How to Live: Should We Pursue Happiness or Meaning?

He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

Our hearts intuitively seek happiness

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. – Thomas Jefferson

The founding fathers of the United States of America were one of the few to formally recognize something all humans intuitively strive for: happiness. Though it is seldom spoken of, it is indubitably behind our thoughts and actions like a hidden judge through whom each of life’s problems are presented. Choices like what to wear, what to say, whom to be friends with, what job we should choose are critiqued on what we believe will give us the maximum happiness. But there are numerous problems with living for makes you happy. Here are what I believe are the 3 biggest.

3 problems with living for happiness

  1. Happiness is a superficial high of the moment. We pursue what we believe will bring us the greatest pleasure but it is over as soon as it achieved, a greater let down than a Disney movie ever could be. To deal with that, we become perpetual children, hopping from one pleasure to another, unsure of when the next big hit is.
  2. The birds of happiness leave their nests quickly, for their wings sprout as soon as one attempts to grasp them, leaving us on an endless chase. Happiness is a goal that never quite seems attainable. It is like a hike up a mountain only to realize you’re in the valley of an even greater one.
  3. I believe however, that the biggest problem to living for one’s own happiness is suffering. While it might seem like a viable option to pursue while the grass is green, what will one do when it is scorched by the heat? By nature, happiness cannot flourish in suffering. That means it is dependent on one’s fluctuating and chaotic environment. Happiness then is out of the question for those living in extreme circumstances and restricted only to the fortunate few of mankind. Worse, it leaves us unable to choose it.

Why living for meaning is better

While defining meaning is less easier than happiness, we can understand it better when we see how it is used. We can all think of things that we would or should live for. Things that give our lives a sense of purpose and usefulness tend to be ones that transcend us, where its ends go beyond our own happiness. The propagation of families and nations were historic sources of meaning for most of human history. Meaning then seems to imply an overarching purpose like a story for your life. The benefits of striving to live a meaningful life include being able to rejoice in suffering. The apostle Paul from the Bible captures it when he says, “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Heb. 10:34). It may seem so distant to us, like the lifestyles portrayed on Instagram, but being able to rejoice in suffering really is possible when we know it is headed towards an even better ending. After all, the biggest question one has when suffering rears its ugly head is “why?” Why. Why. Why. Being able to answer why doesn’t change the reality of our suffering but it allows us the faith to believe that the outcome is worth it, the tongue to taste it, and the strength to endure till we receive it. Aristotle said, “the sum is greater than the parts”, and so it is with happiness. The outcome of living meaningfully produces a joy that is greater and more enduring that any short lived pleasure can be. It even has the possibly to make our suffering seem small (if only we could see it). Living meaningfully is something any person can do in any situation. We are all physically capable of making choices that help us to find meaning in whatever we experience. Meaning after all, is a matter of perspective. But attempting to live a meaningful life isn’t enough so in my next article I’ll be writing about why not all meanings are equal.

The Tyranny of Freedom

In the beginning, God existed absolutely free. He was free to do as he desired, and constrained only by his own character. He made Adam and Eve male and female, giving them their very own radical freedom to live as his image. This meant that they too were constrained only by his character – goodness. They had the freedom to choose where and what they did except for one thing – to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Attempting to eat from such a tree however meant attempting to transcend God’s own character and know good and evil for themselves. They would use their very own freedom to determine good and evil outside of God, wrecking reality in the process. Sadly, the story has continued till today.

Today, we feel free to decide what makes us happy whether that’s the choice of our career or spouse. Yet these choices often makes us just as miserable, with a common outcome of anxiety over our decisions, discontentment with our current situation and a sense of meaninglessness. Our freedom to choose what makes us happy often seems more like slavery to whatever our current impulses are. Freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom.

Yet the key reason why is because freedom was not given in order to determine what makes us happy. Instead, true freedom is choosing what will ultimately make us happy. But how can we know what makes truly makes happy without it being revealed to us? Humans were made free, in order that we might use our freedom to transcend ourselves and live for another. But we were never made free to transcend God himself and live as though we were him. God’s freedom is to determine what is, while the freedom of man is simply to choose. The hope of the Christian is that in the dimly lit cave of humanity, God shone the light of his Son and entered it himself to lead us out, by pointing us back to where we belong – in the freedom of living for him. And he is continuing to do so today.

Babies R Us

Someone must have made a mistake because Chris woke up amongst a sea of adults and children. Bright lights. Voices. ‘Welcome to Babies R Us.’ A gentle murmur, barely noticeable but present throughout, like a radio on a long drive. ‘Oh my goodness, she’s beautiful’. ‘Mom I really don’t want a sister.’ ‘What’s the prognosis for her lifespan?’ ‘Excellent mam, time of death is projected in 80-100 years, so about 2129.’ These voices seemed closer. Chris turned his head to the right and saw a mom and her son talking with the store clerk. She held his hand, the muscle tone on her arm giving away the strain of preventing his escape. Every now and then, the child would looking around, fixing his gaze on whatever drew his attention the most. Next to them stood a tub shaped container with a clear hard plastic cover, its sheen reflecting the store light. It was small, probably with the capacity to hold no more than 5kg. A chart was propped up on a stand next to the box, which the mom was now eyeing. Chris tried to cry but it was as though someone had placed him on mute. Every sound echoed back in his box. To an outsider, it simply looked like he was making funny gestures with his mouth.

Chris’ mom sat propped up reading on the couch as his dad strolled in. ‘Good morning hunny.’ He slid his arms around her back, imparting a quick kiss before sitting down himself. ‘Good morning’. She put the book down and eyed him. ‘What?’ he said. ‘I was just thinking about the idea of us. And kids.’ ‘Oh,’ he replied. She smiled. ‘Not now, silly,’. ‘Of course,’ he replied. ‘It’s much too soon.’ She nodded. ‘Too soon. We’re only 28 after all. Still plenty of time.’ Chris’ dad grabbed the remote and flicked to the news, grinning as he did so. ‘It doesn’t stop us from trying though.’

‘I understand you have a child between you two.’ The judge spoke stiffly. The courtroom was quiet beneath the glare of the LED lighting. The only sound that could be heard was the click clack of the court stenographer’s typing. Somewhere in the back, a guard sniffled. ‘Yes, your honor,’ said Chris’ dad. ‘But we had him put in cryo 10 years ago and he’s remained there since.’ He stared into the floor, avoiding the gaze of anyone who might be looking at him. ‘And have you considered parental rights or whom would receive custody of him?’ Chris’ mom chimed in, ‘we originally planned to have children later on. We were so busy with our careers at that point. It doesn’t matter now. We were considering keeping him an embryo and giving him up for surrogacy. Unless one of our future partners may want to conceive him.’ ‘So busy,’ echoed Chris’ dad softly. ‘Very well, I believe it’ll be best to review the case when that time comes then. In the mean time he will remain frozen by court order and you both will enjoy joint custody of the embryo. Once you’ve decided what you want to do with him, we will re-open this case to discuss your parental rights and anything you may be applying for.’ The judge tapped his gavel. ‘Session adjourned.’

‘Thanks mam, we’ll have her ready for you by the end of the week.’ The lady and her son were now walking out of Babies R Us. Behind her the entrance of the store glowed green and purple with a sign that said ‘Babies R Us.’ Underneath in smaller letters was ‘Every child deserves a great life.’ The mom clutched the clipboard close to her chest, smiling with the contented look of a well fed baby. The store remained busy and people continued to mill about. By the end of the day, most every container had been visited and inquired about. As the store closed a few stragglers remained, those whom either had limited resources to obtain a baby yet or hadn’t found the right one. Near the back of the store, an older man with a mustache continued to inspect the containers. He wore a hat, reminiscent of times past and an overcoat, long enough to just pass his knees. Something caught his attention and he glided up to Chris’ chart. Devoid of attention the whole day, Chris’ eyes widened when he saw the man. His mouth opened. ’Well, well, well. What’s the story behind this one?’ he called out. ‘Down’s syndrome sir,’ replied the clerk from across the floor. ‘Prior to the new legislation of course. Otherwise it’d be illegal to have him here. Tonight’s actually his last night though.’ ‘Why’s that?’ ‘Well Chris has been here forever – some 20 odd years before he was conceived by one of our staff. She wasn’t able to keep him of course, what with the rising health care costs and the quality of life he would have had. But silly girl, she couldn’t go through with the extraction. Even with the procedure pain free and subsidized nowadays.’ The old man chuckled. ‘She must’ve been young.’ ‘She was. Everybody in the store knows him by name. But with the new family healthcare policy, no one’s going to want him.’ The clerk was now standing beside the man. ‘That’s a shame,’ said the old man. ‘I don’t suppose that you would consider taking him home…sir?’ The old man paused. He gazed calmly at Chris then smiled and looked back at the clerk. Chris gurgled. ‘Can’t say I would. I wouldn’t be able to provide him the life he’d deserve.’ The clerk nodded. ‘That’s too bad.’ ‘What’s going to happen to him?’ ‘Oh don’t you worry about him! It’ll be the usual, nothing too much. He won’t know or feel a thing.’ ‘Good. I wouldn’t want him to suffer too much.’ The old man strolled back towards the entrance of the store. ‘Well have a good night. Maybe I’ll find the lucky one next time.’ ‘Thanks for your time sir, have a good night!’ yelled the clerk from where Chris was. The old man exited. The clerk proceeded to clean up the store, picking up bits and pieces of kids’ who knows what.

Finally, the time came. Before the store closed he had to dispose of all expired babies. He whistled as he walked up to Chris’ box. Chris watched from afar with wide eyes, following him closely. ‘Well old friend it looks like this is it.’ The clerk gently lifted the box unto two hands, supporting it with his shoulders. He strode towards the back of the store where two pristine automatic steel doors, reminiscent of sterilized hospitals stood. It opened its doors wide, barring its secrets to the outside world now. Darkness enveloped Chris and the store clerk, with only the green lights from the neon exit sign and the walk way showing him where to go. The hallway was long with multiple doors on either side. Their appearance was the same except for silver plaques that hung in the middle, each with a different title, like the ones you see in doctors offices. Passing the doors with nary a glance, the clerk arrived at the end of the corridor where a chute stood on the right hand side. The chute was open and square shaped, roughly the same as the box. It had a metallic surface and instead of facing down like a garage disposal, this one faced up. On the right hand side laid a control panel with various buttons. A yellow biohazard sign hung above the chute. As the clerk placed Chris into the chute he tapped quickly on the control panel. It was a procedure he’d done many times before. The faster you did it the better. Too much thinking would just delay things. Thankfully there weren’t too many stains left over from last time. After keying in the right sequences, he stepped back from the chute and watched. Nothing happened. Then slowly a methodical humming commenced. Chris looked up from his box into the darkness of the chute. He didn’t know what he saw at first. His mouth opened. At first, it looked like he was going to smile but at the last second, his eyes betrayed him. Just as it was about to develop into a whimper he was gone. That was the last thing anyone saw of Chris, as a seal slid down over the box and the humming stopped. Suddenly there was sh-sh-sh sound, like someone was sucking a gigantic straw in the chute, and you just knew that Chris was no longer lying there on the floor. The sounds slowly shifted and now it was the crushing and grinding of a blender making a smoothie with too much ice. Slow and methodical, the tone did not change throughout the process. After a few minutes, there was a wet thud, and the whirring of the chute ground to a halt and all was still. The clerk nodded then strode back through the dark hallway into the main foyer, his hands now empty, his day over and his work completed. It was time to go home.

It was 5.30 AM and it the morning after Chris’ last day. A truck was backing up against the side of Babies R Us. The garbage collectors had arrived like clockwork at the back of the building. Like most dumpsters there was a metal chute that ended above the giant disposal, funneling all trash into its catcher’s mitt. Unlike most dumpsters this one was highly sterilized and insulated to maintain temperatures below 0 degrees for hours at a time even without electricity. The dumpster was painted yellow, and in the middle was a bright black biohazard logo. In the early morning sun, it looked like a giant spider had climbed onto the dumpster. ‘Medical waste’ it said underneath. Once the two collectors decided the truck was in the right location, a button was pressed and the fork attached to the truck slid down and lifted the dumpster up. It hung in mid air and then slowly flipped to empty its contents. Being the last piece of trash disposed, the bag containing Chris’ remains slid out first into the back of the truck, and then he was no more, covered up by the landslide of the other bags of babies, each one piling onto the other with a thud.

The two men drove steadily with a purpose. They made their rounds from a couple more Babies R Us centers and then it was time to go home. ‘Wasn’t the first facility we went to today the place where you got your first child from?’ One of them asked the other. ‘Yeah, yeah I think it was. How time flies though it seems like it was just yesterday.’ As the two reminisced, the one who asked the question interrupted the silence again. ‘How’s she doing?’ ‘Oh she’s doing great, I think Babies R Us did a great job with her, no allergies, no medical conditions so far, perfect health.’ ‘I’m glad to hear that, it’s sad that even with technology these days there are still all these glitches.’ ‘Hey, it keeps us in business.’ They both nodded. As one of the men lived on the way back to the company, he was dropped off first. He smiled and waved his colleague off before heading back into the house. The truck drove off, gliding through the neighborhood street with scarcely a sound. Standing from one’s porch you could just make out the emblazoned slogan on the back of the truck before it vanished past the horizon, the light of dawn breaking into the full rays of the sun. ‘Every child deserves a great life.’