Interesting Times: The happiness of meaning

A theory of life for the new year

saul singer 88 (photo credit:)
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
For its year-end magazine, Haaretz's business section "The Marker" produced a glossy examination of "The roads that lead to happiness." In its post-Zionist way, Haaretz considered not only the pull between career and family and between city and countryside, but between "here and abroad." Much ink was devoted to whether Israelis living in London, New York or San Francisco in fact had it better than the shleppers who remained in Israel, the old country. Yet as much as the articles reflected the trendiness of secular Israel today, they also hinted at discontent with what the introductory essay called "the new religion," namely, quality of life. In what might have been considered heresy a short time ago, the editorial mused: "But quality of life and happiness can also clash. The most glaring example is children. If quality of life is measured in emotional calm, financial welfare and leisure time, anyone who decides to bring children into the world essentially harms himself... But kids are hands-down winners in the contest to create happiness." Without meaning to, Haaretz put its finger on the answer to what for it is a big mystery: Why would well-off Jews from the US and other countries dream of moving to Israel? One big reason is that Israeli society, for all the woes of its educational system, values children more than many Israelis realize. The work-leisure-family balance is markedly different here than in the US, where work takes much greater precedence; or Europe, where leisure does. Buried among all the magazine's encomiums to the good life in the goldene medine, there was a witness to this contrast, from an Israeli living in Washington, DC: "The truth is that I don't see a lot of happiness here. Materially, people are well off, but they suffer from emptiness... When we visit Israel, [my Indian husband] feels more open to the culture there than he does here." PEOPLE DISCOVER slowly, it seems, that an easier life is not necessarily a happier one. I may not be an expert on happiness, like those whom Haaretz interviewed, nor a philosopher, but I might as well share with you my theory of life, developed a long time ago and only haphazardly followed since. Above a certain basic standard of living, happiness depends less on making life easier than it does on making it more meaningful. Following Viktor Frankl, the psychologist who wrote Man's Search for Meaning after surviving the Nazi death camps, people are primarily meaning-driven beings. Frankl found that survival in the camps depended less on physical strength than on something to live for: such as children, or even the determination to finish writing a book. So where does meaning come from? I would say from three sources, broadly interpreted: work, family and religion. Work does not only mean what we are paid to do, but volunteer work and other efforts to affect the world around us. Family does not necessarily mean children and spouse; it can also mean anyone to whose well-being one develops a personal commitment - even former strangers. Religion can mean anything one does as part of a connection to God, even if one never prays and does not even have a reliable faith that God exists. Indeed, "religion," in this case, can mean grappling with the question of the place of humanity in the universe. So, oddly enough, atheists can derive meaning from their very struggle against God's existence. What these three sources of meaning have in common is transcending the self. In direct contrast to standard measures of economic success, and even to Eastern methods of "self-actualization," the pursuit of meaning is about living for others. It is about having a positive influence on the world around you, and doing so out of a sense, conscious or not, that this is what Someone put us on earth to do. IT IS NO coincidence that meaning and transcendence are intertwined. If there is no God, there is nothing beyond humanity, and people are accidents of nature indistinguishable in objective meaning - and moral stature - from rocks. Actually, the fact that humans seem to be wired to need and pursue meaning could be the most compelling evidence we have of a divine hand at work. The more evolutionarily understandable instinct is self-preservation, not self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, the fact that God is ultimately necessary for objective morality and meaning does not mean He exists. But this does not affect our pursuit of meaning on a practical level. As far as putting my theory into practice is concerned, the trick is simple: Try to make sure you are building up reservoirs of all three sources of meaning, all the time. Not everyone has the luxury of meaningful work, but this just means that other activities become more important on this score. Not everyone has a family, but a community, even a self-made one, can serve a similar purpose. And while a connection to God is extremely elusive for most of us, it counts to explore what people have thought and written about what God wants from us, as seen through the lens of our own and other traditions. PURSUING all three sources of meaning simultaneously acts as an insurance policy. If one pillar undergirding our happiness is dealt a serious blow, then the stronger the others are, the more resources one has to recover and rebuild. One of my teachers, Dennis Prager, points out the difference between fun and happiness: The former is a feeling produced while doing certain things; the latter is usually a product of something often difficult and not necessarily fun - like raising children or writing a book. I don't know whether more meaning always means more happiness, but the correlation is much stronger than with fun, success, or ease of life. So my advice for 2008 is the birthday advice my brother Alex gave to our brother Benjy 23 years ago: "If you decide to do something new, the key is to make your activity something that you are NOT doing for yourself - to find something you can do for others. This sounds very, very odd but it is true... I don't want you to kick yourself when you're 21, like I am kicking myself, for having wasted so much time when I was younger on myself." The book of Alex Singer's letters, diaries and art, Alex: Building a Life, is now also available in Hebrew.
- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11