Saturday, February 09, 2013

A complex life of meaning or a simpler life of happiness?

On the eve of the lunar new year of the snake 2013, I bid an ambivalent farewell to my dragon year and invite you to contemplate whether you prefer to have a life of meaning and epiphanies even if it is at the expense of your happiness? This was a question I raised in college and I thought I answered... I chose meaning.

In college, I came to recognize that happiness and a life of epiphanies seemed to have an inverse relationship. The pursuit of happiness felt somewhat superficial and meant streamlining complexity from life and appreciating the simple life. I preferred to contemplate the complex and ask the questions that would invite a multi-layered interpretation. With complexity, comes potential unhappiness as we uncover what we don't always want to know or that can hurt us.

An excerpt from this Atlantic article "There's More to Life Than Being Happy" by Emily Esfahani Smith:

"Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment—which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do [...] 'Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,' the researchers write. 'Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.' That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy."

However, I think peace and meaning can co-exist when we author a holistic narrative that we believe makes sense and weaves meaning from the pain from our past. If we can integrate the suffering into the narrative and thus, untangle the cognitive dissonance, we can achieve peace. We then can perceive ourselves to have overcome and transcended those experiences to be more mature, compassionate, and stronger. However, when we cannot create a cohesive and acceptable narrative, then we find neither meaning nor peace and continue to suffer cognitiive dissonance.

I wonder if those who seek meaning over happiness are more likely to be predisposed to do so because their earlier childhood unhappiness forced them to find meaning earlier on as a coping mechanism. That mechanism may enable meaning-seekers to make peace with those that hurt others or for their own hurts.

As I reflect on the conclusion of this dragon year and the completion of this cycle, I question again whether a complex life of meaning is preferable still over a simpler life of happiness? Where is the balance? Can we achieve happiness even with an embrace of life's complexity and all its philosophical implications?

Janet Si-Ming Lee
Principal Designer, Siming Cybercreative

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