Happiness, Meaningfulness, and the Four of Pentacles

The importance and differences between happiness and meaningfulness in our live.

In her wonderful book,The Power of Misfits: How to Find Your Place in a World You Don’t Fit In, Anna LeMind references a study by Roy F. Baumeister on the differences between happiness and meaningfulness.  In some cases, the two experiences may overlap, but they aren’t always synonymous.

It turns out that human beings crave both happiness and meaningfulness.  The Buddha tells us that all sentient creatures want to feel happiness and avoid pain, and we share that drive with the birds and the bees, the turtles and the spiders.  Bring on the happiness, baby, and take away that pain.  That’s an old blues song, I think.

Where we differ from most of the animal world (we believe) is that we also need to have a sense of meaning in our lives.  Having a lot of orgasms may make us extremely happy, but it doesn’t necessarily bring any meaningfulness into our existence.  If we’re lying on our death beds reviewing our lives, we’re not likely to say, “Man, I had 20,000 orgasms.  Now that’s a life well lived.  My life really meant something.”

According to this study, it’s actually pretty easy to define what makes us happy.  Being happy involves three major components:

  1. – having our needs satisfied.  That’s a pretty simple one.  If we’re hungry, it makes us happy to eat.  If we’re cold, it makes us happy to get warmed up.  If we’re horny, it makes us happy to have sex.
  2. – having the sense that we can obtain what we need and want.  In other words, not just eating when we’re hungry but knowing that we have the powers and abilities to get out there and get that food all on our own.
  3. – feeling good most of the time.  That’s kind of a no-brainer, but it’s true.  People who mostly feel good are mostly happy and people who feel lousy are mostly unhappy.

None of those three factors necessarily make us feel that our lives are meaningful, though.  Feeling good, for instance, is very strongly associated with being happy, but not necessarily with feeling meaningful.  People who are very healthy tend to be happier than people who are sick, but both healthy and sick people have an equal shot at leading a meaningful life.

Having the powers and abilities to get what we need and want is another one that may make us happy, but it doesn’t necessarily bring meaningfulness along with it.  In our society, having the power to get what we need and want usually means having money.  If you really, really, really need and want that new computer, you have to have the dough-ray-me to pay for it, right?

But even money has a very strange relationship with meaningfulness.  In the Tarot, the suit of pentacles represents material possessions and money.  In the Four of Pentacles, we see a guy who’s really having a love affair with money.  He’s got his feet resting on money, he’s got his arms wrapped around money, and he’s got money sitting on his head.  What a happy guy!

Probably.

Maybe.

Could be.

The study found that people who have plenty of money tend to be happier people, BUT they don’t necessarily report living a life that’s more meaningful.  On the other hand, NOT having enough money makes people less happy and their lives feel less meaningful.  So it’s not really the money that counts, it’s the lack of it.

Here’s another interesting little snippet of information that’s about life being easy versus life being hard.  We’ve all known people who appeared to be unbelievably lucky.  It’s like anything they want just seems to fall into their laps with little or no effort on their parts.

And we’ve also known people who seem to be unbelievably unlucky.  No matter how hard they work, no matter how much they struggle and strive, life consistently turns into a shit sandwich for them and their desires and goals slip away like vapors in the wind.

Unsurprisingly, having an easy life makes people very happy.  And having a hard life makes people unhappy.  But neither one of those is linked in ANY way to a sense of meaningfulness.  You can have the easiest life in the world and still feel like it doesn’t mean anything.

There’s another fascinating element with meaningfulness and happiness, which is TIME.

We know how the mindfulness meditation people are constantly hammering at us about, “Stay in the present moment!  There’s no unhappiness in the present moment.”

It turns out they’re right!  Happiness is very highly correlated with living in the NOW, in the present moment, rather than ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.

But, unfortunately, it’s also inversely correlated with having a sense of meaning.  The more you live in the present moment, the happier you’ll be, but you also sacrifice a sense of your life having any overall meaning.

Why?  Because meaningfulness is a function of time.  The greater the span of time in your life that you’re contemplating, the greater a sense of meaningfulness you’ll have.  If you think about what yesterday and today meant, the odds are that they didn’t mean very much, unless something extraordinary happened.  On the other hand, if you think about what the last ten or twenty years of your life meant, you’re much more likely to see patterns and meaning.

And the same thing applies to the future.  The future gives the present moment meaning because it involves us in taking purposeful actions meant to create that future.  What we’re doing today is meaningful because it has a purpose – making the future.

So we have this odd conundrum.  The more we stay in the present moment, the happier we’ll be, but the less meaning we’ll derive from our lives.  The more we dwell on the future and the past, the less happy we’ll be, but the more our lives will feel meaningful.

The study also found an oddity in our perceptions of happiness and meaningfulness.  People tend to view happiness as being relatively fleeting, something we feel momentarily and then it gets away from us.  And they feel that meaningfulness is more permanent, something that will last long after happiness has disappeared.  Which is just not true.  Both meaningfulness and happiness tend to be fairly stable and long lasting.  We probably just feel that happiness passes quickly because it’s so intimately related to the present moment, which is always appearing and disappearing, appearing and disappearing, shazam!

Which brings us to the probable reason for why meaningfulness is so important to human beings.  The author concluded that MEANINGFULNESS IS AN ATTEMPT TO IMPOSE ORDER ON FLUX.  Life is chaotic, man.  Life is constantly changing, constantly transforming, constantly shazamming from one thing into another and then another and then another.

And it drives us nuts.  We need a sense of stability, of orderly progression, of the past moving logically into the present which will then move logically into the future.  We need to be able to connect the past, present and future of our lives in a MEANINGFUL way.  Otherwise it feels like life is something that just happened to us, rather than something we lived.

If all of this sounds very complex, it’s because IT IS.  We are very complex.  To seek happiness is to be alive.  Every single animal on the earth seeks happiness.  But to seek meaning is distinctively human.  It’s who we are.  It’s what we do.  Meaningfulness is not necessarily the same thing as happiness, but it’s just as important.

The Magician, The Devil, and the Habit of Evil


Have you ever had someone in your life who was truly evil?  I mean, beyond our usual descriptors of, “He’s an angry person.”  Or mean. Or disturbed. Or selfish. 

I mean, really, genuinely evil.  Someone who consciously inflicts as much pain as they can, knowing that it’s wrong.  It can leave you wondering about the world and about everything you believe in.

For most of history, human beings have been using a sort of, “argument from nature,” to excuse their worst behavior.  They point to the world of animals where fangs and claws seem to rule, and pronounce that it’s either kill or be killed, the strong survive and the weak die, and, since we’re animals, too, those rules apply to us, as well.  We HAVE to be cruel because it’s our nature.

Even leaving aside their totally disregarding all of the love and nurturing that we ALSO see in the animal world, it’s a bogus point of view.  They are deliberately ignoring the fact that good and evil are choices and that where no choice exists no concept of evil can exist.

We might feel pretty squeamish watching a cat torture a mouse but we don’t think that the cat is evil because of it.  We recognize that it’s the cat’s nature and instinct to hunt and kill and that the cat hasn’t made a conscious choice in the matter.  There’s no evil because there’s no choice between good and evil and where there’s no choice there can be no morality.

In The Fool card, we see pure energy entering into the world.  In The Magician card we see a human being directing that energy and choosing how it will be used.  He or she can use it for benefit or harm, for good or for evil, and that’s the point where morality is born.

To a certain extent, those of us who have embraced the New Age movement are guilty of being a little goody two-shoes about the existence of evil.  We try to live in the affirmation of love and caring and we try to NOT let negativity, malice, anger, and hatred into our lives or our consciousness.  But, as Louise Hay said, “If you are going to clean the house, you have to see the dirt.” Pretending the evil isn’t there doesn’t make it go away.

The good news is that there’s probably a LOT less evil in the world than some religions would have us believe.  If we recognize that true evil involves a conscious choice to hurt and cause suffering we can eliminate all of the animal world because they operate on instinct, not choice.  

Psychotics – even serial killers – can’t really be called evil in the pure sense because they can’t make rational choices.

Serious alcoholics and drug addicts can’t really be called evil – no matter how much damage they do – because they’re driven by their compulsions and disease.

Sociopaths and narcissists get us into an interesting – and scary – gray area.  Sociopaths actually recognize that other people make moral choices between good and evil but they have no internal moral compass themselves.  They recognize the concepts but they just don’t care about them.

Malignant narcissists also recognize that other people make moral choices but they think we’re stupid to do so.  They delight in manipulating people who have a sense of right and wrong and use those deceptions to enhance their own sense of being superior to everyone else.  “See how I charmed you and lied to you and you were too stupid to know the difference?”

And that’s a strange thing to wrap your head around.  If someone knows the difference between good and evil behavior on an intellectual level, but has no heart, no compassion, no empathy with others, are they actually capable of understanding the hurt and pain they’re inflicting?  And if they don’t really understand it, are they evil or just very flawed humans?

I dunno.

Sadly, it seems that a lot of the evil in the world and in ourselves is a matter of plain old habit and rationalization.

The Devil card is very dramatic.  We see two humans in chains with a literal Bat Out of Hell glowering above them.  The riff on this from fundamentalists christians would be that there is evil everywhere and if you’re not careful The Devil can reach out and SNATCH you up, just like that!

But – again – evil is not something that is external to us;  it’s an internal choice. In fact, it’s a series of choices. Despite the theme in horror films, no one is born evil.  We just get comfortable with it. We CHOOSE to act wrongly, to react with anger instead of compassion, to indulge our rage instead of finding our love, until choosing to be a curse in the world rather than a blessing is a habit.

So the people in The Devil card aren’t just wearing their chains.  They made them, one link at a time.

“Little by little a person becomes evil, as a water pot is filled by drops of water… Little by little a person becomes good, as a water pot is filled by drops of water.” – Buddha

Even Hitler was once someone’s beautiful baby boy.  Choose carefully.