Friday, July 18, 2014

Happiness and Meaning

The previous post, [Surviving Self-Destruction and Self-Knowledge], ends with a thought on ``inner integration.'' What do I have in mind by this expression and why is it important? (See also an older post: Journey to the Heart ...)

A couple of days ago I was reading the last several pages from the Viktor Frankl's ``Man's Search for Meaning,'' [Amazon link], and came across an interesting idea. Just as one cannot force himself to laugh (there needs to be a context and a motive---a joke, for example), one cannot force himself to be happy and content with life. This is a simple, fundamental point that 99% of the self-help books get wrong (even the best of them like Brene Brown's ``The Gifts of Imperfection,'' [Amazon link], which honestly goes a long way above and beyond a self-help book) by assuming that reading and rational/logical understanding and reasoning can make us happy or, more generally, cause lasting changes in life! (Direct pursuit of happiness would make your life miserable.)

So what is the context and motive for being happy in life? Viktor Frankl suggests ``finding a meaning and purpose for life.'' Even the most hopeless situations become tolerable (and dare I say enjoyable?) if one can devise a strong meaning and purpose for it.

And how do you come up with the meaning of your life? I guess here even Frankl goes wrong because he implicitly assumes that one can fabricate a meaning and purpose for his life using conscious, logical/rational thinking! But why not? An indirect argument uses the failure of the self-help literature and psychology in general in making lives more meaningful and happier. But a more convincing and direct answer was first revealed to me after reading Arnold Modell's ``Imagination and the Meaningful Brain,'' [Amazon link], and is being confirmed now as I am reading Antonio Damasio's ``Self Comes to Mind,'' [Amazon link]. These authors suggest that the set of meanings and values we give our life are deeply rooted in the ancient, emotional parts of our brain. We may offer beautiful, sophisticated expressions of our purpose and goals but they have to be rooted in our emotional side. Life meaning is closely related to our passion.

I suggest that finding our purpose in life and living a more meaningful and happy life requires working on two dimensions. First, a process of ``inner integration'' (that incorporates different aspects of our mind, body and life)  increases the chances of finding our purpose in life. An imperfect analogy is looking for a treasure on an island. The more areas of the island are integrated in the search area, the higher are the probability of success. Second, a process of making things real, in the sense of solidifying our sense of self and our top priorities. This brings us back to my previous two posts [Separating Fantasy from Reality and Surviving Self-Destruction and Self-Knowledge].

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