HAPPINESS: Hedonic Happiness Versus Meaningful Happiness

I have long been interested in happiness and happiness research.  I recently stumbled across one of the most fascinating scientific articles of any kind that I have read in recent years: Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life.  This happiness research focused on the crucial differences between happiness attributed simply to one’s pleasurable experiences — hedonic happiness — and happiness attributable to experiencing meaning in life.

This particular happiness research peaked my interest because I have been accused of arrogance or hubris in claiming that some people with high levels of happiness may be missing out on substantial aspects or portions of happiness.  My alleged “second guessing” of peoples’ subjective state is substantially confirmed by this groundbreaking happiness research.

From the authors’ abstract:

“Satisfying one’s needs and wants increased happiness but was largely irrelevant to meaningfulness. Happiness was largely present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present, and future. For example, thinking about future and past was associated with high meaningfulness but low happiness. Happiness was linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness went with being a giver rather than a taker. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness.”

The pleasure of satisfying needs and wants (hedonic happiness) has little to do with leading a meaningful life.  Plus, worry, stress, and anxiety are linked to higher meaningfulness and lower (hedonic) happiness.  The developmental tasks of integrating meaning into and across one’s life can be stress-inducing.  Fortunately, to cut to the chase, leading a meaningful life contributes substantially to a happy life, often accounting for losses in hedonic happiness.  Though the stress of leading a very difficult but meaningful life may result in lower overall level of happiness.  From my perspective, risking or sacrificing hedonic pleasures for a life of increased meanings strikes me as, well…meaning full.

From the introduction:

“The wishes for happiness and for a meaningful life are two of the most widely held goals by which people measure and motivate themselves. A breathtakingly broad variety of other common goals and strivings — as examples, the desires to be healthy, to be loved, to succeed at work, to raise children, to serve one’s religion or country — can be subsumed under either or both of those broad wishes. The present article addresses the relationship between the two. Although undoubtedly happiness and a meaningful life have substantial overlap, our focus is on the differences. More precisely, we shall develop theory and provide data about what factors differentially predict happiness and meaningfulness.

Positive psychology took off in the 1990s as a corrective to psychology’s heavy emphasis on illness, suffering, and misfortune. It sought to enrich human life and enhance human functioning. The study of happiness has received a tremendous boost from the advent of positive psychology. Research on what makes life meaningful has increased as well, but perhaps not nearly as much. This special issue of the journal may be a useful corrective in that it undertakes to call the attention of positive psychologists (and other interested researchers) to issues of meaning and meaningfulness. The present investigation was intended partly to clarify some key differences between happiness and meaningfulness.

We shall argue that although happiness and meaning are important features of a desirable life and indeed are interrelated, they have different roots and implications (MacGregor & Little, 1998). Happiness may be rooted in having one’s needs and desires satisfied, including being largely free from unpleasant events. Meaningfulness may be considerably more complex than happiness, because it requires interpretive construction of circumstances across time according to abstract values and other culturally mediated ideas.”

I deeply appreciate an integrated middle ground between the all-too-frequent pathologizing in modern psychology and a common superficial view in both research and everyday life of happiness as in essence simply pleasant emotional states.  This research seems to get at the heart of integrating our understanding of the interplay between “positive” emotional experience and the genuinely difficult search for experiencing meaning amidst the hardness in life.  Such an understanding seems critical to a more holistic view of happiness, fuller of our best shot at living amidst ultimate realities (objective realities?) than the surreal view of happiness potentially, perhaps even ideally, disconnected from and unmediated by objective reality, i.e., happiness as a purely subjective state.

In defining happiness:

“Happiness is generally defined as subjective well-being, which is to say, an experiential state that contains a globally positive affective tone. It may be narrowly or broadly focused: A person may claim to be happy to have found a lost shoe, happy that the war is over, or happy to be having a good life. Researchers have conceptualized and measured happiness in at least two quite different ways. One is affect balance, indicating having more pleasant than unpleasant emotional states, and is thus essentially an aggregate of how one feels at different moments. The other, life satisfaction, goes beyond momentary feelings to invoke an integrative, evaluative assessment of one’s life as a whole.

Meaning can be a purely symbolic or linguistic reality, as in the meaning of a word. The question of life’s meaning thus applies symbolic ideas to a biological reality. Meaningfulness is presumably both a cognitive and an emotional assessment of whether one’s life has purpose and value. People may feel that life is meaningful if they find it consistently rewarding in some way, even if they cannot articulate just what it all means. Our focus is on meaningfulness and the meaning of life.

Operationally, we let participants in our studies define happiness and a meaningful life in whatever way they chose, rather than imposing specific definitions on them. We also assumed (and found) that the two overlap substantially…In particular, it should be possible to have a highly meaningful life that is not necessarily a happy one (e.g., as religious missionary, political activist, or terrorist).”

These researchers anchor their theory of happiness to the idea that happiness is natural and meaning is cultural.  Of course, these two constructs overlap and interrelate.  How they are related was the purpose of their research.

“We assume the simpler form of happiness (i.e., affect balance rather than life satisfaction), at least, is rooted in nature. All living creatures have biological needs, which consist of things they must obtain from their environment in order to survive and reproduce. Among creatures with brains and central nervous systems, these basic motivations impel them to pursue and enjoy those needed things, and the satisfaction of those needs generally produces positive feeling states. Conversely, negative feelings arise when those needs are thwarted. Hence affect balance depends to some degree on whether basic needs are being satisfied. Possibly life satisfaction too could be swayed by whether, in general, one is getting the things one wants and needs. Human beings are animals, and their global happiness therefore may depend on whether they generally get what they want and need.

If happiness is natural, meaningfulness may depend on culture. All known cultures use language, which enables them to use meanings and communicate them. There is a large set of concepts underlying language, and these concepts are embedded in interconnected networks of meaning. These are built up over many generations, and each new person comes to learn most of these meanings from the group. Appraising the meaningfulness of one’s life thus uses culturally transmitted symbols (via language) to evaluate one’s life in relation to purposes, values, and other meanings that also are mostly learned from the culture. Meaning is thus more linked to one’s cultural identity than is happiness.

Although this special issue is devoted to “personal meaning,” meaning itself is not personal but rather cultural. It is like a large map or web, gradually filled in by the cooperative work of countless generations. An individual’s meaningfulness may be a personally relevant section of that giant, culturally created and culturally transmitted map.

One crucial advantage of meaning is that it is not limited to the immediately present stimulus environment. Meaningful thought allows people to think about past, future, and spatially distant realities (and indeed even possibilities). Related to that, meaning can integrate events across time. Purpose, one important component of meaningfulness, entails that present events draw meaning from future ones. The examples listed above of meaningful but not happy lives (e.g., oppressed political activist) all involve working toward some future goal or outcome, such that the future outcome is highly desirable even though the present activities may be unpleasant. Meaningfulness may therefore often involve understanding one’s life beyond the here and now, integrating future and past. In contrast, happiness, as a subjective feeling state, exists essentially in the present moment. At most, happiness in the form of life satisfaction may integrate some degree of the past into the present — but even so, it evaluates the past from the point of view of the present. Most people would probably not report high life satisfaction on the basis of having had a good past but while being currently miserable.

Consistent with that view that meaning integrates across time, Vallacher and Wegner (1985, 1987) found that higher levels of meaning were consistently marked by longer time frames. As people shifted toward more concrete and less meaningful ways of thinking about their actions, they became more focused on the here and now. Thus, a wedding can be described both as “making a lifelong commitment to love” and as “saying some words in a church.” The former invokes a longer time span and is more meaningful than the latter.

Indeed, Baumeister (1991) observed that life is in constant change but strives for stability, and meaning is an important tool for imposing stability on the flux of life. For example, the feelings and behaviors that two mates have toward each other will fluctuate from day to day, sometimes even momentarily, but culturally mandated meanings such as marriage define the relationship as something constant and stable. (And marriage does in fact help to stabilize relationships, such as by making it more difficult for the partners to dissolve the relationship.) Such ongoing involvements undoubtedly contribute to the degree of meaningfulness a life has. Put another way, the pursuit of goals and fulfillments through ongoing involvements and activities that are interlinked but spread across time may be central to meaningfulness.

Again, we assume there is substantial overlap between meaningfulness and happiness. Humans are social beings, and participation in social groups is a vital means by which people satisfy their basic needs in order to survive and reproduce. Hence interpersonal involvement, among other things, is surely vital for both meaning and happiness. We do not intend to dwell on such things as interpersonal belongingness, because our focus is on the differences between meaningfulness and happiness, but we acknowledge their importance. Although both happiness and meaningfulness may involve interpersonal connection, they may differ in how one relates to others. Insofar as happiness is about having one’s needs satisfied, interpersonal involvements that benefit the self should improve happiness. In contrast, meaningfulness may come instead from making positive contributions to other people.

Although needs can be satisfied in a selfish fashion, the expression and development of selfhood tends to invoke symbolic relations and is therefore more a matter of meaning than happiness. MacGregor and Little (1998) found that the meaningfulness of individuals’ personal projects depended on how consistent they were with core aspects of self and identity. Many animals have the same basic needs as humans, but the human self is far more elaborate and complex than what other animals exhibit. Part of the reason is that the human self is created and structured on the basis of the cultural system (see Baumeister, 2011). On that basis, we predicted that selfhood would have different relationships to happiness and meaningfulness. Happiness would mainly be linked to whether the self’s needs are being satisfied. Meaningfulness would be far more broadly related to what activities express and reflect the symbolic self, some of which would involve contributing to the welfare of others (individually or in general) or other culturally valued activities.”

In more simple term, culture is what separates humans from other animals.  Much pre-existing happiness research focused too closely on the animal (natural) aspects of humans and not adequately accounting for meaning (cultural) aspects.  I can’t help but notice that modern science, with its mechanistic models, often leaves the heart and soul — meaning — of humanity unasccounted for, and therefore devalued.

To conclude and integrate these happiness researchers’ findings:

“Meaningfulness and happiness are positively correlated, so they have much in common. Many factors, such as feeling connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone or bored contribute similarly to both. Yet the two are distinct, and the focus of this investigation has been to identify the major differences in correlates of happiness (corrected for meaning) and meaningfulness (corrected for happiness). Correcting highly correlated variables for each other can reverse effects, which may contribute to some inconsistency in the literature. Future research should distinguish happiness from meaningfulness, because many ostensible contributors to happiness are in fact mainly associated with meaning and have little or no direct contribution to happiness except by way of increasing meaning. For example, helping others may actually increase happiness because it increases meaningfulness, which in turn contributes to happiness, but when we corrected for the effect on meaningfulness, the pure effect of helping others was if anything the opposite: a reduced level of happiness.

Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self, and in particular to doing positive things for others. Meaningful involvements increase one’s stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness. (Spending money to get things went with happiness, but managing money was linked to meaningfulness.) Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker. Whereas happiness was focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrated past, present, and future, and it sometimes meant feeling bad. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but they are linked to higher meaningfulness — perhaps because people cope with them by finding meaning.

The Highly Meaningful But Unhappy Life

Our data enable us to construct a statistical portrait of a life that is highly meaningful but relatively low in happiness, which illuminates the differences between happiness and meaningfulness. This sort of life has received relatively little attention and even less respect. But people who sacrifice their personal pleasures in order to participate constructively in society may make substantial contributions. Cultivating and encouraging such people despite their unhappiness could be a goal worthy of positive psychology.

Our findings depict the unhappy but meaningful life as seriously involved in difficult undertakings. It was marked by ample worry, stress, argument, and anxiety. People with such lives spend much time thinking about past and future: They expect to do a lot of deep thinking, they imagine future events, and they reflect on past struggles and challenges. They perceive themselves as having had more unpleasant experiences than others, and in fact 3% of having a meaningful life was due to having had bad things happen to you.

Although these individuals may be relatively unhappy, several signs suggest they could make positive contributions to society. High meaningfulness despite low happiness was associated with being a giver rather than a taker. These people were likely to say that taking care of children reflected them, as did buying gifts for others. Such people may self-regulate well, as indicated by their reflecting on past struggles and imagining the future, and also in their tendency to reward themselves.

One can also use our findings to depict the highly happy but relatively meaningless life. People with such lives seem rather carefree, lacking in worries and anxieties. If they argue, they do not feel that arguing reflects them. Interpersonally, they are takers rather than givers, and they give little thought to past and future. These patterns suggest that happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

I am so delighted, even happy, that I stumbled across this happiness research.  May the deepest harmonies of nature and human culture conspire to bring about profound happiness for us all.

POEM: A Truth Foul

If you should believe
The hole truth
And nothing
A butt the truth
You may well be
Full if it
Perfectly primed
For letting go
Unable to be taken
Any more
By a singular won
By an other

This poem, like many of my poems, can be understood (or misunderstood) many ways.  Mostly, this is a poem about both hubris and hope.  If we are so full of ourselves in our ability to ascertain the truth and we are skeptical enough to find believing nothing as a dominant mode, then we may very well dangerous to others seeking truth.  Hubris is the blinding arrogance of our own experience of truth as the dominant mode.  This is typically matched by a substantial discounting of others’ experience of truth.  Hubris is cynicism producing and the enemy of hope.  Hope is able to blossom when our perspective is genuinely open to others’ experiences and whatever current ideology we hold is alive enough to grow in the light of the living truth in other living beings.  This is typically paired with a humble attitude toward our own limited body of experiences.  I see true humility as a right-sizing of our place and role in the world (and universe).  True humility, as most commonly viewed, is not being too big or oversized.  Of course, true humility is also served by us rising up to whatever responsibility matches our particular endowment of moral agency and power.  Being too small is a vote for humiliation, not humility.  The line in the poem, “Unable to be taken,” similarly cuts both ways.  “Being taken,” as duped or cheated, is perhaps one of the most unwelcome and trust betraying realities in life.  I suspect that it is difficult to overestimate the effort we will employ to avoid such situations.  Similarly true, “being taken,” as in being taken by a lover or experience of overwhelming awe, can be profoundly life transforming in previously unimagined ways.  I think that the openness and vulnerability inherently in “being taken” inextricably links both forms/meanings.  Hardening oneself to being duped or cheated likewise hardens one’s ability and likelihood of enthrallment.  By cutting ourselves off from vulnerability and intimacy, we rob ourselves of its upsides, in essence throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  I posit that living a life that is not adept at being taken is a life that to that same degree is not fully lived.   May you find hope and enthrallment that is worth infinitely more than whatever you have been cheated out of life.

POEM: Needling a Haystack

The stockpiles of human knowledge grow exponentially
And wisdom, like needling a haystack
Says, “What the hay?!”
Finding better questions is where it’s at
Not how fast you can shovel it
Nor how big your pitchfork is
Rather what thread follows
And sew what

This short poem is a tribute to questioning with a purpose.  Unfettered skepticism produces cynicism.  Wisdom recognizes that some questions are better than others.  In fact, what questions you ask determines what answers you get.  This poem cuts through the exponential amassing of knowledge by honing our attention to that which mends our reality together into a meaningful whole.  Without meaning full questions to guide our inquiries, greater access to knowledge simply leads to greater confusion.  The attraction and distraction of a tsunami of available answers to questions, i.e., knowledge, can actually hamper wisdom.  Now, this isn’t some anti-intellectual argument.  This simply recognizes that intellect lacking wisdom is much less fruitful, even dangerous.  The quests for scientific knowledge and wisdom are consonant.  Both seek to integrate knowledge into an ever greater whole.  Knowledge that serves the whole, as opposed to just some part of reality, is a better quality of knowledge.  Knowledge isn’t just about bits and pieces, mere facts; true knowledge is about a deeper understanding of the relationship of these parts to each other, and most importantly, the whole.  Wisdom has a deep respect for the whole, and an even deeper reverence for the fact that the ever greater whole can only be tentatively and incompletely described.  Thus, wisdom is characterized by both humility and curiosity.  Wisdom opposes militant ideologies and apathy.  In fact, militant ideologies are simply ideologies that have lost humility and curiosity and stopped seeking out the ever-elusive, ever-greater whole, which is at least partially represented by those outside a militant ideology.  This fact escapes many trapped in militant ideologies because they mistake totality for unity.  Wisdom is an inoculation against militancy, fascism, and fundamentalism.  This is because the humility and curiosity of wisdom breeds a generous attitude in seeking a harmonious relationship with the whole.  The openness of wisdom is not merely a corollary of the tentativeness of empirical skepticism and scientific reductionism; it is is rooted in the positive appreciation for the value of the “other” which comprise the yet-undiscovered aspects of reality and ineluctable mystery.  This may be your enemy.  This may be God.  It may be both.  A generosity transcending mere openness is made possible by a trust or faith in the whole being more valuable than the parts, even the sum of the parts.  This faith is as essential to healthy scientific investigation as it is to loving human relationships.  This simply assumes, or prefers, science that serves the whole rather than some special interest.  This simply assumes, or prefers, human relationships that don’t reduce humans to things to be manipulated, but beings to be appreciated.  The generosity of wisdom is the mother to its only true child: kindness.  In humility, stripped of arrogance and egocentricity, and equipped with an overpowering curiosity and a transcendent appreciation of the “other,” only kindness remains.  And all good will follow.

POEM: Super Bowl Sunday

Super Bowl Sunday

Guess what I herd
It’s Super Bowl™ Sabbath
Quite coincidentally on Sunday
And I’m not sure who’s playing who
Perhaps the Cowboys and Indians
Or the Lions and the Christians
The eternal argument weather
Its just
A little gamey
Either weigh
It’s all-American
Only more so
Unlike baseball
Hear the greatest fans
Are on the bench
Couching their devotion
In hyperbole
Ever hoping that
The game
Is more interesting
Than the commercials
Praying for a comeback
If only we can just stop ’em!
The incessant commentary of the retired
Mature men
Alternatingly offensive and defensive
Only sew I’m tolled
And sow I will
Endless possibilities
Each with much deeper rootings

As you might have guessed by this poem, I’m not much of a sports fan.  I don’t necessarily have an inherent problem with sports.  I do see sports obsessions as a big part of the playbook to distract people from the real issues in their life.  As some mild catharsis, this may be fine.  Nonetheless, I suspect that for the millions of Americans who spend time following sports second only to work, this probably doesn’t represent a healthy balance in life. Of course, if people are actually playing sports, I find this much more worthwhile. Unfortunately, we have bred a spectating American culture more than a participatory one. Western civilization may not be able to stand (and may have to settle for sitting on the couch) without living vicariously through celebrities.  I suspect that if alien anthropologists visited America, they would likely conclude that sports and/or making money were the leading religions, outdistancing traditional faiths.

I don’t think that it is an accident that one of the most violent American sports, football, is among the most hotly contested among its fans.  This strikes me as not too far removed from fomenting patriotism in the run up to war when Team America is scheduled to go up against loathsome Team Anybody Else.  Competition is one thing; world domination is another.  For instance, has anyone else wondered why the World Series in baseball only includes U.S.!  Such blind arrogance and American exceptionalism makes the world a more dangerous place to live.

I do love rooting for underdogs, so you can reliably guess which team I’d root for, even if I’m not even aware of the game. So, whether it’s Team Tweedle Dee or Team Tweedle Dumb, you may just find me silently somewhere else…

POEM: Paying Attention

Are you too broke to pay attention?

This one-line poem most directly seeks to de-link material wealth from perhaps the greatest tool available to humans: consciousness, or mindfulness.  Being able to access mindfulness, regardless of wealth, status, or “worldly” power, is perhaps the greatest foundation for achieving justice and equality, as well as “enlightenment.”  Being mindful of our inner life and our outer life, particularly other sentient beings, better aligns us with reality. Mindfulness is necessary to mine the inner life of our own subjectivity and how this may resonate with others’ subjectivity (including any conception or belief about God).  Mindfulness is necessary to accurately, minimizing bias, “objectively, ” understand the outer world we share with others.  While mindfulness is simply a process, the end result is compassion and empathy, which I believe is the glue that holds humanity together.  By truly paying attention to the difficulties of life encountered by ourselves and others, it is nearly impossible to avoid developing compassion and empathy.  This includes humility for ourselves, in facing the daunting challenges of life.  This humility serves as a shield from hubris, the arrogance that distorts our own view of ourselves in relation to others and discounts our many ignorances about ourselves and the world in which we live.  I am not too broke to pay attention.  However, I am just enough broke to appreciate humility and the many graces which even allow me to ponder such matters.

POEM: Escaping Hubris

Indigency is the quickest road
Out of hubris
Few of us can afford
Its high price

Hubris, or arrogance, is powerfully seductive in the human mind.  This excessive self-confidence seems to be an inescapable part of egocentricity.  Nonetheless, as humans feel more powerful and secure, hubris dangerously careens into indifference and disconnection from other humans and the rest of life.  Hubris short-circuits empathy and compassion.  Research shows that wealth and power lead to reduced compassion.  Recognizing our own vulnerability, our own areas of insecurity and powerlessness, reinforce empathy and compassion, better connecting us with others.  This vulnerability is a central aspect of intimacy, which is key to living into our full humanity.  If we are not able to risk and trust, then we will be disabled regarding forming deep social connections, having to settle for relative isolation.  In this short poem, I use indigency as a proxy and condition of vulnerability; thus, making it an insurance policy against hubris.  I chose indigency as the surest and quickest road out of hubris because it has the benefit of having the material conditions to support vulnerability built-in, not just an emotional or mental state to be maintained by sheer will or mental activity.  Also, I would like to redeem the state of indigency, which has a nearly universal negative connotation.  I see indigency as one of two basic realities in life.  We are dependent. We are dependent on other people and a myriad of other things that we have no control over.  The other basic reality is that we are free, we have control, at least some control, over ourselves.  I think our attitude over our “indigency,” our dependence on things outside of us, forms our most fundamental spiritual state, our attitude toward the world.  How will I relate to others and the world around me?  Will I act in ways affirming friendliness and beneficence, or cruelty and indifference?  My attitude does not definitively answer the question of whether the universe is friendly or not, but it does define the nature of my agency and how I choose to vote — by my actions. What will I contribute to the world?  Modern psychology affirms the fact that people function better with a positive outlook than a negative outlook.  People seem to be better suited to acting in accordance with being in a sea of grace than in a cold, indifferent world.  Hubris denies the former and is a vote for indifference — which rather conveniently, is a vote for oneself over all else (not exactly indifferent, just unaware of one’s bias)!  The last line of the poem, “Its high price,” is purposely vague, in that “it” can refer to the high price of hubris and the high price of indigency.  Life seems to exact a price no matter what choices we make.  Life demands effort.  There is a price to be paid.  Would you rather pay the high cost of indigency or the high cost of hubris?  By the way, hubris is the default!

POEM: Toddling Western Civilization

Have you ever seen a toddler who can barely walk
Stumbling forward, running to not fall
Deliriously proud of oneself
This may be Western civilization

This short poem is a metaphor for Western civilization.  For any of us who have been around toddlers at that age when they are just learning how to walk, it is quite a sight to see how they look like they’re almost going to fall down, stumbling forward, and moving their feet faster and faster, eagerly hoping that they don’t fall down.  Interestingly, these toddlers just learning how to walk typically don’t show fear; they may show mild anxiety but the overall experience seems to be one of excitement at learning something new.  This could even be seen as deliriously proud (though this may be more of an adult anthropomorphization than the toddler’s experience).  I want the reader to experience that sense of anticipation and excitement.  Then, of course, comes the turn around.  Making this whole experience a metaphor for Western civilization rips the fresh innocence of a toddler into the immature delirium of the world rift with arrogant adults.  While this state of existence as a toddler is natural and commendable, this state of existence as an adult is horrifically developmentally delayed and dangerous.  The third line about being deliriously proud of one’s self could just as well have been omitted and the poem would’ve made perfect sense.  However, this line serves as a transition in comparison of the toddler and adult states.  As alluded to before, the  experience of the toddler is probably not accurately described as proud, since the self-awareness of a toddler is probably not that well developed.  Thus, I took the liberty of anthropomorphizing a bit.  The statement is intended to be prescient of the metaphor for Western civilization, a set-up.  Also, the anthropomorphizing can actually be viewed as projecting adults’ experience onto the toddler, which is a conceptual pun, meaning that projecting our own experience onto the world is part and parcel of the the arrogance present in Western civilization.

Now, back to the second line.  The running to not fall strikes me as a very apt image of our culture which values ever-increasing speed.  Mahatma Gandhi once said that there is more to life than increasing its speed.  I agree wholeheartedly.  In fact, the conundrum we seem to find ourselves in most of the time is substituting speed for almost anything else of value.  We may not know where we are going but dammit we are getting there fast.  This reminds me of one of my own sayings which I’ll probably blog about at some other time, “Sometimes you get there faster in slow motion.”  As a one-size-fits-all solution, increasing speed not only leads us to do the same things over and over again, perhaps expecting different results, but leads us to doing those same things even more so; that is, more efficiently, more crap in less time.  I have a lot to say about blessed inefficiency and how this better resembles life, rather than the cogs in some robotic machine as modern Western civilization would have it.  But back to the poem.  For a toddler, not falling down is a simple pragmatic desire not to hurt oneself.  For adults in Western civilization, not falling down often represents a perfectionism and fear of failure that ironically is often self-defeating.  This immature perfectionism and fear of failure can be a powerful underlying emotional state that drives our anxiety-ridden, fast-paced race to make life better.  Ironically, this fast-paced way of living serves quite well as a coping mechanism for avoiding dealing with our underlying anxiety.

The basic error that leads to applying speed to any and all problems, seems to be rooted in a confusion of means and ends.  It’s probably trite to say that life is a process, a means, but it is true.  People are not things, ends.  In the end, it’s the difference between living and having our lives lived for us (as a means for something else). Yet, our modern Western civilization seems to be persistently incapable of distinguishing between people and things:  “Employees aren’t people, they are expenses.”  This is the kind of prevalent, ignorant crap that dehumanizes us all.  Although, if you don’t mind treating people as things, means to an end, you can really make and consume an amazing amount of stuff (including people) through the miracles of efficiency (see eugenics).  This is pretty much a capitalist’s wet dream.  Unfortunately, dehumanization is a two-way street, and the capitalists dehumanize themselves in the process.  While in some sense, in some impersonal karmic way, this may seem like poetic justice, it really just sucks!  We can do better!  We need not (and should not) rely on the cause-and-effect, every-action- has-an-equal-and-opposite-reaction, materialistic world to do our business for us.  That’s why we have humanity.  Try it, you’ll like it!