Happy Life: Happy Marriage Series
If you think your spouse makes you happy or unhappy, experts would disagree, saying your key relationships are only a small element of your overall happiness. This is a continuing series looking at the underlying contributors to happiness in our lives and marriages.
“Happiness can be attained under virtually any circumstances provided you believe that your life has meaning and purpose,” says Dennis Prager, author of Happiness is a Serious Problem. In fact, the need for meaning and purpose is one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of being human, he says.
People derive meaning from two beliefs—the belief that their life has meaning and belief that life itself has meaning. Prager maintains that both beliefs are necessary for happiness, but that some people have both beliefs and others who believe in only one (for example, that their life has meaning but that life itself is essentially meaningless). They may view life and the creation of life as random but have found meaning in their own lives. Prager explains, “On purely logical grounds, I do not see how a meaningless universe can produce meaningful lives, but I well understand why most people who believe in a meaningless universe do not wish to view their own lives in this way.”
This position may be more controversial to those who are secular in their thinking. I know many of the readers here are of various viewpoints, but I didn’t want to censor these points because they are a key element in his advice for finding greater happiness. I agree with Prager that in my life, both beliefs are important to my happiness. Others may disagree. In any case, he provides advice on how we derive meaning—personal meaning and transcendent meaning.
Personal meaning. We extract meaning from relationships (family and friends), work and causes.
- Relationships—Your marriage relationship will likely create a great sense of meaning for you, particularly if you have children or a spouse who relies on you. Whatever relationships we have in life, it is in loving and being loved and needed that we add to our sense of belonging and purpose.
- Work—Work that provides a sense of purpose and importance unrelated to compensation tends to add to our personal meaning. When work is not particularly meaningful, it doesn’t contribute much to our happiness.
- A Cause—Attachment to a cause can be very powerful, both for good and for bad. Some people dedicate themselves to a cause because they lack personal relationships and other sources of meaning. A cause that is noble can lead to increased happiness and meaning. A cause that is less than noble can be harmful. (Think of all the people who chose to join Hitler’s cause.)
Prager says the cause that has given more people meaning and happiness than any other is religion, which can be the most powerful force for both good and evil, but that most religions have done more good than harm. He adds that the decline of religion in our era means that millions of people are looking elsewhere for causes to provide meaning, including racism, Communism, and Nazism. “Causes are great meaning-givers, but they are best for the world when the people who attach themselves to those causes derive essential meaning in their lives from human relationships, not from the cause itself. The biographies of human monsters…are virtually all biographies of loners.”
Transcendent meaning. Does the modern secular world undermine our sense of happiness?
Prager doesn’t argue that he can prove one way of viewing the world is correct (a purposeful universe vs. a random one), but does point out the consequences of the two views. “As much as we may find our work, family, friends, and social causes a source of meaning, a secular universe means that there is no ultimate meaning to any of these things…While the dominant intellectual view of our time posits that the less thoughtful individuals are those who most need religion, in fact it is the thinker who most needs religion. For at least in theory, the nonthinker can be happy solely by experiencing life’s pleasures and personal meaning, but the thinker knows that pleasures and personal meaning alone do not answer the human yearning for a meaningful universe.”
In sum, Prager advises if we want to be a happy person, before acting, we must ask ourselves, “Is it meaningful?” The struggle is often within ourselves—knowing the right choice but choosing the more enticing one.
What do you think about the two beliefs? Do you share one or both of them? Do you think they are necessary for your happiness?