Getting Over Happiness: A Contrarian’s Meditation

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An emerging field of research informs us about relative “levels” of happiness reported in various countries. I learned that Finns are the happiest people in the world, except perhaps for the citizens of Bhutan, who regularly  report their Gross National Happiness Index.  I assume that the residents of tropical paradises are also happy. But I really have no idea whether or not I am happy. I am not often sad and depressed, but other than that, the idea of increasing my level of happiness has no reality for me. My response to a happiness poll is to click on “Don’t Know”.

I actually have some visceral negative responses to the concept, which may explain my reluctance to apply it to myself. It seems to me that doing things only to make one happy is a bit selfish and narcissistic. So I was gratified (happy?) when a colleague sent me an article from the Greater Good Science Center, “Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One?”, by Jill Sutte and Jason Marsh. It begins by lightly deconstructing the interrelated definitions of meaning and happiness, which are often paired or seen as equivalent.  While resisting happiness as a construct and a value, I find it easier to relate to meaningfulness. The authors point out that when we look at the differences, meaningfulness seems more robust and substantial.

Contrasting the two, satisfying your needs and wants is not really relevant to a meaningful life. You can put needs aside, like when you forget to eat or sleep while working on an important project. Meaningfulness is future-looking while happiness is here-and-now. Meaningfulness is giving to people, while happiness is taking. Meaningfulness is stressful and challenging, and involves self-expression, both unlike happiness. So there are major differences between them, even though we might argue that they are so deeply interconnected, because meaningfulness makes one happy. Do we really need this qualifier to tell us that pursuing meaning and purpose can be seen as giving to ourselves as well as others? I don’t see what this adds, other than helping to align meaning and purpose with the pursuit of self-interest, in keeping with our dominant economics model.

Happiness is clearly linked to Maslow’s hierarchy (see my previous blog, Reflections on Maslow). If you are poor with uncertainty about your basic needs, you are not happy (and it is probably challenging but not impossible to live meaningfully). Happiness studies have found that until you reach an economic level of about $75,000/year in income, happiness is diminished. But what interests me is that above that level, indices of happiness do not increase with greater income. Maybe there are no more needs to be met, and satisfying wants like having a larger house or car is not a great builder of happiness.

But when we are living comfortably, what motivates us? We now enter the realm where we are motivated by values, which define our own personal hierarchy of what is meaningful and action-worthy.

My colleague Cynthia Scott and I created a deck of values cards, with which an individual (or family, team or organization) creates a pyramid of values, with the highest value on the top. Using the cards, we found that a person’s values clustered along several categories and styles. The values pyramid defines where an individual derives meaning: from a mix of relationships, tradition, self-expression, mastery, inner direction or lifestyle. There are also some intrinsic values, like beauty, social responsibility and integrity, that we just consider good in themselves. Each person’s mix of intrinsic and stylistic values is arranged differently to create a sort of “values fingerprint.”

Another issue with the here-and-now orientation of happiness is that it is hard to see pleasure-focused people building anything difficult. If they have enough, why do more? Happy people may not be the ones you want to cultivate when you have something important but difficult to accomplish. While we may be motivated before we get happiness, when satisfied, motivation disappears or is transformed in a new direction.

Sutte and Marsh suggest that we might use meaningfulness as a core concept for motivation rather than happiness. Meaning is something we invest energy in without a sense of expecting a return or reward. If we choose to write a novel that may never be read by anyone, or help a community to plan its future, we are fulfilled even when we expend a great deal of energy, long hours and endure significant inner and outer frustration. It is worth it, we feel. That seems more solid as an anchor for behavior than the pursuit of happiness.

The study of the nature of “great places to work” offers an interesting perspective on this dichotomy. People enjoy the perks of a rich workplace—like the free meals, meditation rooms, and lounges of successful tech companies —but they are not the reason why people work there. Money is a motivator of course, so being paid well entices employees.  A while ago I conducted a culture survey of a growing retailing company, and found some interesting anomalies. Employees said it was a great place to work even though it was led by a mercurial, demanding leader who they could never satisfy. Like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, the leader was considered a “genius” whose every action taught and inspired them. They viewed this demanding environment a great place to work, even though they expected to seen lose favor and be fired.  They were hardly happy, but they sure valued working there.

Happiness is inadequate to explain the desire to work hard, or the willingness towait for results (or even not see many). Why put up with this stress and unpleasantness? Yet, without investment of energy, nothing important would be designed or created. Creation is a work of sustained dedication and a quest for results far in the future. The pleasure may be there, but it is not the measure of progress or level of commitment.

I believe that happiness is a poor energizer for action. By switching to a core concept of motivation based on meaning and purpose, we may be able to transcend the disconnect between my happiness and yours, to look at something that we can create together. Meaning is not all about me, while happiness is nothing else but. 

Read other posts by Dennis Jaffe

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