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“The pursuit of happiness and meaning are two of our most central motivations in life” but “there can be substantial trade-offs between seeking happiness and seeking meaning in life,” writes Scott Barry Kaufman in a thought-provoking Scientific American post. In a stereotypical sense, the pursuit of meaning is one that involves connecting our lives to something larger than our life—e.g. society, nation, race, the universe, or God—thereby broadening our consciousness to what exists beyond our small, temporary, and irrelevant existence. The pursuit of happiness, however, in a stereotypical sense, narrows that focus to our body and mind, and often much smaller subsets of it—e.g. sexuality, romance, food, drink, or music. In these stereotypical ways, the pursuit of meaning is selfless, while that of happiness selfish. And yet, we could not live without both. How should we reconcile them? This post discusses this question from the perspective of Vedic philosophy where meaning and happiness are two different aspects of the soul—called chit (meaning) and ananda (happiness)—satisfied by a third aspect called sat (relation to something other than the self)—but chosen by the free will of the soul.

Research on Meaning vs. Happiness

Researchers have found that the pursuit of meaningfulness is more important that the simple-minded pursuit of happiness. These researchers have concluded, for example, that:

  • Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. – Jennifer Aaker
  • Happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning. How do we go about finding a meaningful life, not just a happy one? – Roy F Baumeister
  • In 2017, Pursue Meaning Instead of Happiness … a meaningful life is often characterized by stress, effort, and struggle. – Emily Esfahani Smith

And yet, if we look at the primal human tendencies, we will find that the quest for happiness is more tempting than the quest for meaning. This trend is even more pronounced if we look at life beyond human life—e.g. in animals, we can see selfish enjoyment dominate over altruistic renunciation.

What is meaning and what is happiness? This post employs some fundamental ideas from Vedic philosophy to answer these questions, where these two ideas are called chit and ananda, respectively. Meaning and happiness are two attributes of the soul that establishes a relation of consciousness called sat with something (which can be itself or something other than itself).

What is Consciousness?

Consciousness or sat is the ability to choose what to focus on. All awareness involves a choice of becoming aware of some part of the world while ignoring other parts. If you are reading this post, you have already rejected other possibilities; while reading you may be unaware of the background noises, your own breathing, the intensity of the ambient light, and so forth. In making these choices, we decide to interact with certain objects and neglect other objects. Effectively, we choose our relationship to the world, fixing ourselves in some specific relationships, but ignoring other kinds of relationships. Choice or consciousness, therefore, involves the selection of a certain relationship to reality.

For consciousness to choose, there must be alternatives and to create these alternatives, the world must exist as a possibility (of different kinds of relationships to reality) from which consciousness can choose. If the world is definite, then there is no need for choice, and there can be no consciousness in it. Once we see that consciousness involves a choice, then even actions become conscious, not because consciousness is “doing” them, but because it chooses to be aware of their existence. In that sense, some things that we “consciously do” are actually done by us. Others are done (e.g. digestion, breathing, blood circulation, autonomous fight-or-flight responses, etc.), and yet unconscious.

The Problem of Meaning

The fact that we choose to become aware of the world puts some constraints on the world. For example, we see a variety of colors, tastes, smells, we have a variety of thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and morals, which we can be aware of. Modern science, however, tells us that all these things are illusions because the reality is mass and momentum, energy and time, speed and angular speed. The fact is that even when we measure speed using an instrument, we are still perceiving shapes, sizes, colors, tastes, smells, etc. We never perceive speed or energy as such; we perceive their sensual effects on us.

The conceptual understanding of the world arises due to chit or conceptual knowledge and action. The world should be described not as physical properties but as objectification of perceptual properties such as form, color, taste, smell, sound, and touch.

The novelty is that the world is itself described as meaning, and consciousness, therefore, seeks the world because it comprises meaning. There would be no reason to seek meaning in this world if the world did not have meaning. We seek meaning because there is meaning. In fact, since the material world is concepts, the higher concepts are also more abstract, and they also seem “bigger” as they cover larger and larger amounts of diversity. In that sense, seeking meaning amounts to transcending our material body and mind—to connect it to a larger-than-life reality. For example, we might dedicate ourselves to our family, city, nation, race, humanity, ecosystem, or the universe, shifting the focus to a smaller or larger subset of the entire universe.

The Problem of Happiness

The existence of the meaning, however, doesn’t necessarily put us in relation to every kind of meaning. The fact that we have the ability to choose still begs the question of Buridan’s Ass: an ass has a pile of hay and a bucket of water but cannot decide whether to eat or drink and thus dies of thirst and hunger. Just having the alternatives to choose from doesn’t tell us which one we should choose. The choice requires a preference for an option, and this preference is the personality, separate from the options.

To explain these facts, we have to acknowledge the personality of consciousness which involves the quest for a particular type of happiness in the world. This happiness corresponds to what we call the ‘feeling’ such as pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, elation and depression. The difference is that, unlike the meaning which comes to us from the external world, happiness is created within ourselves. This means that for the same concepts, there can be different feelings: someone can enjoy a particular concept, while others would find it painful. Owing to this fact, a person can be found happy even if their material situation is not good. And similarly, they can be found unhappy even if their material situation seems quite good. The reason for this disparity is that happiness is created by a person and not by the external world.

Happiness is Deeper than Meaningfulness

If we compare sense pleasure to higher levels of meaning (which connect us to bigger parts of the world), meaningfulness is more attractive as it connects us to a larger than life purpose and its effects are longer-lasting as compared to sense pleasure which is fleeting.

But ultimately, we seek meaningfulness because it makes us happy. If meaning became devoid of happiness, then we would not prefer it. A subtle distinction between happiness and pleasure needs to be made here. When people say that they seek meaning, they are rejecting sensual pleasure. For example, a soldier fighting for the nation has a sense of purpose and meaningfulness in life, but it is gained at the expense of physical pain, living in difficult conditions, and depriving yourself of good food, sex, emotional contact with family, and varieties of other carnal engagements. However, a soldier’s duties also create an inner satisfaction deeper than mere sensual pleasure.

The Philosophy of Personalism

Many people equate Vedic philosophy with Advaita which is a type of impersonalism in which “we are all one”: there is only one universal consciousness. The Advaita position arises when a living entity rejects its identity and the quest for meaning and pleasure. Once the personality is rejected, the living entity can be conscious, but there is no preference on what to be conscious of—the problem of Buridan’s Ass. Thus, the Advaita position results in a reality called Brahman which is devoid of personality and diversity.

However, Brahman is not the only reality. In the personalist alternative, the ātma is not just consciousness (sat) but also chit (the quest for meaning) and ananda (the quest for pleasure). When the ātma suspends its chit and ananda quests, then it remains sat (the potential to be aware) but it loses its identity produced from the quests for meaning and pleasure. In such a state, the ātma is called Brahman. While this state is real, it is not the only possible state. Indeed, it is also not the original state—because the ātma is sat, chit, and ananda—although it can suspend chit and ananda by being situated only the relationship to the self. When the living entity is tired from the frustration of personal quests for meaning and pleasure, and he is unaware that this quest can be fulfilled in other, eternal ways—he pursues Advaita.

The Relation of Meaning and Happiness to God

The personalist position is that the quest for meaning and happiness is eternal, and they seek meaning and pleasure in different ways, which makes them unequal. This inequality creates a hierarchy of souls, rooted in a Supreme Soul. In short, God is unknown if we discard our quests for meaning and pleasure, and Advaita doesn’t accept a personal God because it also rejects personal meaning and pleasure.

But God is understood when we seek the ultimate meaning and pleasure. The quest for meaning and pleasure can take us to the culmination in the source of all meaning and pleasure. Those who reject God must remain content with limited meaning and pleasure.