Can't find meaning in your life? A new study has the next best thing.
The search for meaning in our lives is one of the great driving forces of human history. Viktor Frankl based his psychology on that search. Existentialism is based mainly on the need for meaning. As anybody who has had an existential crisis or three knows, not having meaning in your life can cause anxiety, dread, fear, and loathing.
Between alienation, isolation, and the absurdity we face every day, most of us need a bit of a pick me up when it comes to having meaning in our lives from time to time.
Luckily, a new study shows an interesting way to find more meaning in your life: having sex.
A recent study by Todd B. Kashdan and others at George Mason University asked participants a to answer a series of questions every day relating to their life satisfaction and the frequency, intimacy, enjoyability of their sexual activity. Life satisfaction was measured with several parameters, including mood and if they found that day to be meaningful.
The question used to determine that was “How meaningful did you feel your life was today?” A phrasing that has appeared on other tests of well-being and is considered to measure if people find their lives meaningful or not adequately.
The subjects, 152 adults who were mostly female, were asked to fill out demographic reports which included whether or not they were in relationships and information on the length and closeness of those relationships. They were then asked to fill out an online form every night detailing their mood, how meaningful they found their lives to be, and if they engaged in sexual activity. They were asked to rate that activity in terms of enjoyment and intimacy on a standardized scale.
What did they find out?
Analysis of the reports showed that having sex leads to increased well-being on all counts for the next day, with those who reported having high levels of intimacy with their partners seeing that improvement last more than 24 hours. While the occurrence of sex was found to influence well-being the next day, well-being was not found to influence the occurrence of sex.
Neither pleasure, intimacy, or how much their mood had improved affected the increased sense of finding meaning in life. This facet of well-being improved consistently for all test subjects after sex and was affected only by the quality of their relationship, if any.
Curiously, the results suggest that being in a committed relationship of any length has little to no effect on reported well-being. Those in the closest relationships, however, did show higher levels of well-being improvement compared to everyone else. In light of this, the authors suggest that a dominant component of feeling like your life has meaning may be having meaningful social connections. A suggestion that Aristotle would agree with.
As the authors note, the study raises interesting questions concerning the relationship between hedonistic and eudaemonic happiness. If the two kinds of happiness are totally unrelated then results that show sex, often associated with hedonistic happiness, helps people find more meaning in their lives requires further explanation. The differing types of happiness are often considered at least somewhat distinct from one another.
Although, the connection between finding meaning in life and sex may explain both the philosophy and lifestyle of Albert Camus.
The authors of the study note with surprise that the literature concerning the relationship between sex and well-being is rather unimpressive given the history of psychological inquiry into the matter. They also point out that in most models of well-being sexuality is, strangely, left out entirely. However, after reviewing the literature that does exist, they believe that their findings are in line with the previous studies which have been made on the subject.
While the often hedonistic pursuit of sex might not be a full replacement for a lifestyle that pursues eudaemonia, this study suggests that some overlap between the two forms of happiness, particularly where feeling as though your life has meaning is concerned, does exist. While the benefits are fleeting and at least somewhat subject to other factors, it does seem that there is a way to find momentary freedom from the problem of finding meaning in your life.
The question isn't "are you happy"... but rather "what kind of happy are you"?
Quick question, are you happy? If you need more than two seconds to answer it, I can wait. For many people, happiness is the end all meaning of life; that rare and beautiful thing that they long for more than anything. If you can’t answer that you are happy, don’t worry; you’re in good, if glum, company.
But maybe the question would be easier if we asked: what kind of “happy” are you?
When people talk about “happiness”, there can be more than a few things we are really talking about. The most common understanding of it is “feeling good”. This relates to hedonistic happiness and the seeking of pleasure while avoiding pain. It is a common approach to happiness, one which has been enshrined in the philosophy of Utilitarianism. It is not, however, the only way to be happy.
Eudaimonic Happiness, for example, is rather different. Eudaimonia means “flourishing”and is the idea of having a worthwhile life rather than an explicitly pleasant one. The idea goes back to Socrates and the Stoics who argued that being virtuous was enough to assure a good life even; if it was less pleasurable than a life of vice.
The idea was also the foundation of Aristotle’s virtue ethics, though he argued that a truly excellent life also required a few external goods as well as virtue; money, friendship, beauty, and a decent amount of luck among them. For Aristotle the most worthwhile life is the life of reason, to live virtuously and intellectually is far superior to living otherwise, even if it can be less fun.
More recently, the idea was given a psychological reboot with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. A person who has reached the apex of the pyramid, self-actualization, and self-transcendence, can be said to be living a Eudemonic life. One where they seek to fulfill their potential and life their lives to the fullest.
There is also the idea of Evaluative Happiness. This idea is fairly straightforward, social scientists ask people on questionnaires to rate their happiness on a scale from 1-10. This kind of happiness is most closely tied to “life satisfaction” and the fulfillment of goals. Given that it can be measured very simply and doesn’t make assumptions about what will make the person answering the question happy, it is considered the gold standard of well-being metrics.
How can I be happy then? Is there a guide to reaching each form of happiness?
Hedonism can be the easiest kind of happiness to conceptualize, just chase pleasures while running away from pain as fast as you can. However, this isn’t going to work for you in the long run. This was the key insight of the Buddha, the Stoics, and other thinkers throughout history.
The Greek hedonist Epicurus argued that the key to hedonistic happiness was moderation. Living a life of simple pleasures, he thought, would maximize pleasure experienced over the long run. For example; while we might be tempted to live richly even for a short time before returning to a typical lifestyle Epicurus argues that this will make us less happy than if we just lived moderately all along- as then we cannot miss luxury.
For the less than stoic we have John Stuart Mill, the greatest of the Utilitarian philosophers. He expanded on the idea of hedonism being more than the life of base pleasure seeking. In his work, Utilitarianism, he argues that some pleasures are higher than others. For a person who could do both, reading Shakespeare will give more pleasure than drinking heavily, so Mill postulates. Though the accuracy of this statement has been debated for some time; to really achieve hedonistic happiness Mill would have us develop our intellectual abilities and find pleasure in their use rather than seeking the “happiness of a pig”.
Though, he does look contented.
For Eudaimonia, Aristotle left us a how-to guide in the form of the Nicomachean Ethics. Suggesting that each virtue is the median between one vice of deficiency and one of excess. He argues that we can, by practice, come to embody virtue and become “flourishing” people, given the good fortune of having the necessary external goods as well.
The difficulty with Eudaimonia, as opposed to other forms of happiness, is that it not only requires most of a lifetime to really get right, but there is still a great deal of debate over what “right” is. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been criticized as being of use only to a person living in an individualistic society, what a constitutes a flourishing person, and how you personally can reach your potential, is different for each everybody. Learning what your potentials are is an art in itself.
There is also the criticism that most Eudaimonic theories all but require the individual to be reasonably well off to be successful in reaching their goal. Recognizing this, American philosopher Martha Nussbaum has written on how the Scandinavian countries, with their generous social programs that assure people’s basic needs are fulfilled, are best able to allow their citizens to flourish. The consistently high scores of those nations in happiness rankings suggests they may be on to something.
Evaluative happiness is also very open to individual choice. What makes you happiest is up to you, the problem is going out and getting it. Places with high scores for this kind of happiness can be quite different from one another. Singapore scores very high on happiness tests, but for differing reasons than does Costa Rica. However, people who do have this kind of happiness tend to have things in common; like financial security, status, pride in their work, and feeling as though they are living their values. This, like Eudaimonia, can take decades to truly achieve, and can also be very dependent on having a decent amount of luck.
There is more than one way to be happy. Each of the three kinds we considered here is valuable in its own way. By better understanding the ways we can be happy we have a better chance of doing it. Before you despair too much at how long it might take you to become “happy” based on these three schools, remember this quote by the American psychologist Carl Rogers, “The good life is a process, not a state of being”.