“The pursuit of happiness and meaning are two of our most central motivations in life” but “there can be substantial trade-offs between seeking happiness and seeking meaning in life,” writes Scott Barry Kaufman in a thought-provoking Scientific American post. In a stereotypical sense, the pursuit of meaning is one that involves connecting our lives to something larger than our life—e.g. society, nation, race, the universe, or God—thereby broadening our consciousness to what exists beyond our small, temporary, and irrelevant existence. The pursuit of happiness, however, in a stereotypical sense, narrows that focus to our body and mind, and often much smaller subsets of it—e.g. sexuality, romance, food, drink, or music. In these stereotypical ways, the pursuit of meaning is selfless, while that of happiness selfish. And yet, we could not live without both. How should we reconcile them? This post discusses this question from the perspective of Vedic philosophy where meaning and happiness are two different aspects of the soul—called chit (meaning) and ananda (happiness)—chosen by a third aspect called sat (consciousness).
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Research on Meaning vs. Happiness
Researchers have found that the pursuit of meaningfulness is more important that the simple-minded pursuit of happiness. These researchers have concluded, for example, that:
- Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. – Jennifer Aaker
- Happiness is not the same as a sense of meaning. How do we go about finding a meaningful life, not just a happy one? – Roy F Baumeister
- In 2017, Pursue Meaning Instead of Happiness … the meaningful life is often characterized by stress, effort, and struggle. – Emily Esfahani Smith
And yet, if we look at the primal human tendencies, we will find that the quest for happiness is more tempting than the quest for meaning. This trend is even more pronounced if we look at life beyond the human life—e.g. in animals, we can see selfish enjoyment dominate over altruistic renunciation.
What is meaning and what is happiness? This post employs some fundamental ideas from Vedic philosophy to answer these questions, where these two ideas are called chit and ananda, respectively. Meaning and happiness are two attributes associated with sat or consciousness, and therefore the fundamental property of all life.
What is Consciousness?
Consciousness or sat is the ability to choose what to focus on. All awareness involves a choice of becoming aware of some part of the world while ignoring other parts. If you are reading this post, you have already rejected other possibilities; while reading you may be unaware of the background noises, your own breathing, the intensity of the ambient light, and so forth. In making these choices, we decide to interact with certain objects, and neglect other objects. Effectively, we choose our relationship to the world, fixing ourselves in some specific relationships, but ignoring other kinds of relationships. Choice or consciousness therefore involves the selection of a certain relationship to reality.
For consciousness to choose, there must be alternatives and to create these alternatives, the world must exist as a possibility (of different kinds of relationships to reality) from which consciousness can choose. If the world is definite, then there is no need for choice, and there can be no consciousness in it. Once we see that consciousness is free will, then even actions become conscious, not because consciousness is “doing” them, but because it chooses to be aware of their existence. In that sense, some things that we “consciously do” are actually done by us. Others are done (e.g. digestion, breathing, blood circulation, autonomous fight-or-flight responses, etc.), and yet unconscious.
The Problem of Material Reality
The fact that we choose to become aware of the world puts some constraints on the world. For example, we see a variety of colors, tastes, smells, we have a variety of thoughts, beliefs, intentions, and morals, which we can be aware of. Modern science, however, tells us that all these things are illusions because the reality is mass and momentum, energy and time, speed and angular speed. The fact is that even when we measure speed using an instrument, we are still perceiving shapes, sizes, colors, tastes, smells, etc. We never perceive speed or energy as such; we perceive their sensual effects on us.
The problem of consciousness is the conversion of physical properties into psychological states. Science is unable to explain this conversion due to three main reasons:
- Our psychological states have a qualitative feel but the physical states are quantitative,
- Our psychological states have a hierarchy while material objects are conceptually the same,
- Our psychological states have references to other states while material objects do not.
These three problems correspond to the three features of a conscious being called sat, chit, and ananda. The ‘feeling’ of pleasure and pain (and other kinds of feelings, including that associated with the perception of redness) are called ananda. The conceptual hierarchy arises due to chit or conceptual knowledge and action. Finally, the references to other things in the world (sometimes called aboutness or intentionality) are due to sat which helps us form relationships to the world. These problems are not solvable by the materialist theories of modern science, because the nature of the soul is expressed even in matter where the world has to be described based on the soul’s properties.
For example, the world should be described not as physical properties but as objectification of perceptual properties such as form, color, taste, smell, sound, and touch. This corresponds to the chit aspect of the soul. Not everyone can experience all perceptual facts, and we have to put into a particular relationship to the world to experience it. This is called the sat aspect of the soul. Finally, even if the world exists objectively, and we manage to get into a particular relationship with it, not everyone will derive the same feeling from that encounter. This corresponds to the ananda aspect of the soul.
The novelty is that the world is itself described as meaning, and consciousness, therefore, seeks the world because it comprises meaning. There would be no reason to seek meaning in this world if the world did not have meaning. We seek meaning because there is meaning. In fact, since the material world is concepts, the higher concepts are also more abstract, and they also seem “bigger” as they cover larger and larger amounts of diversity. In that sense, seeking meaning amounts to transcending our material body and mind—to connect it to a larger-than-life reality. For example, we might dedicate ourselves to our family, city, nation, race, humanity, ecosystem, or the universe, shifting the focus to a smaller or larger subset of the entire universe. Why is the world meaningful to us? Because the world is meaning. We seek meaning because there is meaning.
The Problem of Personality
The existence of the meaning, however, doesn’t necessarily put us in relation to every kind of meaning. The fact that we have the ability to choose still begs the question of Buridan’s Ass: an ass has a pile of hay and a bucket of water but cannot decide whether to eat or drink and thus dies of thirst and hunger. Just having the alternatives to choose from doesn’t tell us which one we should choose. The choice requires a preference for an option, and this preference is the personality, separate from the options.
The problem pertains to the following question: Is there only one consciousness? Or are there many person consciousnesses? Note that if there is only one consciousness, then you and I must have the same experiences, we must know about the same things in exactly the same way, and most importantly, we would completely agree with each other. The simple fact that there can be disagreement even when we see the same thing is because we employ different concepts to understand and even the senses may be perceiving the world differently. We are not identical persons because we have different ideas.
To explain these facts, we have to acknowledge the personality of consciousness which involves the quest for a particular type of meaning in the world. The fact that we see something is often because we seek it. However, that seeking varies from person to person and our personality is tied to the meaning that we are searching for. If this quest for a type of meaning is eternal, then our personality is also eternal. Conversely, if all our quests for meaning are temporary, then our personality is also temporary.
In Vedic philosophy, when the consciousness acquires a personality, it is called ātma and its personality is comprised of six qualities which represent one’s relative preference for different types of meanings: knowledge, beauty, renunciation, fame, power, and wealth. What we call the quest for “meaning in life” is, therefore, a combination of one or more of knowledge, beauty, renunciation, fame, power, and wealth. The ātma, when it has a particular type of quest for meaning in life has the property called chit.
The material world constructs a hierarchical tree of meanings because it is produced from the meaning seeking tendency in the soul. The ātma has a particular choice of meaning, which causes it to sit on a particular part of the tree. Of course, the position of the ātma on the material tree varies continuously due to which sometimes we can find the life meaningful, and sometimes we find it meaningless. Nevertheless, the living entity has an eternal personality because it seeks a specific type of meaning which may or may not be found. But our quest for the meaning defines our personality, which is eternal.
The Problem of Happiness
Once consciousness has acquired a personality of meanings, there is a further quest for happiness. This happiness corresponds to what we call the ‘feeling’ such as pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, elation and depression. The difference is that unlike meaning which comes to us from the external world, happiness is created within ourselves. This means that for the same concepts, there can be different feelings: someone can enjoy a particular concept, while others would find it painful. Owing to this fact, a person can be found happy even if their material situation is not good. And similarly, they can be found unhappy even if their material situation seems quite good. The reason for this disparity is that happiness is created by a person and not by the external world.
At this juncture, it is worth distinguishing happiness from pleasure. In the material world, pleasure and pain have a location in space—e.g. the pain is in the back of your neck, and the pleasure is in the erogenous zones of the body. But happiness has no location in space. When you are happy, the entire body is affected by a positive feeling. Pleasure and pain, however, are confined to a certain part of the body. The distinction between pleasure and happiness can be understood if happiness is the abstraction and pleasure is the detail. This means that even the ‘feeling’ is a tree, although different from concepts.
In Vedic philosophy, a living entity has three kinds of material bodies—gross, subtle, and causal. The gross and subtle bodies are created from kriya-śakti while the causal body is made from māyā-śakti. We should understand kriya-śakti as the meaningful material state while the māyā-śakti is the pleasure and happiness associated with that meaning. Because they are two separate tendencies (meaning and happiness), they are not directly related (e.g. a poor man can be happy, and a rich man can be unhappy). The subtle state of kriya-śakti is moral values and the subtle state of māyā-śakti is happiness. When the subtle state of morality is refined, sense objects are created and we can point to their specific locations in space. Similarly, when happiness is refined, pleasures are created and we can point to their specific locations in space. The state of meaning accompanies the state of pleasure, but these are not identical. Rather, just as there are many deeper levels of meaning, which become more and more abstract, similarly, there are deeper and deeper kinds of pleasure which are not confined to a particular part of the body. The ability or capacity to enjoy a variety of subtle pleasures is māyā-śakti. When a person is imbued with a subtle happiness, then all other sensations either become pleasurable or easily tolerable even if they were painful. The subtle happiness thus changes the experience of gross pleasures.
Happiness in its subtle form sometimes disappears and we feel emptiness, desolation, hollowness, depression, sadness, loneliness, cheated, and embittered, at some point or other. For most people, these are temporary. For some, these can be recurring or persistent. These are at present diagnosed as “mental illnesses” but they are far deeper than that. In fact, they are even deeper than a person’s moral values—called mahattattva in Sāńkhya philosophy. A moral value is the basis of our material personality or what we called above the quest for meaning in life. When a person enters depression, he loses all sense of this quest for meaning, because the emptiness and loneliness affecting him are far deeper than to be overcome simply by the possibility of a meaningful life.
Happiness is Deeper than Meaningfulness
If we compare sense pleasure to higher levels of meaning (which connect us to bigger parts of the world), meaningfulness is more attractive as it connects us to a larger than life purpose and its effects are longer-lasting as compared to sense pleasure which is fleeting. Owing to this fact, all the research mentioned above prefers meaning to happiness.
What they are referring to, is in fact not happiness but pleasure. When they say that the quest for meaningfulness can be against happiness, what they really mean is against pleasure. For example, a soldier fighting for the nation has a sense of purpose and meaningfulness in life, but it is gained at the expense of physical pain, living in difficult conditions, and depriving yourself of good food, sex, emotional contact with family, and varieties of other carnal engagements. This falls into the category of pleasure rather than happiness because often soldiers come back with depression, and even when pleasure is made available to them, both meaning and pleasure don’t seem worthy.
Unless we distinguish between pleasure and happiness, we cannot see why happiness is deeper than meaning, which is deeper than sense pleasure. In Vedic philosophy, happiness and unhappiness are produced by māyā-śakti which is related to the ananda or happiness seeking tendency of consciousness. Similarly, the quest for meaning is the chit or meaning seeking tendency and is produced by kriya-śakti or the ability to be active.
The kriya-śakti produces mahattattva or morality which is the basis of our meaningful existence, and it comprises six meanings: knowledge, beauty, renunciation, fame, power, and wealth. The māyā-śakti conversely defines the happiness associated with the exchange of such meanings. You might enjoy power and you might suffer renunciation. Conversely, you might relish renunciation and suffer wealth. The māyā-śakti therefore defines the kinds of things that you like and dislike; they constitute your capacity for enjoyment (you must like something in order to have the capacity to enjoy).
The Philosophy of Personalism
Many people equate Vedic philosophy with Advaita which is a type of impersonalism in which “we are all one”: there is only one universal consciousness. The Advaita position arises when a living entity rejects its identity and the quest for meaning and pleasure. Once the personality is rejected, the living entity can be conscious, but there is no preference on what to be conscious of—the problem of Buridan’s Ass. Thus, the Advaita position results in a reality called Brahman which is devoid of personality and diversity.
However, Brahman is not the only reality. In the personalist alternative, the ātma is not just consciousness (sat) but also chit (the quest for meaning) and ananda (the quest for pleasure). When the ātma suspends its chit and ananda quests, then it remains sat (the potential to be aware) but it loses its identity which is produced from the unique quests for meaning and pleasure. In such a state, the ātma is called Brahman. While this state is real, it is not the only possible state. Indeed, it is also not the original state—because the ātma is sat, chit, and ananda—although it can suspend chit and ananda by exiting all relationships with the world and being situated only the relationship to the self. When the living entity is tired from the frustration of personal quests for meaning and pleasure, and he is unaware that this quest can be fulfilled in other, eternal ways—he pursues Advaita.
The Relation of Meaning and Happiness to God
The personalist position is that the quest for meaning and happiness are eternal, due to which all the ātma are unequal. They are equal as conscious beings. But they seek meaning and pleasure in different ways, which makes them unequal. This inequality creates a hierarchy of souls, rooted in a Supreme Soul, commonly known as God. In short, God is unknown if we discard our quests for meaning and pleasure, and Advaita doesn’t accept a personal God because it also rejects personal meaning and pleasure.
But God is understood when we seek meaning and pleasure, because it is these two kinds of quests that produce differentiation, which is manifest into a thinking and feeling hierarchy, and the root of this hierarchy is a unique person—God. Therefore, if we seek meaning and pleasure in life, then an understanding of God is essential. If we want to avoid God, then we must also discard the personal quests for meaning and pleasure.