Happiness and meaning in life- the sweet spot where they meet


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On the face of it, there are many situations in which doing something that makes us happier fails to make our lives more meaningful.

Some recent examples from my life include: having taken a gloriously hot shower, watched several episodes of the HBO comedy series “Veep” while eating chocolate ice cream, and having worn a particularly smart looking suit.

Professional philosophers illustrate this point with “fantastic” or “hypothetical” thought experiments, imagining a life spent in a virtual reality machine that gives the occupant the vivid impression he is doing interesting things that he is not, or a life of rolling a rock up a hill for eternity but enjoying it because of the way the gods have structured one’s brain.

Conversely, there are many occasions when doing something that makes our lives meaningful appears not to make them happier.

Consider taking care of a sick, elderly parent who needs constant attention, or slaving away at an alienating job so as to provide for one’s children.

For less frequent but even more intense examples, think of those who have struggled against injustice at great cost to their own peace and satisfaction, such as Nelson Mandela having spent 27 years in prison in his struggle against apartheid, or heroes who have given up their lives for others, perhaps by having volunteered to relinquish a spot on a lifeboat that would not hold everyone.

Intuitively, these are cases of happy meaninglessness and unhappy meaningfulness, respectively.

A promising way to make sense of how these two human values can diverge is to think of happiness in terms of pleasant experiences and of meaningfulness as what merits great esteem or admiration.

The world’s great religions tend to suggest ways in which happiness and meaning can go together.

Fulfilling their God’s purpose and then entering Heaven is one (monotheism).

Realising one’s unity with everything else in the world and thereby overcoming a sense of isolation is another (Hinduism).

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The Insider

The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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