This article is part of a series, On Happiness, examining what it means and how it might be achieved in the 21st century.
In The Conversation’s series On Happiness, it has been pointed out that the pursuit of happiness for its own sake might be a futile and even counterproductive enterprise. It has also been pointed out that happiness, however important to us, is merely a beneficial side-effect of a eudaimonic approach to pursuing a life of meaning. I agree very much with these views.
But what exactly does it mean to have meaning in our lives? Positive psychology (with its focus on generating positive emotions) and existentialism (with its focus on philosophically reconciling ourselves to the tragedies of life) provide useful counterpoints for exploring the spectrum of happy and sorrowful emotions in which we humans search for meaning and self-actualisation. These counterpoints provide the creative tension for many articles on happiness in general.
But in what ways, exactly, can “meaning” possibly provide a bridge between these two opposites in our lives — our sadness and our happiness, our joys and our sorrows?
Connecting the ‘dots’
As I argue here, if one connects the dots from the findings in various fields of happiness and well-being research, it turns out that there seems to be one common denominator for what people, across cultures, races and religions, report as giving them meaningful happiness: it is that of being something for others.
What is meaningful to us, of course, can be very individual, subjective and culture-specific. What most definitions share is an element of feeling interconnected with someone or something other than oneself and, as importantly, feeling that one is able to contribute to those connections. This may be contributing to one’s family, friends, the community, the environment or a cause.
What we humans describe as meaningful in our lives most often contains an element of having the opportunity to give of ourselves to someone, or something, beyond ourselves. Research shows that giving, or contributing, beyond ourselves is one of the strongest predictors of increasing our happiness and health.
Personal pleasure is not to be dismissed, but having meaningful giving in our lives accounts for the highest levels of happiness and health. When we give to others, we have higher and more meaningful levels of happiness. We also are more resilient in the face of adversity and we recuperate more quickly from traumatic events.
To be or not to be – that is not the question
Realising that giving, or contributing to others, provides us with sustainable and genuine happiness, we also realise that, apart from a few profound thinkers throughout history (for example, Socrates and Aristotle), this very simple, yet powerful insight often seems to have been a “missing link” in many attempts to answer some of our most profound questions, such as, “what is the meaning of existence?”, “what is the meaning of life?”, “what is a good life?” etc.
For example, inherited largely from Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche respectively, existentialists have often argued that either religious faith or self-determined goals are the means by which we achieve meaning in our lives.
When it comes to creating individual and collective well-being, however, both positions, in and of themselves, ultimately depend on an underlying philosophy of “being good to each other”. Only when this dimension is applied do the other two seem able to reach their full potential – from a humanistic perspective, at least.
“Faith” and “self-determined goals” can easily be fundamentalist or self-serving, unless they are situated in a genuine social concern for the whole. In other words, to be religious or not (faith element), or to create your own story of your life or not (self-determined goals element), are not the most central question we can ask if what we want is healthier, happier and more meaningful lives. To give or not to give – that seems to be the question.
Positive psychology often (but not always) focuses on creating positive emotions. Existentialism tends to deal with the things that make us unhappy in life (grief, guilt, tragedy), trying to reconcile these with the feeling that life is still worth living.
Both positions are important in order to examine the spectrum of human emotions and living. Yet, beyond being “happy” or “sad”, it seems, is to give. Only through being generous to one another, it seems, will we achieve our full human potential for individual and collective well-being.
The need for a (new) philosophy and science of giving
Giving might forge a relationship between the authenticity that existentialists have often advocated as the means to acquire meaning in life, and the moral and rational thinking that they often have denounced in the process.
That is, if giving, or genuine social concern – whatever we call it – is the most valuable dimension with which we measure meaning in our lives, we suddenly realise that rationality or any moral constructs, in themselves, have insufficient explanatory power when it comes to understanding meaningful and happy living.
As noted, moral ideologies, unless grounded in a social concern for all, can be detrimental to individual and collective well-being. Likewise, “rationality” can be very cruel without a truly human dimension, as seen in the very “efficient” German machine that created the second world war.
Being human in the truest sense of the word – that is, showing genuine social concern for all – might therefore be the most authentic “essence” of our being. That stands in contrast to being anything we “choose to be”, which is the other measure of meaning sometimes applied by existentialists (and pop culture).
Conversely, in this line of thinking, the link between existential absurdity (I choose to be a horse) and irrational and un-human-like behaviour also becomes stronger. If generosity and not man, as Protagoras would have it, is a truer “measure of all things”, it certainly challenges us to research and investigate generosity in a much more collective and scientific way than has so far been the case - and to apply a service-minded understanding to our most pressing issues (such as some are trying to do in the field of economy and environmental sustainability.
One thing is certain: situating altruism and generous behaviour in evidence-based theory and practice, rather than solely in ideology and religion, seems perfectly suited to forming neutral ground on which different ideologies and religions could find shared purpose and productive co-existence.
A philosophy of giving could become an important bridge builder not only between positive psychology and existentialism (“happy” or “sad”), but also between extremist views, still so present in our world today.
This article is based on an essay in the collection Meaning in Positive and Existential Psychology, and was kindly co-edited by Jennifer Ma, PhD candidate, National Institute for Mental Health Research, Australian National University.