source. “For thousands of years that source has been called God.”

As I was reading this, I recalled that a close mentor wrote in my grade school graduation album the wish, not may you be happy but “May your life have meaning.” And that is my wish for all of us,