Meaning in the present moment

photo via The Bunny System

photo via The Bunny System

Roy F. Baumeister's illuminating article on meaning versus happiness shows how these two qualities often move in opposite directions. 

Happiness is a feeling state centred on "now". It's about getting the material goods that you need and want, your health, and what others do for you. Meaning comes from something entirely different: 

Meaning and happiness are apparently experienced quite differently in time. Happiness is about the present; meaning is about the future, or, more precisely, about linking past, present and future. The more time people spent thinking about the future or the past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives were. Time spent imagining the future was linked especially strongly to higher meaningfulness and lower happiness... Conversely, the more time people spent thinking about the here and now, the happier they were. If you want to maximise your happiness, it looks like good advice to focus on the present, especially if your needs are being satisfied. Meaning, on the other hand, seems to come from assembling past, present and future into some kind of coherent story.

The difference is deeply relevant for writers. Awareness can't be turned off, and people who feel the world through a relationship between past, present and future are often left to deal with that perception in solitary and unconventional ways. Rather than a choice, the act of writing, painting, singing, or other creativity becomes an imperative. It reflects a need to bring all three aspects of time into a present moment. This is precisely what the Buddhist idea of living in the present means.

Living a meaningful life doesn't make happiness impossible, but it can be difficult in a perverse and self-reinforcing way. For a chance at happiness meaning makers need their contributions to be recognized and paid for accordingly, but that's unlikely in an economy that penalizes the pursuit of meaning.

We're forfeiting a critical opportunity. Global society's most pressing challenges demand long-term thinking and new solutions, collective solutions that connect our checkered past to a sustainable and more enlightened future. This is possible by valuing long-term meaning over disposable happiness. It's possible by empowering people who create meaning, and doing so would be a tremendous act of meaning in itself.