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What leads to a happy life: Meaning or pure pleasure?

Young woman smiling, portrait, close-up

Maria Teijeiro/Thinkstock

Admit it: No matter how much you love building Lego castles, by the second hour of hopping minifigure knights around the turrets, you're yawning. And no matter how fun the teddy bear tea party is in concept, the practice can make you wish there was something stronger in those teeny cups. Parenting – and family life in general – is full of moments that make you want to poke yourself in the eyeball. The happiness research is clear: Using the principal of diminishing returns, for every hour you spend doing something, you feel less happy doing it.

But is that how we should divvy up our time, based on what makes us happy? Or should we decide our days on what gives us meaning, even at the cost of happiness?

A new Slate column argues the former, joining the chorus of the happiness-obsessed. In making the case for why we shouldn't work less, author Emily Oster argues that while, yes, she likes playing dinosaur stickers with her daughter, she's not so keen on it by the second hour. "Humans are programmed to be get bored," she says. "Knowing this, how do you divide your time to make yourself as happy as possible? It's simple." That is, simple math: You know you have the balance right, she says, if your last hour at work is equal in happiness to the last hour you have spent with your family. (Or, if when given the theoretical option of an extra hour in the day, you fairly evenly alternate between wanting to spend it at work and at home.)

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Taken at face value, Oster's article neglects several salient points. First of all, parents could counter that what cuts their happiness in the second hour of Lego is the guilt that they aren't having as good a time as our hyper-parenting society says they should be. So happiness is a complicated state of mind, distorted by culture and context. And how do you measure it accurately anyway?

But most significantly, what about everyone else's happiness? Maybe you want to curl up with a book, but what if your kid is really keen on that Lego? Or your spouse really wants that coffee talk?

Basically, this is where meaning comes in, and, particularly, a Jewish psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl, who famously learned to find meaning in the most miserable of circumstances, a Nazi concentration camp. In a new article coincidentally timed, the Atlantic argues the counterpoint to Oster, quoting Frankl and new research on the meaning life, to make the case: "There's more to life than being happy."

A study coming out in the Journal of Positive Psychology asked 400 Americans about whether their lives were happy or meaningful, and found, not surprisingly, that the happiest people were "takers." The people with the most meaning, were "givers." Givers were more stressed and anxious because they worried more about whether those around them were happy.

But Roy Baumeister, the lead author of the study, which was presented at the University of Pennsylvania, observed in the Atlantic article, it's the pursuit of meaning that's unique to humans, since all animals basically seek to satisfy their own needs. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need," the researchers said in the study.

So isn't that the problem with Oster's piece? Yes, the longer we spend at one task, and even in the company of one group, the less happy we may feel. But getting off your cozy couch-sitting butt to flood the neighborhood ice rink in the cold may not be super fun. Doing the unsung grunt work for some charity may not rev your engines. And yet another tea party with a teddy bear may make you secretly wish you were working late. But it's bringing someone else joy. Perhaps that's a long-term calculation too often overlooked in the "Am I happy?" equation.

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