The Pursuit of Happiness Occludes Happiness

Viktor Frankl

There’s a great article from The Atlantic which ties into the recent piece I wrote about euthanasia and hedonism. And it quotes Viktor Frankl extensively, so there was no way I was not going to link to it. It turns out that the perspective of pleasure / pain (happiness) on one axis and meaning on another now has some research to back it up:

In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

“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.

I had a really hard time picking just one quotation because the article is so full of good observations, so definitely check it out to read more.

4 thoughts on “The Pursuit of Happiness Occludes Happiness”

  1. This is great stuff. I just finished Baumeister and John Tierney’s book ‘Willpower’. This type of study perhaps demonstrates why we find supposedly conflicting results in, say, the happiness research regarding parents. Most studies have concluded that children decrease the happiness of parents, though longitudinal studies indicate a net positive in having children. Also, as Kahneman’s research demonstrated, childcare still trumps working and commuting among working women. As economist Bryan Caplan put it, “[T]here is virtually a six-way tie between shopping, preparing food, talking on the phone, napping, taking care of children, and computer use. Last, notice that the top seven activities…are all forms of recreation. As far as worklike activities go, enjoyment of child care is slightly above average. If the Kahneman study has a big social message, it’s not that kids are a disaster for happiness. It’s that women enjoy taking care of their children more than working outside the home. The only thing women like less than being at their jobs is getting to and from their jobs. Child care isn’t a picnic, but it beats a paying job” (Caplan, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. Basic Books, 2011, 17).

  2. Thanks for the comments!

    After reading “The Myth of the Rational Voter”, I put “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” on my list. Now I have a copy on my book shelf, but I haven’t had a chance to get to it. Your quotes have reminded me to get on that.

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