How often do you hear people around you sigh and say, “I just want to be happy!” when talking about what they want from their lives? Is this a personal goal of your own, too? Perhaps you’re even in a place where you’d claim that you’ve pretty much achieved that goal.
Well- before we dive into this, it ought to be said that there isn’t anything wrong with wanting to be happy! Being happy is an essential part of a good life. Things get tricky, however, when we begin to prioritize happiness at the cost of meaning or purpose.
This may be news to you- or perhaps something you think couldn’t apply- especially if you’d already qualify yourself as happy and are able to easily see the meaningful things around you. Do you have a typically purposeful job like being a teacher, a social worker, or a nurse? Does it seem like you’re already checking most of the boxes? If this is you, consider for a moment that even in such a position, you may not have hit your ceiling for happiness and wellbeing. And if you believe you have- well, you might just be a bit too comfortable.
There is a whole section of the site dedicated to the concept of happiness as a hindrance to meaning. Happiness and complacency are hindrances to purpose in a similar way that they are a hindrance to meaning. Wanna do a deep dive? Check it out:
Happiness We Chase
Happiness As Enough
If we equate happiness with feeling good in the present moment as often as possible, it can set us up to want to avoid discomfort. And because there can be uncomfortable or undesirable work involved in pursuing a purpose, the maintenance of our ‘happiness’ could interfere with our stamina in pursuing purpose. Think about the following perspective- do you agree with it?
“I’m happy when I’m comfortable and spending my time in ways I enjoy. I’m happy when I’m entertained and surrounded by love. I’m happy when my days are relatively free of pain, discomfort, and challenge.”
If your primary objective is to be comfortable and have a good time, you may choose to avoid activities that are boring, challenging, uncomfortable, anxiety-producing, or tedious in some way. We may dub tasks that we feel this way during as ‘chores.’ And, there are parts of purposeful work that could feel like chores- and if we’re avoiding those types of tasks we may block ourselves from the meaning that is to be gained through them.
Let’s clarify. Check out these examples:
HAVING FUN MAKES ME HAPPY
Jeff wants to be ‘happy.’ He enjoys going on walks with his friends, going out to eat, watching movies, visiting family, and especially sports. Because he likes sports, he spends a good chunk of money on tickets to games, watches games throughout the week at the bar with friends, and at home on Sundays with his friends, follows all the sports teams online, and catches himself in spare moments shopping for sports paraphernalia.
Jeff’s particular relationship with sports is primarily entertainment (and secondarily as a vehicle for connection with friends and family). In spending his time and money maximizing entertainment, he doesn’t invest much time in contributing to something with an impact. If he did it might cut into his time enjoying sports and hanging out with his sports buddies.
FEELING COMFORTABLE AND SAFE MAKES ME HAPPY
Above all, Hilary finds happiness when she isn’t stressed. She doesn’t always want to be around people so she likes to stay home as often as possible. While there she likes to hang out with her pets and update her interior decor so her space feels beautiful and comfortable. She spends a lot of time ordering new things to decorate with.
Hilary wants ease and comfort- both beautiful parts of life. However, what is she missing out on by prioritizing these things? By avoiding taking risks by going to new places or doing things that could make her uncomfortable, nor getting involved in meaningful projects she may miss out on a more fulfilling life.
BEING LIKED AND FEELING ACCEPTED MAKES ME HAPPY
Brett enjoyed being popular in school- they’ve been seen as an outgoing and charming person most of their life. Brett loves being well-liked and tries to surround themselves with easy-going folks that appreciate them. This had led to a lot of Brett’s friends being similar people who don’t challenge Brett’s ideas. They like it that way, as disagreements make Brett feel uncomfortable. If anything ever gets tough Brett chooses to let the relationship go because “drama” isn’t worth their time.
Brett prioritizes relationships with people who are easy going and won’t disagree with them. While this isn’t inherently bad, Brett may be putting themselves in a position where they aren’t getting exposed to new ideas or engaging in relationships that will encourage Brett to grow. Discovery and intimacy are part of a meaningful, purposeful life.
Each of the folks above are blocked in similar ways from cultivating purpose. The fact that they are prioritizing what feels good now makes aligning with purpose unappealing. Going after a long-term purposeful goal that might create discomfort in the present moment is undesirable for us when we want to prioritize feeling good now.
After lying flat, a new trend among China’s youth is to “let it rot (bai lan)” which worries CCP
“Frustrated by the growing uncertainty and lack of economic opportunities, young Chinese are resorting to this new buzzword, bai lan, to express their attitude toward life. It means voluntarily giving up the pursuit of life goals because they realize that they are simply unattainable. ‘Someone has to be a loser. Why not me?’”
This 16 minute video goes into the details of the Bai Lan movement in China. Growing up in a culture that encourages hustling within an economy that doesn’t deliver the advertised desirable outcomes, youth are giving up. Unfortunately, they’re not just giving up on prosperity, they’re giving up on meaningful ambition as well. They are choosing comfort over effort, as they associate effort with meaninglessness.
Jeff, Hilary, and Brett would consider their lives happy enough. Let’s say they all have many of the other trappings of a good life beyond their specific habits in the above examples: they have decent jobs that aren’t too challenging and pay them well, they like the people they’re around, have a sense of freedom and autonomy and pleasure. Do they, however, have other things in their lives they’ve considered wanting to do? Would the potential discomfort of pursuing those dreams make such ambitions seem out of reach or simply not worth the trouble? For many folks, the striving inherent to pursuing other goals feels like too big a risk to take.
Or perhaps, like the family in the following video, someone is living a very simple life that is very satisfying.
Ultimately, will any of these people regret the lives they’ve chosen when lying on their deathbeds?
Frankly, probably not. A comfortable, happy life isn’t one many people deeply regret!
There is a chance, however, that these folks may spend a decent chunk of their lives wondering if there was more; if they missed something special.
Again, this website does a deep dive into the nature of happiness as a hindrance to meaning. If you’re curious to learn more about the concept, click the following link, explore, and try some of the exercises. Happiness is a hindrance to meaning in many of the same ways that it is a hindrance to purpose.
Happiness or complacency can satisfy us enough to block us from deeply considering what else is possible. Afterall, if things feel ‘fine,’ the pressure to think about what else is out there may not be present. A Meaning Of Life also offers an exploration of Levels of Consideration – the depth to which we’ve considered what we want from life and what is possible. When we consider more deeply, we may be more connected to possibilities of crafting greater meaning. Check out the following quiz and visit the page to learn more.