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Happiness & Meaning
by Rick Lewis
According to his wife, the poet T.S. Eliot was once getting into a London taxi when the driver said “You’re T.S. Eliot.” Eliot asked how he knew. “Ah, I’ve got an eye for celebrity. Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, ‘Well Lord Russell, what’s it all about?’ And do you know, he couldn’t tell me.”
The story reflects how much of the world, and not just taxi drivers, see philosophy. It’s job is to discover what it is all about: the Universe, God, death, the meaning of life. Professional philosophers tend to find the story amusing; the demand that Russell should distil his lifetime of teaching, his hard-won wisdom, his dozens of books, into a single short cab ride. I think they are wrong. If philosophers can’t provide at least some clue as to what life (for example) is all about, then what’s the point? Ask a physicist how an atom bomb works, or why time slows down as you approach the speed of light, and she’ll tell you, complete with handwavings and scribbled diagrams. Ask a historian why Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo and you’ll end up learning something. But ask an academic philosopher about the meaning of life and you’re quite likely to just get a grumpy remark about it being a badly-formed question.
Which leaves us all wondering why to get out of bed in the mornings. How should we live and why does it matter? These are some of the biggest questions and they are inherently philosophical in nature. So we try to answer them for ourselves and, in fairness, this may be the only way to do it anyway. We ask ourselves whether life is about ‘the pursuit of happiness’, as the US Declaration of Independence put it. Alternatively, is it about a search for meaning? And if so, what exactly is the meaning of life? What is it all about? The yearning for answers is powerful and unappeasable and universal. Or as the Persian polymath Omar Khayyam wrote in the 11th Century “Then to the rolling heaven itself I cried, asking, what lamp had destiny to guide, her little children stumbling in the dark?”
In this issue, we’ll focus on these deep and unavoidable questions. Is life a quest for happiness? Certainly entire schools of thought have argued that this is so. The Utilitarians, for instance, thought that all our moral choices should be guided by the aim of maximising the total amount of happiness. Jeremy Bentham even developed a ‘hedonistic calculus’ to help guide this process; as explained by Gary Cox in his article.
Some people (cartoonists, mainly) imagine climbing the Himalayas to ask a wise person sitting on a mountaintop about the meaning of life. If you actually try this, you may find yourself in the Kingdom of Bhutan, which in 1972 invented Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an official measure of the happiness of its citizens, and declared its aim to be the world’s happiest country. GNH still drives Bhutanese government decisions today. The head of a monastery there, HE Khedrupshen Rinpoche, recently told the BBC that “Whether you acknowledge it or not, [happiness] is the purpose of every human being.” So that looks like an endorsement of Bentham’s view. But as Rinpoche makes clear, it depends what exactly you mean by happiness.
What is the connection between happiness and meaning in life? David Wiggins once wrote that “philosophy has put happiness in the place that should have been occupied in moral philosophy by meaning.” If this is true of ethics, it may also be true of life goals in general. To aim directly for a happy life may not bring either happiness or meaning. To aim directly for a meaningful life may not bring happiness. Happiness could mean, enjoying immediate feelings of pleasure or contentment, but could mean something much broader. Meaning can mean significance or it can mean purpose, or importance. Most likely in ‘the meaning of life’ it is being used in the latter two senses, of having a life filled with purpose, or have a life whose activities seem worthwhile to the person living it. The clarification of concepts is a key part of philosophy, so in our special section of this issue we bring you articles that try to make clearer what happiness, purpose and meaning mean, and how they relate to each other. Brian King’s opening piece explores whether life’s purpose is something to actively seek or something that will find us. Lewis Vaughn warns of some of the pitfalls to watch out for when applying these concepts within your life and to your life as a whole. Dan Corjescu warns of a danger of over-focusing on happiness and Alex Gooch suggests that in our search for meaning, we are each of us on what Joseph Campbell called a hero journey.
Once again we are in the position of trying to discuss in cool, detached and academic tones matters which are raw and personal and urgent. Some people make a conscious decision to set aside the pursuit of happiness to devote their lives to something else which matters to them more – such as the care of other people, whether loved ones or strangers. This may bring them happiness too, but it won’t necessarily. This has never been clearer than during the pandemic, when we’ve seen health workers rising morning after bitter morning to perform difficult, tiring, stressful, often dangerous jobs, in circumstances that probably don’t bring them much immediate joy, but which are certainly deeply worthwhile, if anything is.
What should be the lodestar of our lives? Some people find this choice already made for them by some call inside themselves, but should the rest of us try to live a happy life, or a meaningful or purposeful one? Should we devote ourselves to a grand cause, or some project, or to the care of others, or to someone we love? We don’t have the answers but maybe somewhere in here you can find some useful tools. I hope so.