Happiness and meaning: the two hidden dimensions of work


The paradox of fatigue

What some have started to call “the paradox of fatigue” (the effort paradox), which is, at the same time, avoided, if possible, but to which, at the same time, we very often attribute a great existential value (Inzlicht, M., et al., 2018. “The Effort Paradox: Effort Is Both Costly and Valued” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 2 (4), pp. 337-349). Every work with meaning is played within this polarity, between the weight of the work and the intimate satisfaction that it generates. A polarity that risks not being fully understood until the knot of the difference between the search for meaning and the search for happiness is dissolved, even in the reflection on work; because it is true that being happy and living a life full of meaning are often conditions that present large spaces of overlap, but it is equally true that there are important and unavoidable differences between the two conditions.

The study of the conditions and determinants of “happiness” has seen in recent years, thanks to the affirmation of “positive psychology” andhappiness economics, a flourishing of interest both from scholars and from the general public. By “happiness” is generally meant a state of subjective well-being (subjective well-being) which represents an affective and positive tone of existential experience. There is also a more evaluative dimension of the overall life experience; in this case we speak more precisely of satisfaction with one’s life (life satisfaction). Finally, some scholars emphasize the distinction between a “happy life” and a “good life”, in the Aristotelian sense of “eudaimonia”, a life capable of making the individual “blossom” in his different potentials, talents, expressions . This is perhaps the meaning that brings the idea of ​​happiness closer to that of the search for meaning. The problem is that, contrary to what happened with the idea of ​​happiness, that of meaning still remains largely unexplored in the context of behavioral sciences.

The natural basis of happiness

Perhaps one of the reasons is that the idea of ​​happiness generally has, or is thought to have, a natural basis. In its simplest forms, in fact, especially those of a hedonic nature, linked to pleasure or the absence of pain, but also to the satisfaction and satisfaction of primary needs, happiness can be rooted in a state of the organism that is physiological even before psychological. For this reason it is easier and more immediate to connote the search for happiness as a fundamental motivational force. On the contrary, the search for meaning and the need to make sense of one’s existence seem to be processes strongly characterized by a more cultural and social dimension. Actions, choices, contexts acquire meaning in the context of a process of cultural construction that takes place through the transmission of symbols that help us, generation after generation, to attribute values, purposes and identity to the experiences of our individual and collective life .

Here a first interesting element emerges: the meaning that we find or manage to ascribe to our existence is, in large part, a collective construction, which partly escapes our individual control. Although it may seem strange, this social nature also characterizes certain visions of happiness; for example, the typical view of the civil economists of the eighteenth century who considered happiness as a public affair – economics was in fact the science of “public happiness”. One cannot be happy alone, but even more one cannot give meaning to one’s existence alone. Not so much because, as happens with our happiness, it depends to a large extent on the quality of the relationships we have with others and on the recognition we receive from them – i fellow-feelings and the praise-worthiness on which Adam Smith lingers for a long time – but, rather, because the meaning we manage to attribute to our existence is a conceptual mosaic in which millions of individuals have placed their card, a background drawn by collective stories on which we observe, first slowly, ourselves.

The search for meaning goes beyond time

In this way the search for meaning moves in a wider and more nuanced temporal dimension than that of happiness. The present, the past and even the future, ours, individual, but also social and collective, contribute to the construction of that narrative from which we derive the meaning of what we do. We understand, then, why, for example, the sense of finality is one of the fundamental determinants of meaningful experiences. Because it is the purpose that allows us to consistently integrate our past with what we do today and what we desire for tomorrow. The twenty-seven years of imprisonment of the persecuted politician Nelson Mandela, the thirteen years of very hard prison, of which nine in total isolation, by Cardinal Văn Thuán, for example, certainly cannot be called happy experiences, but certainly they were events full of meaning, for how they originated and what they generated afterwards.

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