My good friend and fellow writer Ben Casnocha asked the question recently, “Do You Want a Happy Career or a Meaningful One?”
To Ben, there is a fundamental conflict between the two:
“The things that make you happy (low stress, good health, sex) are not the same things that make your life seem meaningful (sacrifice, service, goals). Compare the effect that staying at a luxury hotel has on you (happy!) versus the feeling of training really hard for a marathon and completing it (satisfying and meaningful!).
If you had to pick whether to prioritize happiness or meaning, my advice would be: choose a career that’s meaningful, but weave in happiness habits as much as possible. By “happiness habits” I mean the small tactical things — like keeping a gratitude journal — that’s proven to lift your mood day-to-day.”
I’d argue that this choice is far too black and white. Ben draws a distinction between things that bring pleasure in the moment with things that generate longer-term meaning. It’s certainly true that some things (staying at a luxury hotel) bring pleasure without meaning, and that other things (completing a marathon) are painful but meaningful. Yet even these examples aren’t so clear cut.
Staying a luxury hotel with your spouse, or with a group of friends, can be an integral part of a truly meaningful experience that generates a lifetime of fond memories. And running a marathon brings the pleasure of a runner’s high, along with the pain of sore muscles and joints.
For me, many of the things in my life supply both happiness and meaning. These might include writing an essay, mentoring an entrepreneur, or taking a road trip with my family.
It is true that certain high-meaning achievements such as starting a new world religion, curing a dreadful disease, or becoming President of the United States might require a great deal of unpleasantness, but that’s a problem for the ambitious (like Ben).
An unambitious fellow like me simply thinks, “Eh, I wasn’t going to be doing those things anyways,” and focuses instead on the things that bring me both meaning and happiness.