Friday, November 5, 2010

Casual Friday: The Importance of Meaning

From Extreme Kindness.
In his book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar relates this thought-experiment by the philosopher Robert Nozick:  Imagine a machine that could give you the feeling of any experience you could possibly imagine. It could give you the feeling of a vacation in the Riviera, the feeling of directing a great movie, the feeling of discovering a cure for cancer, the feeling of being in love, or any other infinite number of feelings. If such a machine existed and the feelings it created were perfect replicas of the real things, would you choose to stay plugged into it for your entire life? Would you be happy staying plugged in?

Most people would say no. Even though humans desire pleasure, we also intuitively know that pleasure alone is not enough for longterm happiness. We desire to make a REAL difference in the world, no matter how small that difference may end up being. So as long as you know that the "experience machine" is not real, you would almost certainly feel a nagging incompleteness if you stay plugged in for a long time. (But if you don't realize you're in a machine, like a citizen in The Matrix, that might be a different story.)

So how do you create meaning in your everyday life? Not everyone has an obviously meaningful job like cancer researcher, but meaning is still within your reach in the billions of small moments you experience throughout your day. Tal Ben-Shahar suggests that you make a list of the things you find meaningful, then list the things that give you pleasure, then list your strengths as a person. When something shows up in all three categories, that's what you should spend your time doing, even when it seems insignificant to other people. This is the most basic recipe for longterm happiness there is, but it takes effort.

I think it's worth it, though.

1 comment:

  1. ... but meaning is still within your reach in the billions of small moments you experience throughout your day So so true!

    You can make all the lists that Tal Ben-Shahar suggests or you can start your own gratitude journal... One of the many amazing things my project has given me is meaning - through aknowledging the things I both had and most appreciated I started seeing a pattern and realized what kind of things were the most meaningful to me personally. I swear my life has never been filled with this much meaning before, and in so many ways. So I guess the lists "Happier" suggests provide the same benefits as my "thanks list" - they all guide you to discovering your own meanings and purposes, and this, in turn, makes you happier.