A New York Times opinion piece written by Emily Esfahani Smith called on us to look for meaning, rather than happiness, to survive and even thrive during the coronavirus lockdown. We agree, and this blog explains why meaning is more important than happiness based on the quadrune mind model of human consciousness.
The answer is in the difference between the old mammalian mind and the Human mind. The qualities of these minds are why trying to be happy often leaves us feeling so empty, while living for purpose and meaning brings us fulfillment—and, frankly, more lasting and significant joy.
Happiness is an emotion. Trying to be happy is a quest to feel good. As such, it is governed by the old mammalian (emotional/group) mind. However, the old mammalian, emotional mind is not very good at two things: understanding the complexities of reality and being reasoned with.
First, when we try to be happy, it often involves creating a fictional world that matches the conditions we think we need to be happy. This can involve full-on fantasy and imagination—think daydreams where you are living on your own private island, married to George Clooney or Salma Hayek, riding a pony—or it can be the minor fictions we tell ourselves everyday—that my boss is probably going to promote me, that my husband coming home late every day is no big deal, that my dog really does understand me better than anyone else. More often than not, the quest to be happy involves straight up avoiding reality, by drinking, using drugs, sleeping with strangers, things that make us feel good because they so completely remove us from the realities of our humdrum work-a-day lives.
The obvious problem with this approach is that our happiness is conditional on ignoring actual reality, and when that reality slips in, ooooh mama. There goes our happiness! Because the old mammalian mind cannot understand the complexities necessary to fully grasp reality, this mind can never allow us to experience the contentment and joy that come with accepting all of the boring details and unappealing aspects of our lives how they actually are.
Even when the old mammalian mind experiences happiness because of something real, that happiness often fades when we realize the negative aspects that accompany any positive event. (I’m so happy, I had the best date with Jeremy last night! Oh my gosh, he has to call or I’ll be devastated. I wonder if he even had fun. He sort of seemed distracted at the end. I bet he doesn’t even like me. My life sucks.”)
Again, the old mammalian mind cannot say, “The reality of this situation, as with all other situations, is complex, but I can accept both the positive and the negative parts and even find beauty and joy in them.” That is very much a Human mind sentiment. The old mammalian mind, on the other hand, is quickly blown from emotion to emotion because it takes one piece of reality (a good date or a bored glance) and turns it into the entire reality. Because it cannot understand a reality so complex as to have all of these conflicting aspects exist simultaneously, the old mammalian mind grabs onto one and lets that one dictate how it feels; in other words, your emotions.
Veronika Huta of the University of Ottawa and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester have found that doing things to feel happy, like playing a game, often do make us feel good, but only for a little while. The good feeling of happiness fades so much more quickly than the fulfillment we find in meaning because the old mammalian mind is more temporally-limited than the Human mind. The old mammalian mind is incapable of “taking the long view.” And again, many of those “feel good” activities, like playing a game or sleeping in, involve a disconnect with reality.
Second, intentional positive thinking, a practice advocated by a slew of self-help authors, doesn’t work in most cases, according to the quadrune mind model, because it involves trying to reason with your old mammalian mind. The ability to think critically, to use logic and rationality, only comes along with the new mammalian mind, which is the mind dedicated to ideologies and ideas. It is impossible to use new mammalian tactics, namely reason, to attempt to control a pre-new mammalian mind that does not have access to these tools. Therefore, telling yourself, “Today is a great day because I am alive, and my family is healthy, and there is no reason I shouldn’t be cheerful” won’t make an impact. All your old mammalian brain can understand is what it is feeling, not what you are telling it.
According to the quadrune mind model, we will only truly find fulfillment in our human lives when we are living primarily from our Human mind, a mind dedicated to meaning and purpose. The quest for happiness, on the other hand, keeps us stuck in our lower old mammalian mind. That is why meaning is more important than happiness—a life lived from a Human mindset is always preferable.
In her New York Times article, Smith talks about the importance of “tragic optimism” for coping, and even growing, through a crisis. Coined by Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, tragic optimism means being able to “maintain hope and find meaning in life despite its inescapable pain, loss and suffering.”
In the quadrune mind model, tragic optimism would fall under the realm of the Human mind. As a result, being “tragically optimistic” is not as straightforward as making the choice to be that way. (Smith simply says that “some people are naturally more hopeful than others,” but this doesn’t quite capture it.) Generally, we cannot force ourselves to view the world from a Human mentality any more than we can force ourselves to be happy. Cultivating our Human mind relies on positive human relationships in which we feel safe growing from one mentality to the next.
Smith notes that psychological interventions, including meaning-centered psychotherapy, have been able to help “even the most despairing individuals” find meaning in a crisis. Perhaps meaning-centered psychotherapy is successful because it helps people access their Human mind. This is not an overnight or “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” solution. It is a long-term, intimate, meaningful relationship—exactly what the quadrune mind model encourages us to develop with each other in order to create a world that is hospitable to living from a Human mind.
A study of students following the September 11 attacks found that all of them reported feeling equally sad and stressed, but some were less likely to become depressed. These resilient students acknowledged the horror of what had happened, but also saw positive aspects within the suffering.
Only the Human mind can accept the complexity and uncertainty of life. Those who live from their Human mind are more resilient because they recognize that even during the most stressful times, there is still goodness and light. This is the yin and yang of reality. Having tragic optimism involves recognizing this reality. An old mammalian-minded individual cannot be tragically optimistic, because he or she does not live in reality as it is. Those living from their pre-Human mentalities, who see the world in black and white, will be unable to grasp the complex reality that good can exist within the bad.
The students who accepted both the pain and the beauty of life post-9/11 said they experienced feelings of love and gratitude. These emotions resonate with the Human mind, where they are experienced in different ways than by the old mammalian mind. The old mammalian emotional/group mind can easily feel love for one’s child or one’s mother—in fact, this is the raison d’être of this mind, as we couldn’t put survival of the group above all else without familial love. However, the type of love felt by the Human mind is far more expansive: i.e., universal compassion. And gratitude to the Human mind is far more than being thankful for your house and your new car—it is more akin to awe in the face of all the wonder life contains.
Individuals who found positive meaning following the September 11 attacks speak of having “a greater appreciation of life and a deeper sense of spirituality.” These are essential Human mind traits in the quadrune mind model, suggesting that seeking meaning does, indeed, feed our Human selves.
How we handle tragedy depends on what mind is dominate in us when we experience the tragedy. The Human mind is able to find meaning within struggle in a way that our pre-Human minds cannot. As I discussed previously, the coronavirus outbreak can be an opportunity to cultivate our Human mind if we avoid jumping into new mindless routines and instead take time to embrace the uncertainty of this time with compassion and appreciation for the wonder that remains.
I suppose I was describing tragic optimism in a way. I was certainly talking about living from a Human mentality. Anytime we are able to access our Human mind, whether during the direst pandemic or on a mundane walk around the park, we will find meaning. For it is not only a crisis that presents the opportunity for greater connection and awe to the Human mind. Much like a Buddhist monk washing dishes mindfully, enlightenment can be found anywhere for the fully actualized Human mind. Positive or negative, world-changing or quotidian, meaning—and the joy and awe, which far surpasses happiness, that living with meaning brings—is in all things. Any number of experiences, when lived with an awareness of their complexity and how they relate to life in the grand sense—is an avenue to more fully appreciating and loving all that is, not just some of what is, or what we wish could be.