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.


119 replies
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  1. KatiePalmer
    KatiePalmer says:

    This is great advice. I am just starting up my business as a herbal consultant, and always appreciate being reminded that I am doing something with meaning. Thank you.

  2. AB
    AB says:

    I’m glad to see comments pointing out that the pursuit for happiness should not be confused with a pursuit for quiet / receiving life.

    Many of us found happiness by finding meaning (in helping others, joining a cause larger than ourselves, etc.). People who consider interesting/meaningful life vs. happy life two exclusive choices should take a look at integrative thinking—the ability to hold two opposing ideas in our mind at once, and then reach a synthesis that contains elements of both but actually improves on each.

  3. Sarah K.
    Sarah K. says:

    I absolutely love this. And what I absolutely love the most about it is something nobody has mentioned yet: that you, for a change, were able to put aside what you wanted to concentrate on your husband and what he and his business needed at the time; and that you were given a little realization (what? We have apple orchards?) that sometimes you need to stop running off looking for what makes you happy in order to see that you already have it right here.

  4. Pamela | Girl Gone West
    Pamela | Girl Gone West says:

    Timely post. I just adopted a puppy who weasled his way into my life and my heart and despite the fact that it’s one more thing to feel guilty about.

    Never has my apartment felt more like home, even when I’m scrubbing puppy diarrhea off my rug.

    I think my happiness has become inherent to my meaning as this little creature’s mother.

  5. brianna
    brianna says:

    Penelope, I’ve greatly enjoyed reading your blog over the last few years. The happy vs. interesting dichotomy you introduced me to in some of your earlier posts has been a very useful and informative framework for evaluating my life and choices. It reminds me of the happy vs. meaningful contrast you paint here. I don’t think interesting is always meaningful, but perhaps meaning is always interesting?

    Regardless, this was a timely post for me as I am at a point in my life where meaning is beginning to dictate more of my choices than simple happiness. And yet… I find myself feeling ‘happier’ than I have been in a long time.

    I think meaning brings peace and contentment – which can be labeled as happiness – but meaningful happiness and joy are much stronger and deeper than the simple ‘bucolic moments’ of life.

    Thank you for sharing your words and insight. My best to you, your family, and the calf!

  6. mh
    mh says:

    “We have apple trees?”

    I love it, Penelope. Great post.

    So, after you’ve hauled the calf around in the back of the truck, what do you do with the apples? Idle curiosity.

  7. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    Love this post. I just got back from a 3 day business trip and the first in 3 years, so it was timely for me. Being away from home really makes you appreciate those you love and helped me realize that I AM happy. I had got to sleep in my own room, with a big comfy bed and fly, too. I love to see new places, but I also realized that it was hard to sleep in that big bed, all alone, without my doggy snuggling close, without my husband next to me and without being able to tuck in my son, which gives me peace and happiness each and every day.
    I returned home with a horrible migraine and queasy tummy. In all the barking excitement, hugs and presents, they immediately tried to easy my pain and make me comfortable. That’s what happiness is… realizing you have it and holding onto those feelings instead of letting life distract you.

    Happy you found and saved the calf, too. Both my dogs are from shelters and the snuggly one loos deep into our eyes, thanking us each and every time we snuggle, for saving him and bringing him home safely. Happiness? That look in an animal’s eyes when you can communicate without words. :)

  8. Ragnar
    Ragnar says:

    This post actually came along at the perfect time. I’m going to dedicate all of next month to something that could turn out to be completely meaningless.

    But on the offchance that it won’t be, That I can make a small difference, I will follow through.

    No more second guessing from me.

    Thank you.

  9. Larry Hochman
    Larry Hochman says:

    Maybe it’s the crowd I hang out with, and the crowd I draw to me. But it didn’t occur to me there was a difference between a happy life and a purpose driven life. We’ve all seen enough to know a lifetime chasing pleasure always ends in loneliness and existential crisis, while a life of contribution (balanced with receiving) is glorious and soul thrilling.

    And maybe that first part is the thing…it’s the ENVIRONMENT we build around us that we contribute to and receive from that makes all the difference.

    Fantastic post, Penelope. Thanks for sharing it.

  10. Missy
    Missy says:

    I love this. Thank you. I have a small farm in SW WI. My husband and I started this for our children. To teach them about life and hard work. I myself have learned loads!!! Life, death, hard work and happiness. Thank you!!

  11. Ted
    Ted says:

    Great as usual Penelope. I look forward to each post.

    You learn so much from farm life. Farmers and ranchers understand caring for animals as a way of life. I think they, along with most hunters, have a true respect for animals and understand them as a resource to be cared for.

    Your story is fascinating to me. Such a difference between city and country life. I would love to be a fly on the wall at your house.

  12. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    This post would make way more sense if, every time it says ‘happiness’ Penelope was forced to substitute either ‘contentment’ (which I think is what she is thinking about when she writes about ‘happiness’) or ‘joy’ (which is what I personally mean when I talk about ‘happiness’. A sentence like this…

    “Happiness is about decreasing stress and conflict and taking rather than giving.”

    …is clearly about contentment (which is a quiet and stable and inward and maybe boring feeling), not joy (which is ecstatic/euphoric, and so outward-looking as to be explosive at times). Seeking joy in life is not the same as seeking contentment, and ‘happiness’ is an ambiguous word that trivializes the pursuit of joy.

  13. Dave
    Dave says:

    I had a similar epiphany recently. Bored with work, angry at lack of salary and so far from expectations of where I should be financially AND in terms of meaning and purpose. But as I was thinking all this, a couple of major personal events came up and as I dealt with them, I felt like “THIS is what you are here for.” It is all about making a difference in people’s lives– not other people , not saving the world or whatever–but being there for family when they need you.

  14. JRF
    JRF says:

    I don’t think the question is happiness OR meaning. That’s a false dichotomy, isn’t it? I do think it’s interesting that people think of happiness as a goal, when it’s really a by-product.

    • WiL
      WiL says:

      Thank for this clarification. I agree wholeheartedly with a false permise of this otherwise good blog entry.

  15. A Chronic Pain Sufferer
    A Chronic Pain Sufferer says:

    I wish I had the luxury of even thinking about happiness, contentment, pursuing meaning in my life.

    I started having pain 6 years ago & it has been spreading & increasing in intensity such that I had to quit work as even touching a piece of paper hurts (complex regional pain syndrome in both hands & arms & right foot now–plus all sorts of back problems). I’ve broken 3 teeth from clenching my jaw & grinding my teeth so much from the stress of the pain.

    Numerous medications & procedures have been prescribed to try to reduce my pain. They either don’t work or make me too sleepy (morphine).

    Heading to the Mayo Clinic in 3 weeks. First appt. is in the Neurology Dept. They told me to plan to stay a week.

    Raising our children gave me meaning. I’m thankful this pain didn’t start while they were still young & at home as I am totally useless now. Have to wear several pairs of gloves all the time, use a stylus to type, basically living is an excruciatingly painful ordeal. Have had one suicide attempt, but really don’t want to do that to my children & husband but this is robbing me of my ability to be rational.

    If Mayo can’t help me, I will have an “accident” of some kind. So enjoy your debates of happiness vs. meaning & take whatever superficial joy & happiness you can grab. You cannot predict that something like this will not happen to you…

  16. Linda
    Linda says:

    Thank you! I love you for what and how you write. I understand myself, as an aspie girl, much better when reading your post.

  17. Ryan Biddulph
    Ryan Biddulph says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Happiness seems to be watching, accepting, and doing based on intuitive nudges. Some nudges will feel wonderful. Great. Others, scary as hell. Great. Do them anyway :)

    I like meditating frequently, listening, diving in, then learning to trust. Also, being open to where my services are needed.

    Thanks for sharing :)

  18. Lily
    Lily says:

    What a lovely post!

    Funny how happiness is something we all seem to search for. Running a super busy business can sometimes feel very overwhelming but the contentment that comes with it is very rewarding. Makes me appreciate the very few times of 5 minutes alone time!

    PS – so glad the calf is doing well!

  19. the/r/band
    the/r/band says:

    Just found your site today. Aspie here. Been very “stuck” for over five years now…Looked all over the place for answers and “help” and “clarity”…Happiness…hmm.. THIS post about happiness unstuck me. For whatever reason reading this worked for me, it did.
    Thank you internet stranger…You won’t be able to know how grateful I am you wrote this and I read it.

  20. Samantha
    Samantha says:

    You are so right. I can’t remember hearing it put more clearly or a better visual description of the pursuit of happiness verses meaning. The key to giving without loosing ones self such a fuzzy line. Iv’e been homeschooling 19 years and am still at it. I look forward to reading more of your posts since I am headed back to work myself and will need all the encouragement I can get with continuing to homeschool my youngest 3 children.

  21. Ralph
    Ralph says:

    THANK YOU! I am a little tired of hearing how about happiness and how to obtain it. It seems a little selfish to me to want to search, seek, work towards, and focus on something that in it of itself, doesn’t really serve anyone else. I am working on a post about this. Great blog you have here. Will be returning :)

  22. Dajana
    Dajana says:

    People are confused. If you let others define what is happiness, you’ll most likely be after the wrong things in life.

    An introvert that thinks that happy people are the ones that party all the time will become miserable in “seeking happiness”.

  23. Luana
    Luana says:

    I just found you blog from one email that Alyce Vayle Author sent me. You were in her 5 best women bloggers for inspirational advice list and I really got hooked with your one… I have been here for 2 hours just reading your articles, and it is all very good; I’m commenting on this one because it looks so much more like I live my life and how I write about it. I love finding the good in each experience and trying to make my life as spiritual as possible. I suffer anxiety, happily married and have a 4 years old son. I live in Sydney since 2004 but I’m originally from Colombia.
    I’m trying to find my professional strength, I want to choose from my talents and focus on something to build my own business and work for myself; it is a long road still for me but reading your other articles and advises has relaxed my soul form the turmoil of today. Thanks. This modern life is pushing me to understand more about blogs and technicalities but the challenge is good for my brain.
    We went to an Apple picking farm for first time last July and it was great. We are planning on going back next season. It’s my first time writing a comment and is far too long… Anyway, I hope the calf is going well, the boys are having a good time, the farm is at peace and you can keep inspiring us on doing better… Hasta la vista Penelope… Luana.

  24. pfj
    pfj says:

    Short version of sensible philosophy:

    For enduring value (and maybe happiness) — don’t do what makes you “feel good.” Do what makes you feel good about yourself.

    Don’t just go and gather apples; save a critter too.

  25. h
    h says:

    This is a great post, as are all of your posts on meaning, passion, and happiness. The distinction your making was made by Aristotle, between eudaimonia (meaningful happiness) and hedonism (pleasure happiness). You might also be interested in Bill Damon’s (and others’) work on purpose, which is about how young people develop and work toward goals that are meaningful and contribute to something larger than the self.

    And I agree with the comments above about dissertation writing and PhD work — research and writing are hugely meaningful for some of us. When students are unsure about continuing with a PhD, I ask them if they really want to write a dissertation, because that type of work (research and writing) has to be meaningful to you, or there’s no reason to slog through a dissertation worth of it.

  26. Donald Smith
    Donald Smith says:

    Bravo. Excellent. “Infuse meaning into your life by challenging yourself to give in a way that jeopardizes your happiness.”

  27. Brad
    Brad says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I love how you wove your story with fun, family and a great lesson. I’ve been coming to a similar conclusion that chasing happiness can be a trap and that living a life of meaning and purpose is much more fulfilling and useful to the world. Thanks, Brad

  28. Mulyadi Kurnia
    Mulyadi Kurnia says:


    thanks for this article. It arouses me into thinking whether one can be happy and at the same time lead a meaningful life. I tend to think that it is achievable. Happiness, the way I define it, has a deeper meaning that the superficial, kinda frivolous mean of defining it (such as enjoying an ice cream or seeing a good movie). I need to do something spiritually and emotionally meaningful in order to experience happiness. Such as, I enjoy meditation and the practice of it makes me feel happy, calm and serene.

  29. Yadgyu
    Yadgyu says:

    Being shallow and self-absorbed is only a problem with people that are afraid to disappoint others.

    I often find out that people-pleasers usually become very unhealthy and unhappy people. Their meaning gets wrapped up in others. Meanwhile, the people that are helped forget and move on with their lives.

    Help yourself.

  30. Melinda
    Melinda says:


    I love this post, what a truly beautiful day you had. I struggle on a regular basis with my capacity of giving to others without loosing myself, it is certainly something that can creep up on you when you haven’t had planned well or just can’t get that time out.

    Thankyou, I needed to read this.

  31. m
    m says:

    Great post, this really stuck with me. And all the different comments, with each person bringing their own perspective, experience, and interpretation to the story adds so much! I’m bookmarking this one.

  32. Rich
    Rich says:

    Arguably the most important post you’ve written, ever.

    I refer back to it regularly.

    It is the place where your skill for insightful observations on a life, well led, told through story and metaphor best come to fruition.


  33. jill
    jill says:

    Great post and pics. I think you are right as adults we often need to be pushed outside our comfort zone where for kids it just seems like the right thing to do.

  34. Nadia Salehi Kermani
    Nadia Salehi Kermani says:

    From what I read I felt like you’re saying is that there is happiness for everyone inn life no matter what age group and to better that I read that to find happiness it isn’t on what we necessarily do but how we take in what we do. For example when you used the calf as its wasn’t a too big deal but to your children it was something extraordinary and it seemed to bring them this happiness knowing that they were there when the calf had been birthed and how they nursed it themselves. Something that stood out to me the most was how you put it that we discover our own happiness through what we take in. Like we can be working the worst job but we can still be happy if we take what makes us happy during that job. We don’t necessarily have to look at all the negative aspects like having to take care of a calf daily and supporting it but we can take in the fact that there is a newborn animal that we witnessed and are having a great time taking care of it. This piece brought a sense of direction on where and how to look for happiness rather than what is it and how to get it.

  35. Hannah Gregory
    Hannah Gregory says:

    I love this article. It hits happiness and how it is to be achieved perfectly. In order to live fully, we must have the courage to achieve our dreams, even if that in turn means jeopardizing our happiness. That is what makes the risks we take worth while. If we never jump a little farther than is considered safe, we will never know how far we can really go.

  36. Thoughts
    Thoughts says:

    “Happiness” is such a nebulous term. Happiness & meaningful living are not mutually exclusive, and what may appear to one man to be laziness, might be quite meaningful to another. Certainly one can find happiness in things outside of one’s universe, whether self-based or not. You can be happy doing nothing much and it can have meaning (to you), it just depends on your driving forces. You don’t have to “change the world” to enjoy life. Stop pushing everyone to overachieve, it’s not what life is about.

  37. aspie
    aspie says:

    Beauuutiful post!

    Some thoughts:

    People are either seeking or non-seeking.
    Of these two, seeking is superior at first, since non-seeking gets you nowhere when you’re just starting out. However, non-seeking is ultimately superior and most genuine in the end.

    By “happiness” and “meaning” it depends on the definition or emotion behind it.
    However, would “compassion” more appropriately describe your experience?

    Clarity helps. Clarity can be gained from wise people who have refined their perspectives, wherever they can be found (they are not easily found).


  38. PhB
    PhB says:

    1) Except if being happy is a quest of meaning.
    2) Working hard at something: Being happy (see The How of Happiness, Lyubormirsky)
    3) Besides your story is about Picking apples AND Saving a calf. Even if your interpretation is about OR.
    4) Picking apples (to be able to savor life’s pleasures) – Saving a calf (to be engaged with others). Two Hows of Hap. See again Lyubormirsky
    5) See G. Rubin – the Happiness project about Picking apples AND saving a calf. To me a book about happiness as a quest of meaning.
    6) More complicated for adults? Maybe much simpler: a life without picking apples, without saving a calf.
    7) Thanks

  39. Peggy Nolan
    Peggy Nolan says:

    I know I’m late to the party but I’m here and that’s what counts.

    My take on happiness is that it is and always will be an inside job. And for me, a meaningful life is that inside job.

    Thank you for a wonderfu article!

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