Happiness and Meaning


Describe the relationship between "meaning" and "self-interest" in Susan Wolf's "Happiness and Meaning: Two Aspects of the Good Life." Alternatively, what criteria does her essay suggest for a "meaningful" life?

Wolf states that meaning and self-interest are related in that meaning is an important aspect of a good life, so securing it for oneself constitutes a path of “enlightened” self-interest.

She also claims that a meaningful life is one that can come up with an answer to the “needs or longings that are characteristically described as needs for meaning.” I view this as a rather vague definition; determining what constitutes a need to be characteristically described as a need for meaning seems subjective. What criteria must a need meet to be universally accepted as a need for meaning? Wolf mentions the contemplative, often existentialist questions known for being asked by people on their deathbeds such as whether their lives are worth living. I also find it strange to state that a “life” in itself can come up with an answer rather than use a more descriptive term such as “thinking person” and am surprised to read that a life can be declared meaningful after the person living can prove to be able to complete a single action, albeit a difficult one.

Wolf also claims that meaningful lives are “lives of active engagement in projects of worth.” She states that while she doesn’t have a theory of what objective value is, she believes that the idea of meaningfulness is linked to a commitment to it. While she mentions that it is essential to create a distinction between ways to spend one’s time that can be considered more or less worthwhile in order to have a sense of meaningfulness, it is extremely difficult to do so in a clearly defined fashion. Wolf importantly makes clear that actions that are worthwhile are not necessarily meaningful, leading to her point that someone who lives a life doing worthwhile work that they are uninterested in cannot be leading a life that can be considered meaningful.

Julian Tineo