Sometimes I think about whether I’d rather live a meaningful life or a happy one.

I know those things usually are connected, but if you could hypothetically separate them, what would you choose? I think unhappy people in general achieve much greater things, because they simply have more reason to. They have causes because they aren’t satisfied with the way things are. Obviously there’s unhappy people who never amount to anything, or never even tries, but would a completely happy person ever try to achieve something? And is it possible to have the strength to lead a meaningful life when it will never give the person who lives it happiness?

A clarification: by meaningful, I mean e.g. contributing to a better world, either through physical labor or research that will make people’s living conditions better. Relationships can also be meaningful but lack happiness. I’d say understanding oneself and which theological belief one has, is also meaningful.

A meaningful life could for example be: You have a cause (like anti-racism, ending world poverty, converting people to a religion, advancing science) and work hard to achieve this cause. Your hard work has an effect, but you remain miserable. You find a significant other, get children, and work hard to perserve their happiness.  You love your family, but your worries about the world never goes away, you see inequalities, moral corruption, dangers and after a while you simply become accustomed to being miserable. Since you can’t make yourself happy, you dedicate your life to fixing the problems that make you unhappy. Your cause has now expanded to making sure your family is safe and fulfilled on top of working towards a better world. Even though your life is devoid of enjoyment, you view staying alive as a duty towards the world and your family, so suicide is not an option. You live this way for the remainder of your life, and lives to see several of your efforts make a difference in the people around you and the world as a whole. When you finally die, your one, last feeling is similar to the one you feel when you go to sleep after a day of very hard, but rewarding work.

A happy life could e.g be this: You’re born into a loving family and have a normal childhood. You have a lot of friends in school and get fairly OK grades when you graduate. Your interests are mostly in things that doesn’t require that much mental activity: listening to music, watching TV, watching sports, but mostly just having fun with your friends and significant other. You work in some different jobs before you get married and have a kid, which is when you decide to settle at a job at an office with OK pay. You don’t think much about death, war or injustice, and since you feel unable to change these things anyway you make an effort not to think about them more than necessary. You go through life feeling quite content with your house, car, family, friends and work. You feel safety in your everyday routines. When your parents eventually die, you already have grandchildren and a strong social network that helps you cope. You have a consistant theological faith that comforts you when times are rough. You live to be a great-grand parent with many friends, and this is to great pride to you even though you haven’t contributed much to the world. You die without ever conteplated in depth your own morals, faith or importance, but you die happy.

So what would you choose?


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