A Meaningful Life or A Happy One… Which One’s Better?

A laughing Buddha statue sitting on wooden table

A reader wrote me in response to an article “Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness” published in The Atlantic (8/1/13):

Dr. Hurd, I’m curious if you have heard of this? Roy Baumeister who, in the late 1990s, equivocated self-esteem with Narcissism, is now saying “happiness” is shallow because it is “selfish.” Of course, he doesn’t mean “happiness” or “selfishness” exactly in the way Objectivists [referring to Ayn Rand’s concept of rational self-interest] mean, but he does proclaim that it’s bad for you to be happy if you don’t subordinate your own interests to those of the Other. But what are your thoughts?

Giving up happiness for the sake of another makes no sense at all. Anyone who says so almost certainly does not mean it, or practice it. And anyone who does practice it is (at best) a miserable fool … not anyone you’d ever find lovable, that’s for sure!

When you love someone, it’s because of the pleasure their personal qualities bring to you and your life. By paying attention to and rewarding that person with your own attention and love, you’re acting on your own behalf.

Love is a trade or an exchange. It’s mutual.

What kind of person would want to be loved by someone who gets nothing out of it? Think of your spouse, your boyfriend or your girlfriend, if you have one. Are you glad this person gets something selfishly personal out of being with you? Would you prefer that he or she got nothing out of being with you?

Of course not. You both want to get something out of the person you love, as well as wanting that person to get something comparable out of being with you. What in the world kind of relationship would it be if that were not the case?

The Atlantic article cites research suggesting that people are happier when living for others, rather than for themselves. But how can you divorce the two? By definition, when you love (or otherwise associate with) anyone at all, another person (“others”) are part of the equation. But by what stretch does this imply, or require, a sacrifice or obliteration of your own self-interested, selfish, personal concerns?

Let’s say you choose to live a life of complete servitude to others. Would you rather see the expression on someone’s face when your servitude brings the other person happiness? Or would you rather be locked in a padded cell while your savings accounts, house equity or other valuables were given to others?

If you’d rather see the effects of your service or sacrifice, then right there — to that extent — you’re gaining some personal happiness out of the exchange. It’s precisely this fact that would lead the ethical code of self-sacrifice to fall flat on its face, right then and there. Self-sacrifice as an ethical code is, in theory, a self-refuting impossibility, short of suicide. As a practice, it’s a recipe for psychological conflict, disingenuousness, pain and despair.

I’m so sick of self-sacrifice getting all the glory and credit for everything good in the world. If the truth be told, it’s responsible for most of the world’s pain, destruction and misery.

It’s a logical fallacy to ask the question, “Which is better — to live for yourself, or for others?” The question sets up a false alternative before you have a chance to answer it.

My answer to the question, from both an ethical and a happiness point-of-view, is an unequivocal: “Live for yourself, first and foremost.” Nothing about living for yourself rules out interacting with, being generous with, or otherwise bringing happiness to others. A self-interested life requires the practice of both deriving value from, and providing value to, other persons … persons of your own choosing, that is.

So long as you never drop the context — or the principle — that your own life is an end in itself, and is first and foremost about you, then giving is only a secondary question, at best.

You should give, or you may give, whenever it gives you personal happiness to do so, and whenever you actually have something to give. This applies whether the “giving” refers to money, property, or the most precious things of all — your time, your energy, your mental focus and your emotions.

Doesn’t this imply narcissism? No way.

Narcissism refers to a person who agrees with everything I just said — only that it applies to himself, not to anyone else. He will not admit it, of course, but all of his emotional responses imply it.

Self-sacrificers are miserable martyrs. Narcissists are the other side of the same coin — they are “other sacrificers.” Sacrifice is wrong from either direction. The only way to become healthy (and moral) is to get rid of sacrifice altogether: your own, as well as that of others.

A healthy person, in contrast to a narcissist, wants to treat his or her life as an end in itself — but expects and, in fact, wants you to do the same.

A healthy person does not want you to do anything for him that you sincerely, authentically and selfishly do not wish to do. A healthy person is in the habit of taking care of his own needs and living his own life as he desires to live it, and expects others — including those he loves — to do the same. A healthy person loves whomever he loves because of who that person is — and would never even want that person to change.

It’s not sacrificial selflessness that gives rise to this healthy form of love; it’s quite the opposite.

There’s no conflict of interest in a personal or business relationship, not if you’re healthy and rational. A healthy person does not wish to give up any of his or her values or desires, and does not want you to do so, either.

A healthy person also makes rational distinctions. For example, “I’d rather spend my evening doing one activity. You’d rather spend the evening doing something different. I’d actually be happy with either activity. You’re more important to me than having the choice, in this particular case. I want to be with you more than I care about the precise activity we do. So I’m going with you.”

Is this an act of self-sacrifice? No way. It’s the act of someone who selfishly knows how he wants to spend his time, and does so accordingly.

Does this mean in a different case the healthy person would be so giving? No way. “What’s that? You want me to go to a Nazi Party meeting with you this evening? Or an ‘Up With Jihad’ party? I don’t think so. And why do I even want to be around people who want to do such things?”

Self-sacrifice does not refer to giving versus not giving, or making a compromise versus not making a compromise. It refers to what the nature of the compromise is — and whether you’re making a minor or even unimportant concession, as opposed to a violation of your basic sense of self, and basic principle.

Being happy does not consist of being willing to subordinate your interests to others. First of all, if you don’t know or care about your own interests in the first place, you would have nothing to offer others. You would not have money or property to give away, because you wouldn’t be hard-working, innovative, creative or responsible enough to generate or hold on to property. You would not have personal qualities to offer, because you’d have so little respect for yourself, and your own time and energy, that there would be nothing of value to give to another personally, in a friendship or love relationship.

Generosity implies that you have something to give. Selfless people do not have anything to give. And if they did — it would be gone by the time you encountered them.

Charity begins at home. But so does self-esteem. Without an authentic, consistent and ongoing love of life — including your own life, treated at all times (by you) as an end in itself, for your own sake, most of all — you cannot expect to have any meaningful or purposeful, worthwhile relationships of any kind. Not in business, not in romance, not in family … not anywhere.

As for “meaning” versus “happiness,” I cannot conceive of how you’d separate the two. Any happy life involves purposeful, productive activity. That’s what meaning is. You do this activity for yourself, and in the process others with whom you choose to associate (whether for business or personal reasons) benefit from your purposeful activity. You did not do this for them. Yet because you enjoy or otherwise value them, it makes you selfishly happy to see them enjoy what you created. The same applies in reverse, when you’re on the receiving end of someone else’s purposeful, productive, self-interested activity. Generosity is not sacrifice; it’s the expression of love or benevolence towards those whom you are graciously generous.

It takes a lot of integrity, presence of mind, focus, self-responsibility and rationally based concern for specific others (whom you love or value) to be a self-interested person. Selfish people — not narcissists, and not indiscriminate self-sacrificers — are the ones you can really trust, admire, and respect. Without a doubt, they make the best lovers, spouses, family members … the best everything.



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