Happy in only material sense that is. Philosophers have long argued about the meaning of the word ‘happy’- some say that it is in the pleasurable life while others say that a happy life cannot be one divorced from other qualities like virtue.

And why is this important? Well, for one, Singaporeans are supposedly one of the least happy countries in the world (see here). In that poll, respondents were asked to respond to statements whether they have experienced positive emotions, to which only some 46% responded ‘yes’, which caused our dismal ranking.

And this is where a more recent article that a friend linked on Facebook comes in. Perhaps being focused on happiness is a misnomer. All along, perhaps our focus should be on ‘meaning’. After all, happiness like all emotions lack persistence. The euphoria that comes with winning a small amount in the lottery goes away soon after which explains why people who win the lottery keep playing it.

Most of the article There’s More to Life Than Being Happy talks about the life of one Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who lived through the concentration camps of the Nazis and emerged from it with the finding that:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I urge you to go on and read the full article because our society, like many others, focuses too much on the pursuit of happiness. Sure, we do need to consume goods not just for sheer survival but also for hedonistic pleasure but if we can recognise that these hedonistic pleasures are just temporary and the pursuit of pleasures are for pleasure’s sake, then we might make some decisions very differently.

For example, I know of many people who, once they have started working, take trips abroad several times a year. These trips to destinations both near and far are definitely within the realms of affordability but once considered within the context of a person’s life (i.e. “do you already have enough cash on hand for 3-6 months worth of expenses?” or “are you working your way towards a retirement portfolio that will be able to generate the amount of money you need if you stop working?”) and very often, the answer is different.

And that is just with trips. The same applies for being buying a more expensive house (this one, I don’t get. Why would someone want to pay 20-30% more to live in an apartment just because it has some facilities that you’re not really going to use much of?) or a bigger, more luxurious car (main use, get from point A to point B.) It’s fine when you have too much excess cash (actually it isn’t. That same amount of money could be used for charitable purposes where people who really need a helping hand gets one) but too many people in the upper and middle class stretch themselves just to afford these things.

And so it is that hedonistic pleasures act like a balm. But like a balm, its effectiveness soon wears off and you need more and more of it. And if the solution to a stressor is to seek relief, sooner or later, there is this never-ending cycle of stress and relief.

The more permanent solution, as suggested by Frankl, is to seek meaning. Meaning doesn’t mean always being happy. In fact, sometimes it means downright pain but it is the embrace of meaning that allows us to fight through the pain because we know that, like at the end of a good movie, there is reward. There is satisfaction.

This post was written while contemplating a) why some people buy bigger than needed cars/houses when there is obviously a very high opportunity cost involved, b) why my wife puts up with my snoring each and every night and c) how to make life better.

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