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What do you want out of life, happiness or meaning?

I’ve been reading an advance copy of Eli J. Finkel’s The All-Or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, which comes out this September. I’m excited about it for a few reasons, one because The New I Do is mentioned in it — thank you, Eli! — but also because it expands on the Northwestern University professor and head of the Relationships and Motivation Lab’s provocative New York Times op-ed of the same name a few years back.

In it he wrote:

Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past. tweet

I’ll talk much more about Finkel’s book when the book comes out, but one thing stuck me halfway through it — a discussion on research about those who seek happiness, defined as having a life that’s easy and pleasurable, and people who seek meaning, defined as those who think a lot about the future or who have strong tendencies to be a “giver.”

As he writes in his book:

In short, whereas the happy life is characterized by ease and pleasure, the meaningful life is characterized by generosity, deep engagement with difficult pursuits, and a coherent sense of how the self develops across time. tweet

I hadn’t really thought about that before, so this past weekend, when I was on my annual backpacking trip with some of my dearest friends, book in tow, I asked them, “What matters more to you — happiness or meaning?”

Of course, they said they wanted both. But if they had to chose? Happiness, they said.

I’d like both, too, but when I look at what has really mattered to me over my life, it’s meaning. Having meaning makes me feel happy, even though Finkel says that the research indicates people who seek meaning are actually less happy (which makes me wonder how we are defining happiness).

Easy versus being ‘all in’

He cites the work of psychologists who describe two hikes along North Carolina’s Linville Falls. One is a challenging route that requires hikers to scramble onto giant boulders close to the falls but offers a total sensory and fulfilling experience; the other is a lot easier but hikers only get to see the falls from afar.

It’s like that with relationships, too, he suggests: you’re going to get different results if you look for something easy or go “all in.” So people who choose happiness view divorce favorably when things get tough; those who seek meaning see the rough patches as a path toward self-improvement. (That said, this happiness versus meaning approach seems to value longevity as the only measure of a marriage’s success, which is what’s getting us in trouble in the first place.)

I wasn’t surprised that my friends chose happiness over meaning: an easy, pleasurable life sounds awfully enticing. But it made me ask myself for the first time, what’s my priority in life, in a relationship? Of course I want both, too,  but again I will always choose meaning. Not that I want or seek romantic complications — I’ve had dramatic relationships and they’re exhausting. But easy relationships? They’re, well, a bit boring. I’d like to scramble on big, slippery boulders, alone or with someone, to feel alive. That makes me happy, research be damned!

What about you?

Want to find your own happiness or meaning in your marriage? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.


2 Responses to “Are you seeking happiness or meaning?”

  1. Jono says:

    I think I need both happiness and meaning. If it was just happiness I would have been gone long ago. Meaning has contributed to the longevity part (33 years), but I need a certain amount of happiness to carry on from here. I’m getting old and tired and struggles wear me down. If I can’t have some happiness what’s the point?

  2. Rob says:

    If you are a guy and you want happiness and meaning then don’t get married. If you want to put your hard earned assets at risk and cede total control over your soon-to-be dwindling sex life to your significant other then by all means get married. Just remember marriage is a terrible deal for men and there is nothing significant a man can have by being married that he can’t have being single. NOTHING.

    OTOH, if you want to keep your hard earned money, do whatever you want, and have great sex with whomever you want whenever you want then being single is a no-brainer.

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