In a recent Atlantic article, Emily Esfahani Smith argues for the merit of a meaningful life as opposed to a happy life. She cites psychological researchers whose study showed that happiness is about feeling good and that people become happy when they get what they want. According to one of the study’s authors, “‘Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others, while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.’” Meaning comes from giving part of oneself away to others, from making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group, from investing oneself in something bigger than oneself.
Here’s her main point:
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; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting… Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future.
Smith or the researchers have chosen a particular—and I think misguided—definition of “happiness.” She equates it with an emotion and with a feeling of pleasure. Aristotle defined a happy life as a life well-lived. For him, that meant a life lived in accordance with certain virtues, such as courage and justice. We might define it as a life lived in accordance with one’s highest values. And then happiness is clearly not “fleeting.”
But I think there is an even deeper flaw in her argument, one raised by her observation that meaning “connects the past to the present to the future.” Given her definition of “meaning,” she’s correct, but she misses an important implication. Meaning for her requires a story. It’s a way of framing what happens in one’s life, and so it’s removed from living life itself. I believe “transcending the present moment” is the wrong way to think about one’s life because life exists only in the present moment.
Like many who write about meaning, Smith quotes approvingly from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. “‘Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue.’” Yes, and if that’s true of happiness (which, given her definition, I think it is), it’s even more true of meaning as she defines it, where a story must intervene between what one does and a perception of its meaningfulness.
Frankl is best known for his statement that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” And he is often quoted as saying that we can discover meaning in three different ways: by doing or creating something significant, by caring for another person or persons, or by the attitude we adopt towards unavoidable suffering,
Here are some passages from Man’s Search for Meaning less often quoted:
We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected of life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct.
One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.
The perception of meaning, as I see it, more specifically boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.
And I would observe that what can be done exists only in the present, ideally in the form of “right action and right conduct.”
Ken McLeod, an American teacher of Buddhism, has said, “Don’t practice to improve the situation of your life. Use the situation of your life to practice.” (He defines “practice” as whatever discipline or process you follow to develop the skills and capabilities to live the values you hold in your heart.) I find this similar to what Frankl is saying, and it brings me to some questions Bob Kegan asked about Decurion when doing research for his Harvard Business Review article (see earlier post for link).
Anticipating the response of someone reading about Decurion, he asked, “Can a company be this way and still succeed?” He pointed to “indications of success as commonly defined—industry leader, profitability, growth, retention of highly-valued employees.” And he asked a further question: assuming Decurion is successful, what is the evidence that its approach to business causes the success?
According to a well-known koan, a monk asks a Zen master whether a dog has Buddha nature. The master replies, “Mu,” which can be translated as, “I unask the question.” Even to engage in the question as asked is to accede to an unacceptable or incorrect premise.
In the case of Bob’s questions, the premise is that success is a matter of outcome achievement rather than process integrity. Certainly, there is something to this view of success, and it is no doubt the one held by most people. At Decurion we believe that profitability is important, indeed that profitability and human development are part of a single whole. But we also believe there is another aspect of success associated with how one conducts oneself in the face of the challenges life presents. Namely, does one act in accordance with one’s own highest values?
Given all the extraneous factors that go into whether a project or business succeeds in the traditional sense (has a positive net present value or maximizes the present value of future cash flows), there is no way we can be said to control or cause the outcome. Our own actions are the only things we can come close to controlling. And so it makes more sense to inquire into the success of those. As Frankl would have us ask: Did we create or do something significant? Did we care for another person? Did we endure unavoidable suffering with courage?
At Decurion we base our business approach and our practices on three fundamental premises, namely, that work is meaningful, that people are not only a means but also ends in themselves, and that individuals and communities naturally develop. We believe that business is an excellent realm in which to operate from these premises. For us, pursuing profitability and human development emerges as one thing—nothing extra is required. We do not see a trade-off, and the moment we consider sacrificing one for the other, we recognize that we have lost both.
We also try to adopt a stance of fallibilism. That is, we are open to being shown that our approach to business is flawed, that acting in the business world from our highest values harms profitability or human development or both. If this were demonstrated (and, again, given the tenuous connection between actions and ultimate outcomes, I am not sure what the demonstration might look like), we would continue to act from our values but in a realm other than business.
Ultimately, businesses consist of individuals. And so it makes sense when asking about the success of a business to inquire into the success of the individuals who compose it. “Happiness” is not well defined as an emotion or fleeting feeling. “Meaning” is not well defined as a story one tells about the past and the future. Life exists in the present, in how we show up and what we do in each moment. A “successful” life, a life well-lived is one in which we show up with our highest values and then act from them.