Happiness vs Meaning? : Life Goals — part 1

Do we chase happiness in life? Why are so many people unsatisfied in their lives? Is happiness that hard to find? Or do we chase something else which is more elusive than just happiness? Which is it?


Most people would have you believe that it’s happiness. Okay, cool. But since a lot people are unsatisfied this must mean happiness is hard to find. But these same people would also admit that happiness can be created from within. You can meditate — forget about the petty things in the world, rise above, etc. — and start feeling good about yourself and stay happy. Another set of people would tell you that happiness is to be found in the fact that you are alive, they ask you to wonder at the beauty of life, the fact that it even exists, etc. Yet another set of people would ask you to compare your life to someone who has met with a tragedy, a beggar on the street, to a differently-abled person, etc. so that you feel more grateful for your life and somehow find happiness in that. (Side note: Actually it’s hard for me to believe that some people manage to find happiness in a poor person’s misery. While I do feel grateful for the life I have when I compare my life to an unfortunate person, I do not feel very happy. I feel scared and guilty. Guilty because that poor person could have very well been me and it feels like I owe them my fortune.)

It’s think its true. Once your basic human needs (air, water, food, shelter, sleep, etc.) are met and you are mostly free of major diseases then getting happiness is just a matter of convincing your own mind! Yet, a vast proportion of the people whose basic needs are met and are disease free are unsatisfied, why?

Something else?

Then, it’s clearly not just happiness that we seek. At this point some people will jump and say that. Yeah there are other things also that must be considered — need for friends, respect in society, blah blah…. But to me this just seems like beating around the bush. I am a fan of the occam’s razor and I am searching for a single objective that can explain the behavior of humans to a larger degree than by which it makes assumptions.

So the rules of this search are simple. We need just one rule (one human desire) that explains the phenomena of a lot people being unsatisfied despite having easier alternatives to getting happiness.

What is the insatiable desire that never gets fulfilled? While I am nowhere close to the complete answer I think I may have made some headway into the problem. A few weeks ago I posted this on my Facebook:

Random thought: The more I think, the more I realize that humans don’t chase happiness. Happiness is just a temporary side effect. I think the state we really chase can be called “power/freedom to exercise will” for the lack of a better phrase/word. We like to maximize the control we have over our circumstances (even if they are favourable). And this is also synonymous with what life is.
Life is order in a chaotic universe. Imagine an inverse pendulum trying keep its balance in a randomly changing wind setup. What’s more “alive” according to you: 1) an inverse pendulum that is encased in a glass jar or 2) an inverse pendulum that can stabilize itself even in the random winds (even if it comes dangerously close to tipping over some times)?
Ps: My thoughts are still fuzzy on this. I hope to write a full blog post on this once I have a clearer perspective.

As you can see I sound very confused and incoherent above. But one of my friends somehow connected to what I was trying to get at and pointed out that this is exactly what AI researchers refer to as “Empowerment”. But he asked me to NOT look at the literature and continue pursuing my inner thoughts. He also suggested that there might be a third element at play here — meaning. So that’s what I did. I pursued my inner thoughts and tried to see if I could somehow integrate meaning into the equation. I came up with a hypothesis which connects “meaning”, “power/freedom to exercise will” (aka “Empowerment”) and life itself.

Hypothesis 1: Humans desire being more “alive”

Fact 1: Life is order among chaos.

If you agree you can jump to the next section. Otherwise, I’ll try to explain this with a home-made intuition.

It’s a miracle that life exists in a chaotic universe like ours. But it still does because of the fact that life is what people who study chaos theory refer to as an “attractor state”. Without getting too much into the theory I’d like to give you an intuition.

Imagine that you have a flat and very very wide plate with a shallow depth. Hold the plate horizontally and put a tiny point-sized marble on it. Now if you tilt the plate even slightly the marble starts rolling to one side. If you tilt it back to the other side, the marble rolls back. Now if keep I tilting the plate randomly the marble will keep changing its position. If I ask you to predict the position of the marble at any given time, you’d have no clue (it could be anywhere). Because this system is very chaotic.

Now, let’s say, I punch a tiny point-sized depression (only slightly bigger than the size of the marble) of a finite depth at some place in the plate. Even though the probability of the point-sized marble ever coming directly over the point-sized depression in the plate is extremely small, once the marble comes over it, it’s going to stay there forever (or until you tilt too much)!. Now, we can confidently say that as time increases, the probability of that marble being in that depression increases.

In this analogy, the position of the marble is in a very vague sense the state of the universe. The random tilts are the chaotic nature of the universe we live in. And life is the point-sized depression. It’s an attractor state because once the universe reaches that state, it’s likely to stay in it. Think about it, billions of cells in your body constantly try to restore the delicate balance of life in you despite random external events. Almost any other random permutation of the atoms in your body would disintegrate in a nanoseconds. Yet your current state is very stable.

Fact 2: “Meaning” requires order and control

This is easy to see. There are less ways to make something meaningful than there are to make it meaningless. A drawing made by scribbling colors at random has no meaning (unless you are a billionaire who buys such paintings for a million dollars). A random sequence of notes does not make a melody. A meaningful creation or a work of art requires careful reiterations to get it perfect. Chaos has no meaning. Meaning requires order.

This holds true in life as well. A meaningful life requires you to be either very lucky or have excellent control over your circumstances. (Tip: If you want to know whether your life has been meaningful up till now. A summary of it should make up for an exciting story.)

Claim 1: Ability to have a meaningful life is a strong signal of being more “alive”. Why? Because

Fact 1: More “alive” == More control over circumstances

Fact 2: Meaningful life ==> Ability to control circumstances

Combining facts 1 and 2 we can directly prove claim 1.

Note: Having meaning in life is one of the possibly many possible ways of proving to yourself that you are more “alive”. I am not claiming that this is the only way.

What makes for a meaningful life?

Let’s ask what sets apart an interesting story from a boring one? In almost all interesting stories you’ll find a hero/heroine/agent who is faced with a situation which they must get out of or face some consequence. The rules of the game are defined and the agent must follow the rules of the game and find a way out.

Life is quite similar. One must declare a goal ahead of time and strive to achieve it. The rules of the “game” are defined by our moral values. For e.g. you may declare that you will never rob a bank or kill an animal to get the money you need even if takes you to your goal faster.

The more ambitious goal you keep the more meaningful your life could **potentially** be. You have to follow up your ambitions with your actions to get that full potential. In life you will face a lot of adversarial circumstances. At these times you either adapt and change your goal or find another way to achieve your goal. The less you have to change your goals the more meaningful your life becomes.

Why are so many people unsatisfied?

People are unsatisfied because they want to always want to be more “alive” than people around them. In other words, people want their life to be more meaningful than other people’s lives. Now everyone’s life, can’t be more meaningful than everyone else’s. This is almost a zero sum game. Some people will have to lose for others to win. And nobody wants to lose. We are hard-wired to try to win. We have evolved this way.

But there maybe a ways to make life less zero-sum gamey. If all people did not play the same “game” maybe more people can be happy. Maybe in another blog post I’ll try to explain this.


In a nutshell, happiness is the feeling you get when things go your way but you feel more “alive” when they go the way YOU wanted. Winning a 1000$ lottery might make you feel happy but it will not make you feel more “alive”. But wanting to earning even 10$ and being able to reliably do exactly that is evidence that YOU are in perfect control over the situation.

In conclusion, I think now I have even more respect for various forms of art. Everything we humans do from science and engineering to music, acting, painting, dance, etc. is as pure as life itself! It’s all about finding that one specific combination that has meaning among countless meaningless ones!