02 Nov

are simple, happy and meaningful mutually exclusive?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about how I wanted to stop glorifying busy and live a simple life. My Simple Life (with caps, because it’s very much an entity in my mind) vision is a very pretty picture. It looks like an isolated house with a view of green fields and sugar cane. It looks like contentment and calm and valuing people over possessions. It looks like creativity and financial freedom and (one day in the future) home schooling. I even know where this simple life should be situated – just south of the border, a little bit north of Byron Bay. I indulge in this simple life fantasy whenever I drive through this area, but I suspect that in my case, the Simple Life fantasy is very much full of fancy.

I have another simple life fantasy though. This one doesn’t get caps because it isn’t a mythologised, fanciful, indulgent and unattainable dream. This one looks like doing meaningful work, nurturing my family, achieving a ratio of work to life that sits well with me, being creatively fulfilled, investing in relationships, valuing people, being present, having time. While I might indulge my dream of the Simple Life, it is the simple life that I am invested in achieving.

A couple of week’s back, Penelope Trunk posted about happiness and meaningfulness, and suggested that the pursuit of happiness or (as one commenter suggested) contentment might lead to a life that isn’t meaningful. This post really resonated with me because it suggested that pursuing meaningfulness is not a simple thing, and that made me feel a lot better about this season I’m in. I’ve been thinking about the post and the way I responded to it quite a bit over the past few weeks.

In this post, Penelope Trunk argues that it’s not the happy or fun part of the day that matters (picking apples), but the serious interruption (saving the calf). She suggests that happiness isn’t memorable or valuable or rich in the way that making a difference is.

This is what resonated with me:

… Your real job, not necessarily the one you get paid for, is to find the opportunity to infuse meaning into your life by challenging yourself to give in a way that jeopardizes your happiness.

Look around for where you can make a big difference. It is likely a place that will shake you up…

Interestingly, I read this and interpreted it as validating this complex phase of my life, in which I am not all that happy. It’s okay that I’m shaken up and challenged right now, that things are messy, because I’m working on something that will make a difference.

Another interesting thing: subconsciously, I made a linkage between ‘happiness’ and ‘simple’, and another between ‘being shaken up’, ‘meaningfulness’ and ‘complexity’. This says more about my state of mind than it does about the blog post: I’m really craving simplicity and I’m reading it into everything.

As I’ve been sorting through this in my head, I’ve been thinking a lot about the way I subconsciously linked ‘simple’ and ‘happy’, and they way I put these linked-in-my-head ideas at the opposite end of the spectrum to ‘meaningful’.

Contentment and happiness are the hallmarks of the simple life – or they are for me, at least. Both my Simple Life and simple life visions are about being content with what I have, with my family life, with the moment I’m living in, with being present.

Being happy or content doesn’t preclude meaningfulness. Contentment isn’t just about passively accepting things as they are, or pursuing the quick happiness highs that come from picking apples. It is about feeling content with the choices you’ve made, the place you’re in, and the destination you have your sights on. I think you can be in a space of discomfort, where you’re being shaken up and doing something that matters, and still be happy.

In fact, I don’t think I could be happy if my life wasn’t full of meaningful work and I wasn’t making some kind of contribution to the lives of others. I become unhappy when I’m coasting. When a job or a project stop challenging me, I’m out. I find it really hard to stay motivated and keep pushing through, and this is usually when I start hunting through job ads.

Happiness and meaningfulness can co-exist. But more than that, I’m not sure one can exist without the other – at least not for me. I simply wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t doing meaningful work or connecting with people in a meaningful way. And I think I’d find it difficult to live a meaningful life if there wasn’t some joy in the things that I was doing, even if that joy is sometimes tempered by uncertainty or ‘being shaken up’.

My simple life vision is a picture in which I am content and my life is full of meaning.

Simple, meaningful, happy. These are three words that describe the life I want to live. So no, I don’t think these terms are mutually exclusive. I think they are actually mutually dependent.