Tag Archives: Dennis Prager

2 Controversial Beliefs Author Says are Necessary for Happiness

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

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Is Your Relationship Better than Your Friends’ Relationships?

Happy Life, Happy Marriage Series

In the last happy life happy marriage post, we talked about how we humans are naturally dissatisfied with our lives and our mates. We’re not even satisfied in a “perfect” marriage with the “perfect” spouse. Because perfect for us today means tomorrow our expectations change. If we are dissatisfied or unhappy with some aspect of our marriage today, there’s a good chance that there is nothing seriously wrong with our relationship.

Another way in which we doom our chances for happiness in relationships is by comparing our marriages (as well as other aspects of our lives) to other couple’s marriages. On the outside, most everyone’s marriage looks happy and problem-free. We all smile when we’re out with friends. We think we can determine how happy we are by comparing with how happy others appear to be.

This would not be a problem, says Dennis Prager in Happiness is a Serious Problem, if we compared ourselves with most other people.  However, we don’t do this. We compare ourselves with the very few who appear happier than we are. We’re always looking one notch above where we perceive ourselves to be, even if we know very little about their lives. When we think about it, we realize that we can’t know how our lives compare with others behind closed doors. When I was young, I used to look around our church and think “if they only knew how we lived when we weren’t on display.” But to the outside world, I’m sure we appeared to be a well-adjusted family of seven.

“The less we know about the people with whom we compare ourselves, the more dramatic the difference in assumed happiness,” says Prager. “If all of us realized that the people with whom we negatively compare our happiness are plagued by pains and demons of which we know little or nothing, we would stop comparing our happiness with others’.”

It’s similar to that saying you may have heard: If everyone could throw their problems out in a box, and you could choose to take any of them back, most of us would take our own. People seem fairly happy-go-lucky, attractive and successful to many of those around them, but deep down, they and their relationships may be deeply suffering from serious problems. Few people answer truthfully when a casual acquaintance asks how they are.

Prager says this situation would be improved if our close friends and confidants began opening up when things aren’t so perfect. (However, one needs to be very careful about sharing marital problems, particularly with family members.) For example, if you have a good friend whom you can share that you had a disagreement with your husband over which restaurant to go out to, or which route to take, or even that you can hardly tolerate his family, maybe she will offer some positive encouragement and realize you aren’t the perfect couple. She may share that her husband watches sports incessantly and thinks that it’s her job to do all the laundry. It’s not that you don’t respect one another’s marriages, but you also don’t pretend to be imperfect.

In life and in marriage, we are not helped by comparing ourselves with others whom we imagine to have more fun, money, more passion, more talent, more romance, more togetherness, fewer problems, fewer worries. In fact, we can significantly improve our happiness in life and in marriage if we would stop these meaningless comparisons.

This is a tough one. You go first, and let me know how it goes.

Related Links:
Read 10 Tips to Living a Mindful Marriage, by Sean Marshall of Family Rocketship, in a guest post for Simple Marriage. I just found Sean’s cool blog, dedicated to actively chooseing to live the perfect life. He and his wife are starting at home, seeking adventure, and hoping to change the world.

Photo credit: ©Dmitri Mlkitenko/PhotoXpress.com