The Short and Long Game of Happiness and Meaning

I recently heard one of my favorite authors speak:  Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis is a modern miracle, a gem, a woman who is wise and sensitive, offers timeless wisdom, shows respect and compassion to people, and offers just the right amount of comfort to grieving people and those suffering.  Among the topics in her wonderful talk in San Diego, one of the most important features I took away was that all people are looking for happiness.  But happiness, plain, simple happiness, is not enough.  It’s crucial to live a meaningful life.  Viktor Frankl wrote about this in Man’s Search For Meaning and Rebbetzin Jungreis sees meaning (or goodness) as a major factor to a healthy, purposeful life.

Just leading a happy life is associated with being a ‘taker’ while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver’. “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” according to authors in The Journal of Positive Psychology. Researchers say that happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. To me, this is also known as instant gratification. What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister. Martin Seligman, the Positive Psychology guru, says “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.”

I’ve encountered the question of happiness and meaning time and again.  Recently, I’ve been faced with the issue of personal suffering and sadness, and how that relates to both meaning and happiness.  Do I have to go through deep pain and sadness in order to appreciate happier times?  Can meaning and happiness coexist, or are they mutually exclusive?  Is there a shortcut or work-around? So far, this is what I know:

I know that I love laughing, joking, and being playful! These are fleeting moments that make me feel happy.  I love feeling deeply connected in a respectful and considerate way.  I love sharing my life with my best friends and falling in love. This is ultimate happiness!  These experiences give my life deeper meaning.  But, they’re not enough.  These are the short game.  To me, the short game is seeing only the immediate, small picture.  It does not account for the betterment of myself or my loved ones.

My long game is having these experiences in tandem with working for the greater good of my clients, my family, my friends, and my partner.  In my long game, I can see the forest through the trees.  The meaning of my life stems from reflective experiences when I think and feel, when I have choices, when I make decisions that are carefully considered. Conversely, when I make rash choices and don’t think about my actions because I’m caught up in temptation or my short game, I’m not living my most meaningful life.  It can be tough for me to navigate. Lately the short game has felt awful for me.  It hasn’t been fun or happy.  Yuck.  The short game has made me feel defeated.

Purpose/meaning is such an anvil. It can be unwieldy and heavy, and sometimes casts a dark shadow on the immediate relief/happiness I want for myself. For a short spell, I made long lists of my life’s purpose and what makes me happy.  These lists got me nowhere fast.  I was ruminating in my head and trying to get “there.”  Then, I realized that there is no “there.”  As I constantly relearn, there’s only here.  These lists take me out of the present and put me in my head (a place that already gets enough visitors).  When I remember to actually breathe and live, I experience joy, anger, sadness, confusion, loneliness, boredom — these are fleeting emotions that come in, I talk through them with my trusted circle, and then they leave.  I’m much more present this way, and this feels meaningful. When I avoid and deny my truth, it brings me neither happiness nor meaning. I live with the consequences of lost love and missed opportunities as much as I live with the excitement of learning strategy for a new board game and cooking BBQ.  My life is one of meaning as much as it is generally happy.  I have some serious (fun!?) goals ahead that are the long game.  In the short game, I’m trying to smile and laugh while accepting what really is, and that mine is a is a meaningful life with an eye on the long game.

*Special thanks to EB for talking this out with me.  Would love your comments.
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12 thoughts on “The Short and Long Game of Happiness and Meaning

  1. Reading your blog and it reminded me of how I used to think about meaning in my life. However, that all changed when I had a kid. I instantly got all the meaning in life I’d ever need. Once that little kid looks up at you and giggles, you will feel more happiness and meaning for your life than ever before. So, the moral of this story is, satisfy all you are looking for and have a baby šŸ™‚


  2. What a well-written article!

    My thoughts on the short game: Ultimately, it’s each person’s choice, conscious or otherwise, to pursue the short or long game rather than a balance of both. By focusing on only the here and now and our immediate needs and wants – “simple happiness” – we run the risk of burdening others with the responsibility of fulfilling that long game – “meaningful life” – on our behalf. Which is unfair, because no one can create a meaningful life FOR us, although many times those who love us will try… often resulting in resentment, burnout, and even the alienation of our loved ones.

    My thoughts circle back to my standard headspace here… if I take care of myself in little and big ways and own responsibility for my personal happiness and well being, I am doing my loved ones a service in that they don’t need to expend energy worrying about me. That doesn’t mean not relying on them in times or situations of need and it doesn’t mean that I don’t help lift them up and support them. It means that my love and support is given freely and with a happy heart as is my gratitude for and acceptance of their help when I need it.


    • Block Lobster, thank you for your excellent commentary. I see how there is personal responsibility in both the long and short games. I’ve definitely experienced doing it FOR others and wanting things done for me. But you’re right, it’s a daily choice to have foresight and take care of ourselves with the highest good in mind.


  3. This is a well written post! As far as commenting, I am regularly baffled by the idea of happiness, since I see that as a concept invented for the purposes of marketing. What I do give credence to is JOY, and sadness, anger, hope, excitement, fear, etc. As you said, when focusing as well as you can on the moment, we notice that we don’t “stay” anywhere long, and to me “happiness” as a goal has caused more mental suffering than necessary. For instance, I have gained tremendous insight during periods of sadness!

    I am drawn to the writings of Alan Watts, who urges us to embrace “what happens” as something that is simply happening. Without the distraction of meaning or judgement, a happening can just be experienced, and I suspect that meaning will rise up organically. Of course this goes along with the concept of dismantling the ego/self so that we experience experiences not as an observer/participant, but instead as the experience itself. From Watts’ THE BOOK:

    “…when the line between myself and what happens to me is dissolved and there is not strong-hold left for an ego even as a passive witness, I find myself not IN a world but AS a world which is neither compulsive nor capricious.”

    Good stuff! Imagine what happens when we let go of the pursuit of happiness. Life becomes rich and interesting, and there are less decisions about what is a good experience and what is a bad one. For me, the pursuit of happiness is a race that can never be won, so I quit it, and as a result, there is rarely ever a lack of meaning.


  4. Yet again, another great post. Love the distinction between the short term happiness and the long term meaning in life. I think people often don’t realize the distinction until it becomes too late.


    • Marcopolo, keep on the lookout for a post about commodities and time. I think you get it! When’s it too late? At our death beds when we can’t do anything differently? Is it too late when an opportunity has passed? My men, viktor frankl and Elie Wiesel, are so wise and their writings have trained me to look at purpose and not simply basic “happiness.” I think happiness has turned into its own economy. Note how many self-help gurus claim to have the secret to happiness. But what about feeling like the life you’re living is worth something rather than basic smiles?


      • Man’s search for meaning is one of my favorite all time books, I’ve re-read that like 4 times by now. It took me a while to realize this too, but I think the only real commodity in life IS time. Everything else comes and goes, is ultimately only as meaningful as you make it. But it’s all transitory. Time is the one thing you can’t ever get back.


      • I agree with you. I’m of the mind that we must protect our time from those people or activities whose mission it is to get in our way. The transitory nature of life, and that includes weather, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs, are about as stable as gas prices. It’s my job to protect my time AND to use it wisely. I want my experiences to be meaningful and full of oomph (for lack of a better word). I want to get something out of my choices, and not just a shrug and “meh.” Though I often feel things deeply, I think that’s better than simple happiness. These moments with oomph give me a chance to reflect and consider meaning.


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