The pursuit of happiness makes life shallow
I told Matthew it’s time to take the kids apple picking. “Do you want to come with us?” I said. “We’re going to a place in Illinois.”
“What? What’s wrong with the apple trees here?”
“We have apple trees?”
So the kids and I got in the back of the truck, and Matthew drove over hills and through gates to a pasture full of apple trees.
He pulled the truck under the tree like a ladder.
When you’re picking someone else’s trees, you are careful, looking for the best apples, respectful to not mess it all up for the next people who pay $35 a bushel.
On your own farm, you shake the apple tree, and apples fall into the back of the truck.
Each tree’s apples taste different and each is an unfamiliar taste. They are cross-pollinated and random, so you never know what you’ll get until you bite. We put soft baking apples in one pile and hard eating apples in the other, and the boys became philosophers about what a particular type of apple would be good for.
Each time we shook a tree, the cows jogged over to eat apples that fell. Their calves came with. They are too young to eat apples, but they watched.
Between the trees, Matthew noticed a cow who seemed to be looking for something. We drove closer and there was a calf lying in a gulch. Matthew said the mom didn’t have any milk. So he jumped out of the truck, and put the calf in the back, with us.
The calf could barely stand.
Apple picking was over. We were in crisis mode. The calf was too scared to sit, but we couldn’t let him fall in the truck, so we held him. Then we had to get milk replacer formula from a neighbor, and we set up a system to force feed the calf, through a tube, if he didn’t drink from a bottle.
You’d think that picking apples was the fun part of the day, interrupted by a farm emergency. But in fact, the best part of the day was saving the calf. We look for moments of happiness, but there is not much lasting happiness from a few bucolic moments in a field of apple trees.
What lasts is having meaning. The kids felt important bringing the calf to safety. When someone needed to stay by the calf while we went to get milk replacer, one of the boys stayed. My oldest son takes care of the calf now. He feeds him twice a day and walks with him in the barnyard because the calf is still too scared to walk alone.
Roy Baumeister writes about happiness as something that gets in the way of a meaningful life. Happiness is about decreasing stress and conflict and taking rather than giving. In a forthcoming paper about the difference between a happy life and a meaningful life, the authors write, “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”
Emily Esfahani Smith writes in The Atlantic about how current research shows happiness and meaning are competing forces in life. We live a deeper, more fulfilled life if we actively seek meaning.
Viktor Frankl writes that stress and hardship are actually more meaningful than happiness because they cause you to be focused on others rather than yourself. Dan Gilbert writes that this is why so many people choose to have kids even though kids don’t make people happy. And Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes that working hard at something to the point that it pushes your life off-kilter is much more emotionally rewarding than doing something conflict-free and fun.
For kids, the difference is picking apples or saving a calf. For adults, it’s more complicated—aiming for an easy, conflict-free, peaceful life, or heading straight into something difficult that shakes up your life so you can be part of something larger than you.
Each of us has a different capacity to give to others without losing ourselves. Some of us can give only a bit, some of us give so much there is nothing of us left. Your real job—not necessarily the one you get paid for—is to find the opportunity to infuse meaning into your life by challenging yourself to give in a way that jeopardizes your happiness.
Look around for where you can make a big difference. It is likely a place that will shake you up. And remember that if my husband weren’t looking around for a big problem, all we would have done is pick apples and driven home.
Love. This article. I really needed this today. Thank you so very much.
This article perfectly describes why it has been so important to me to pursue a career that is also meaningful, rather than the career that provides the most money. Of course, I’m working toward a point when this career does both.
In the meantime, I’m actually much happier now, than I was when I was making more money in a job I disliked.
Thanks for the reminder!
I’ve read your column and been a fan for years, but today’s blog came at a perfect time for me and I loved its message. It’s one my partner and I have been grappling with and perhaps adopting without even realizing.
This has to be one of the very bests posts I’ve read from you, or anyone, for that matter. BTW, really LOVED the picks of the process, especially the calf.
My only thought, way in the back of my brain, is whether meaning is important. I used to think it was, as well as happiness. Perhaps the two (meaning and happiness) aren’t so mutually exclusive. Perhaps the issue is that often what we think will make us happy and work toward is kind of like a Christmas where you already know what’s underneath the wrapper- without surprises, even challenges, there’s no novelty to what we get and how far can we appreciate that?
I love this post and the story….great way to start the week off. I hope the calf is doing well…I’m so glad you decided to take the truck to your apple trees – who knows when you would have found the little guy.
The calf is doing great. And he’s like a dog now. He follows my son everywhere. But Matthew says that when he grows full size he will be very intimidating. We’ll see.
Loved this post. At many different levels. It also reminded me of a story my mother told me. When she was a little girl, living on a farm, someone gave her a calf (baby bull). He was cute like the one your son is taking care of now. When he grew up, he was a fearsome and competitive bull which my mom loved and was proud of. He eventually became the alpha by fighting the head bull and dumping him in a swimming pool. It took a lot of men to get the losing bull out of that pool (he was okay, just angry). My mom is now 82, but still talks about her champion bull. Meaning and happiness can sometimes be locked airtight inside a memory that lasts till you die.
it’s been tooooo long since I read your blog. it got lost in the pursuit of a zero inbox but never again. I needed this reminder “what lasts is having meaning” – thank you
I don’t comment on blogs very often, but this is one of the best articles I’ve read in a while and I *had* to stop by and say so. Amazing message and incredibly well written!
While you focused on the happiness and meaning aspect of it (which I loved), I was stuck by something else in your article as well — we so often think we need to go to far away places to look for happiness, while often, both happiness and meaning are right there in our own backyard!
This is something I needed to read this morning. Thanks!
I love that you told this story and saved the little calf.
I know for myself that when I’m happy, which is a lot of the time, along with histories of misery and hell, it is because there is meaning in the happiness.
Being a Life & Career Coach makes for tremendous happiness because I’m being useful to other people.
Being married makes me happy because I found love in my life for the past 18 magnificent years.
All the things that have meaning for me make me happy. They go hand in hand…intrinsically one for me.
Don’t you feel that to with your marriage and children and meaningful work you offer to the world with your writing?
Thanks for another meaningful blog in a most surprising way.
P.S. What did you name the calf?
My favorite one your blogs ever! So true, and so well told. Thank you!
I love and believe in this post so much!
My favorite one of your blogs…ever. Really clarifies things and totally contrary to what we read all the time. We keep being told to pursue happiness, to pursue our bliss. No one tells us to pursue meaning.
Thank you for your wonderful insight! As Oprah might say “a light bulb” blog.
I don’t think happiness and meaning are exclusive, nor I do think that pursuing happiness has to selfish. Gretchen Rubin has written two books on the subject of happiness and she frequently refers to research which demonstrates that doing for others actually makes you happier. But I do think it’s often true that what you think will make you happy doesn’t always end up that way. So trying to do things that are meaningful and contribute to something bigger than yourself probably ultimately leads to happiness.
I think you should go back and read Gretchen’s introduction to her first book. She didn’t write it to be happy. She wrote it to challenge herself so her life would feel more meaningful. She lives on Park Ave. Everything in her life, according to her, was fine, but she felt like she had nothing to tell people she was doing. So she started writing a book.
Gretchen is a great example of how happiness (which she had) is not nearly as fulfilling as meaningfulness, which is why she made her life more difficult by forcing herself to write a book.
…but would you have found the calf if you hadn’t gone out apple picking? Happiness versus meaning is a false choice
Yes. Not only is it a false choice, but I think you are right on point in that the order of the events of the day were more important than Penelope realizes. Filling up our own truck bed with apples first (pursuing our own happiness first) then allows us to be present and aware when Life presents us with opportunities that provide tremendous meaning and consequence (rescuing the calf).
I love this story though, Penelope! And I love that we can all find our own meaning in it.
I soooooo needed to read this today. Thank you!
I would argue that perceiving meaning in our lives brings us happiness in a way that the shallow meaningless joy never could. It’s not that those who are pursuing what they believe to bring them meaning in their life are not also pursuing happiness as was suggested though. It’s just that they understand that happiness goes much deeper.
So pursuing meaning, is pursuing happiness, just a different kind.
I would also argue that everything everyone ever does is to bring them some sort of happiness, or future happiness. But like finances, some just know how to plan better than others.
I wouldn’t argue. I would just say ‘nanny nanny boo boo’ and leave it at that.
One of your best perspectives. Reminds me a bit of this article I read at Yom Kippur that had some really interesting scientific evidence about the different types of happiness…happiness that gives and happiness that takes. Basically the body actually creates antibodies that fight disease in people who have the giving kind of happiness, but gives off negative compounds that cause disease in people who have the self-serving kind of happiness. Fascinating stuff.
Love this post. Absolutely love it.
You may not realize it, but you just proved that the pursuit of happiness is not shallow. Because, as many of us that pursue happiness already know, the best way to achieve happiness is by helping others (and animals count!)
I think Frankl, Baumeister, Trunk, et al are overcomplicating the issue. It’s a no-brainer that when you fill your life with meaningful, fulfilling, and challenging activities, you are happier. When “experts” make up a definition of happiness as stress-free, or conflict-free, or taking rather than giving–well sure, then you won’t be happy if you achieve those things. But why on earth would you define happiness as those things when those are not the things that bring you happiness?
I needed this today. Thank you!
I love this post. And I think Martin Seligman, the juggernaut of Positive Psychology, would agree with you:
“The theory in Authentic Happiness is that happiness could be analyzed into three different elements that we choose for their own sakes: positive emotion, engagement, and meaning.”
I agree with you that if I had to prioritize one above the others, it would be meaning. But sometimes we can get both. You got the Pinterest worthy apple picking and the meaning rich calf rescue in the same day! Can we pursue meaning and pleasure at the same time?
I think it’s actually easier to assess one’s meaningfulness than one’s happiness. Happiness is a sum over times, whereas meaning is holistic and relatively constant for the short term.
so, what you’re basically trying to say is
Given a polynomial equation in several unknowns x_1, …, x_n, and with integer coefficients, does it have a solution in the integers?
While we can’t be certain whether P = NP we can only hope it does for all the practical computational benefits and milk, said saved calf might produce in such a world.
Great, great post. The type of post that that helps a reader see clearly on a Monday morning and feel better about himself.
Also, happiness is at once so easy to classify … and also so difficult to pursue. When you think you’re there, another bad thought or comparison enters the picture, making you unhappy once again. Meaning is accompanied by a lot more work, but it seems easier to track down, find and identify.
I loved this post! The title really drew me in — and the story kept me interested and the explanation of meaning v.s. seeking happiness was spot on. I am sending this to all 5 of my kids (ages 18-30) and taping it to my mirror. Such great advice and links. Thanks for putting it together. I just wish I could have raised my kids on a farm :)
I’ve never thought of the topic of today’s post in precisely those terms. Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking treatment.
Speaking for myself, I think challenges interspersed with “happiness” is a perfect way to live. Being pushed (or better yet pushing yourself) out of your comfort zone is essential to gaining a sense of meaning, and also provides a backdrop with which to contrast later periods of complacent happiness, thus rendering the happy periods more enjoyable.
We just did our apple picking a couple weeks ago (unfortunately we have to resort to paying someone else to pick their apples!)
If you have a lot of apple trees, you guys should try making some cider.
Happiness and meaning: orthogonal.
You can have both. You can have neither. You can have either/or.
And in degrees. Life is too complex and dynamic to have binary thinking on this duality.
Great word choice and relation to this article!
A sweet blog post by PT which I enjoyed – but I loved your razor-sharp comment – so true.
The pix of the comforting hand on the terrified calf is the best illustration of your point: getting outside of yourself, even (especially) in scary situations, is the best way to find joy/satisfaction/happiness during times of stress and uncertainty. I love this post, and I love the heartfelt and steadying hand of support and comfort on the calf.
Enjoyable read! I really like these slice of life pieces that mix in some commentary backed by facts.
It’s strange. I hesitate getting a dog because I know it will be hard work (I’ve had one before), but I am looking forward to the day I become a dad even though I know it will be many times harder than having a dog at home. I think a meaningful life is a happy life. There will be hardship and conflict, but if each step is aligned to some overarching goal then I think the end product is happiness.
Penelope, I have followed your blog for years and have never posted a comment but felt compelled too as well. This post ROCKs…a timely and beautiful message. I echo others’ gratitude that this arrived in their inbox today. Glad the calf is doing well.
Kim, thanks for commenting. The thing that makes this blog meaningful to me is the conversation. Otherwise it would be sort of closeted performance art or something. So the fact that you finally decided to comment – on a post about making a meaningful life — helps to make mine more meaningful. Thanks.
That is cute.
You guys saved the calf on someone else’s farm, right? And you’re going to keep him? I’ve always been in the city and it sounds surreal to have a calf as a pet.
I have always enjoyed your writing.. what no one mentions is that you didn’t know you had apple trees in your own backyard. Sometimes it’s right there in front..
And I don’t think Matthew was looking for a big problem but making sure everything was taken care of and running smoothly.. The cow wasn’t acting like the other cows.. he knew something was wrong. He and your family took action before losing the calf. Team work and looking at options to save the sick calf.. who now has become a family member.. And I hope we will continue reading of his adventures.
This may be my favorite thing you’ve ever written. Thought-provoking instead of intentionally provocative. I really enjoyed it. Thanks.
Happiness can be fleeting enjoyed in the moment. Meaning requires something more a commitment and diligence to understand and maintain it.
But man I do love my apples.
Disagree that stress makes you focus on others. Stress makes you focus on yourself. Stress is like being in a little boat in a storm; you spend your energy just trying to navigate through it.
There’s a great piece of research in Science magazine this month about how poverty makes people poor decision makers. The stress of not having enough money for essentials is so stressful that it makes our brains mushy. I remember that from when I was very poor – so often I made short-term decisions that messed me up long term.
Which makes me think that stress makes our life more meaningful when we have our basic needs met.
I love this article! Reminded me again of the shallowness of the self-absorbed and egotistical happiness seeking…
Happiness is NOT about taking. Our sole focus should NOT about making the life easier in every possible way, all the way to our deathbed. We all need to have a purpose, goal or an aim the basis of which should be centred around how many more lifes I touch each day rather than how dollars gets depostied in our banks. The reason the former is better is because it increases self worth in a way people which is both inspiring for others and satisfactory for you. The aim based on how much money I make, how much stuff I buy from it, will ensure that you happiness will remain the same overall with little peaks at intervals where got one of your new “stuff”..!
Everyday, the question to ask before we going to bed is .. “How many lives have I touched today?” if the answer to this is increasing steadily then regardless of what you do to achieve it (be it picking apples, feeding the cow or cleaning toilets), You are assured to be happiest at any point in time and also assured of leaving this planet satsified.
Thank you for this post, it’s something that I think we could all do to be reminded about, or informed about. I always enjoy your posts but this was something special.
Geez, this is so great. Spot on.
These isn’t anything unworthy about shallow experiences/activities. If you hadn’t gone out in pursuit of apples and since I’m an apple lover that equates to happiness, you’d never have found the calf and had experience of rescuing it.
Satisfying experiences happen in unlikely places.
Standing in the back of the truck shaking the tree sounds like a lot more fun that walking around with some sissy basket picking them.
Thank you for this beautiful post and persepctive!
Yet again you have proven to be SPOT ON with what is truly important.
Thank you for putting the emphasis on meaning!
I have long had a little voice in my head that tells me a simple life would be a wonderful thing. As a PhD candidate in the throes of dissertation writing, I find it easy to glorify simplicity, happiness, and contentment. Thank you for the reminder that happiness is not the only end and that making a difference is not a simple task.
I love how people writing a dissertation think it is the MOST DIFFICULT THING EVER!!! Poor me, I work so hard in a room by myself, writing on an esoteric topic that only 5 other people in the country care about (how you see meaning in that, please explain).
If you think that is hard – wait until you hit the job market. Likely that you are either going to lurch from one contract to another, eventually ending up at a 3rd tier college in the middle of nowhere, or give up entirely and have kids. And please don’t have the delusion that you are going to make a change in academia, academia hasn’t changed, ever. Its job is to never change and hold up traditions that make zero sense in the modern world.
PhDs are great for people who cant function in the real world as it gives them something to do before they have kids and stay home with them.
You haven’t really read this blog have you?
Dear denial is a river:
(1) you have no idea what Kate is writing her dissertation about – for all you know it could be about a new cancer drug, or it could be about the most esoteric topic such as sex of fruitflies. Interestingly the sex of fruitflies and other critters has a huge impact on farming… but that is just a sidenote.
(2) at no point does Kate says that this is the most difficult thing she has ever done. Dissertation writing is like every long term project a time of intense focus – and while you don;t write dissertations in an industry job, the ability to finish a project and focus is indeed required quite a lot in “real life” .
(3) sure, it can be difficult to find a job, and adjust for other priorities in the workforce – why is this a problem? It is like you make a career change, learn new things, adapt. Not everybody sees the switch from academia to industry or entrepreneurship as a threat but it is an opportunity.
(4) Working in academia is not meaningless, teaching philosophy (which I assume you deem not real life…) can be deeply meaningful and touch many people.
…and by the way: there are real and normal and diverse people working in academia, it is not the monolithic body portrayed in the movies. And no, the “big band theory” does not show the life of real physicists.
Oh, Denial is a river! Your comment was so loaded with incorrect assumptions that it made me laugh. Redrock has really said it all. I could write a treatise on the value of doctorates and academic work, but I’ll stick to pointing out that every assumption you made about me is incorrect. My doctoral research is focused on a practical topic and on impacting practice. I already have an academic job at a respected institution where I teach in a practical discipline. I worked in the profession and carved out a career there before making the move to academia and I am still invested in industry. None of this is said to diminish the value of “esoteric” PhD topics or the value of teaching and researching in non-practical disciplines, but rather to point out your flawed assumptions.
The irony here is that I have this philosophy on the PhD process that essentially says it doesn’t have to be the tumultuous, hideous experience we hear people talk about. And you assumed my comment was me singing that song. My comment here is about putting sustained effort into something challenging or complex or messy, and how this post reminded me that making a contribution – having a meaningful life – is not a simple thing. You could scrub out the PhD related terms and substitute them with phrases like ‘three year project’.
I have indeed read this blog and you won’t be surprised to read that I disagree with many of Penelope’s views on grad school. And some of her other views, too. But I *like* the debate she encourages around the value of grad school because it offers us a useful challenge. My comment here is not an indicator that I haven’t read the blog; it’s an indicator that I have enough confidence in my own career choices and enough commitment to what I do to out myself as a PhD candidate on a blog that frequently questions the path I’m on.
I may not be an entrepreneur but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from one.
Now let’s move on and get back to the real topic here.
Well, it’s interesting that people started talking about dissertations here. And I think it might be very central to the topic here. Because it’s so scary to put a lot of effort into something that ends up being meaningless. And I think a lot of people feel that way after graduate school.
A lot of us feel that way after a lot of things. Part of looking for meaning is taking a risk that our time is spent doing something useless.
The process of dissertation writing can be hugely meaningful. It can involve primary field research, analyzing data, problem solving, and importantly, taking a topic of interest, investigating it thoroughly, and following it through to some logical conclusion. I felt about it the same way I do when I run a marathon. I’m not fast. I’m not competitive. I’m not some specimen of endurance and athleticism. I just enjoy an arduous journey, usually making some interesting observations about myself and others along the way. The journey can be just as important and meaningful, if not more so, than finally arriving at your destination.
I certainly cannot speak to all dissertations, and I am sure there are many which do not have a long shelf live and might indeed only be of interest to very few people – but there are a lot of them which lay the groundwork for many of the studies cited on this blog. Statistical analysis of trends, the math required to do so, how to design studies, how to find ways to measure internet traffic and many others.
My own dissertation contributed to the development of coatings used to protect computer hard drives – so while it was fundamental science it had quite an impact on a very practical engineering problem. The advantage of a dissertation is the longer term perspective, and depth for exploring a topic. Are there stupid useless topics out there? sure, no question, but a well advised thesis can make great contributions. Also nowadays a thesis does usually not live in an isolated space – the results are discussed and published and thus benefit a larger community.
Thank you for this post. So validating.
Well shit. My entire life’s work is based on encouraging people to be happy.
But, I believe that being happy is what leads you to the meaningful work.
I have read your blog for more than five years. This is my favorite post. Thank you
Nice article indeed, Penelope.
I too am a faithful reader of your blog and have never commented.
This was exactly perfect for me to read today: aiming for an easy, conflict-free, peaceful life, or heading straight into something difficult that shakes up your life so you can be part of something larger than you.
The comfort zone is an easy, familiar and happy place that can be challenging to want to step out of. But shaking things up for more meaning and growth ultimately is so much for fulfilling.
I am about to take the first steps out of my comfort zone onto a path that will shake up my life and be so much larger than me.
Thank you Penelope for your insight and inspiration!
Penelope, this post is my favorite post of yours to date. My mother always said I was born with the “happy gene” therefore, happy is something I just am. But the pursuit of a meaningful life, now that’s a journey I’m happy to be on.
As most of the others have already said, this has to be one of my favorite posts of yours too. It really hits a mark with me, because I do a lot of animal rescue in my time away from work. It’s what saves me. And no, it isn’t all happy stories all the time. It’s a lot of work, sacrifice, changing of priorities, and, at times, sadness. But the wonderful parts of it outweigh the negative. It does jeopardize my happiness sometimes: it sometimes causes riffs between my husband and I because he thinks I put too much time into it, and the pain of losing a dog when you tried so hard to save it. And, at times the stories you hear about what some of the animals have been through just about kill you. But I keep on doing it because I have to. There is no other way for me.
But I thrive on working with these animals and it rescues me as much as I rescue the dogs. And like you and the family saving the calf, life lessons and compassion are always learned.
As a side note – a few years ago I had to change my anti depressant medication. My therapist was mentioning one that made a very sad and angry person she knew, happy, all the time. To that I replied “But I don’t want to be happy all the time.” I think this post gets to the heart of that.
My last career was as a healer/therapist. Now I am not a driven person so when the opportunity came to retire early this year I jumped at it and moved to Ecuador from Madison, WI. For the last 4 months I have been leading a happy life. Outdoor cafes, cappuccinos, sitting in the sun, much time just sitting with friends. Life is now steering me to begin my healing (read “meaningful”) life again here in Cuenca. I meet a local doctor who asked to work with one of his paralyzed patients.I meet her and her Mother today to discuss it.
The joy of being helpful and changing peoples lives is more essential to me then i ever realized. I now realize there is more to life than lounging with a drink and gazing at the Andes.
”Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”
First World Problems.
Because poor people should not be concerned with having meaningful lives?
This post brings a lot of things full circle for me. I think that for a while I was mad at religion and all the time (I felt) was wasted by being part of a church. But the more distance I put between me and that, the more I figured out good things that came of it. And of course, I figured out the bad things that I don’t want to give room in my life to.
Being part of a church with clergy that truly, sincerely, wholeheartedly try to live a life of goodness and grace (regardless of holes in their doctrine) is that they do abide by what the Bible says regarding meaningful life and living to give to others. “It’s better to give than to receive.”
I am making peace with the identity I grew up with. All of those biblical tenets (real or made up) are a part of me. And now I have been in a process of pulling everything apart and taking what I feel is timeless and true and getting rid of what I think is garbage.
I have found the most happiness (sadly, it’s so fleeting) in very unexpected situations.
But I know that if I want constant contentment I know the drill. I know how to go about it. Because I was in church for almost my whole life until recently.