Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The meaning of life

What is the meaning of life? To be happy and useful.
- Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

At the end of his highly-regarded (by critics) and uber-mightily highly-regarded (by me) book in 2006, The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt [pronounced "hite," not "hate," btw. Who'd want to read a book on happiness by a guy named hate?, I ask you.] addresses the ultimate question:  What is the meaning of life, and answers it.

A prime area of my recent homeless studies relate to happiness and meaning:  Two things that homeless folk have in short supply. 

Because the book is four years old, I think it is OK to, sort of, give away the ending.  Indeed, since the book has been around (but is not dated!), I think it might re-arouse interest in the book to give away the ending.  The ending is in context of the chapters previous, so I've included links and footnotes to explain what Haidt is aluding to here and there.

So, here it is, from near the end of The Happiness Hypothesis:

The Meaning of Life

What can you do to have a good, happy, fulfilling, and meaningful life? What is the answer to the question of purpose within life? I believe the answer can be found only by understanding the kind of creature that we are, divided in the many ways we are divided. We are shaped by individual selection to be selfish creatures who struggle for resources, pleasure, and prestige, and we were shaped by group selection to be hive creatures who long to lose ourselves in something larger. We are social creatures who need love and attachments, and we are industrious creatures with needs for effectance1, able to enter a state of vital engagement with our work. We are the rider and we are the elephant, and our mental health depends on the two working together, each drawing on the other's strengths. I don't believe there is an inspiriting answer to the question, "What is the purpose of life?" Yet by drawing on ancient wisdom and modern science, we can find compelling answers to the question of purpose within life. The final version of the happiness hypothesis is that happiness comes from between. Happinesss in not something that you can find, acquire, or achieve directly. You have to get the conditions right and then wait. Some of those conditions are within you, such as coherence among the parts and levels of your personality. Our conditions require relationships to things beyond you: Just as plants need sun, water, and good soil to thrive, people need love, work, and a connection to something larger, it is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, betweeen yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.
1 The Effectance motive comes from the need or drive to make things happen, after developing competence through interacting with and controlling one's environment. Effectance is almost as basic a need as food or water, yet it is not something that is satisfied and then disappears, like hunger. Effectance is a constant need to progress. It explains why we get more joy from progressing toward our goals than achieving them. As Shakespeare wrote, "Joy's soul lies in the doing."

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Blogger Nagarjuna said...

That seems like just about the wisest conception of "happiness" I've encountered.

June 2, 2010 at 3:56 PM  

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