Do We Have to Choose a Life of Happiness or a Life of Meaning?

Mr. Linderman: You see, I think there comes a time when a man has to ask himself whether he wants a life of happiness or a life of meaning.

Nathan Petrelli: I'd like to think I have both.

Mr. Linderman: Can't be done. Two very different paths. I mean, to be truly happy, a man must live absolutely in the present. And with no thought of what's gone before, and no thought of what lies ahead.  But, a life of meaning... a man is condemned to wallow in the past and obsess about the future.

— From  the TV series Heroes,
(Season 1 and 2 are very good but don’t bother with season 3 or 4).

Life of Happiness or Life of Meaning

An article in Scientific American, A Happy Life May not Be a Meaningful life, cited a study in which happiness was strongly associated with seeing life as easy, pleasant, and free from difficult or troubling events, good health, plenty of money and feeling well most of the time.  However, what the researchers found was that none of these things correlated with a greater sense of meaning and purpose.


What is Happiness Anyway?

The trouble with this scientific approach to trying to assess meaning versus happiness is that it gets mired in the philosophical debate over what constitutes happiness.  For example, some researchers equate happiness with transient emotional states or even spikes of activity in pleasure centers of the brain, while others base it on overall life satisfaction. Some researchers, like Ed Diener of the University of Illinois (nicknamed Dr. Happiness), a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, have tried to group together aspects of happiness under the term “subjective well-being,” which encompasses assessments of positive and negative emotions, as well as overall life satisfaction.

These differences in definitions of happiness lead to confusing, or even contradictory, findings and really don’t bring any tangible solutions to our life problems.


The Yogic View of Happiness

The ancient Yogis of India indisputably agree that happiness will elude us as long as we take ourselves too seriously. 

Or in more spiritual terms, sustained happiness is not possible if we identify our True Self (Atman), who is divine, to be one with, and a product of, the body, mind, and sense organs. As such, the true purpose of our life is to rediscover that we are birth less, deathless, changeless, limitless, immortal Atman or spirit, temporarily housed in our physical body and mind.

Unfortunately, this view of the self as an unbounded spirit has permeated the Yogic culture in the West without fully assimilating the deeper Yogic teachings of the sacrifice and surrender required to reach this higher potential. Instead, it has been simplified and translated by “new age culture” to mean that we can manifest our own reality and that we are entitled to a permanent life of happiness. 


The Four Goals of Life

The Yogic view of finding happiness versus meaning in life begins by recognizing four essential aspirations or goals of all human beings, called Purushatras, that in combination contribute to our well being and a healthy well rounded life. With the exception of those destined to extraordinary lives of sacrifice such as monks, great leaders or spiritual masters, most of us have to harmonize these four goals to live a life of balance, achievement and fulfillment.

  1. Dharma (Meaning/Righteous Action)
  2. Artha (Resources/Health/Food)
  3. Kama (Fulfillment of Desires/Pleasure)
  4. Moksha (Transcendence/Detachment)

Each of the twelve houses in the horoscope relates to one of these goals and reveals how much enthusiasm we have in our consciousness for them. Most people have horoscopes that emphasize one or two and neglect the others, which usually leads to discontentment and sorrow.

The dashas (planetary periods) reveal in which order they will unfold, as well as abrupt changes to what brings meaning or happiness to our lives. The placement of the planets tells if the goal will be achieved with ease or difficulty. The Zodiac sign shows the environment in which they will manifest.

You could say that the primary role of the Vedic Astrologer is to help you attain each of these aspirations, based on your individual karma in a timely and age appropriate manner in order to have the most fulfilling life.

Let us look at the four aspirations more deeply and the astrological houses they relate to.

Dharma : Houses 1, 5, and 9

This is the foremost goal of life. While there is no real translation in English for this concept, it is the closest to living a life of “meaning and purpose.” It is usually connected to a social or spiritual code of conduct or belief that drives our decisions regardless of happiness. Being able to express our unique innate talents, inspiration, and creative expression are also expressed by these houses, as these also give meaning and purpose to our life.

These houses give meaning but often require much sacrifice of happiness, ease, and comfort. For example, the fifth house pertains to our creativity, including our children, whose care and protection requires Dharma, or doing the right thing, rather than following our pleasure-seeking impulses.

Planets influencing or placed in Houses 1, 5 and 9 are considered the most auspicious of all the four goals of life, and when these houses are well disposed or active through dashas, living a life of meaning comes with more ease.

Dharma houses flourish under the influence of Jupiter and the Sun, the planets of ethics, morality, and right conduct.

Artha: Houses 2, 6, and 10

The second goal of life is more practical and worldly and relates to keeping the body fed, purified, and healthy, acquisition of resources, as well as acquiring a practical trade and career in the world.

These houses require much effort and often engage us in repetitive tasks, much like a farmer plowing the field, so he can have food for his family, postponing celebration until harvest day. As such, one aspect of earning a living is doing work that is not necessarily the most "meaningful" or inspirational but essential to our well being.

Artha houses flourish under the influence of Saturn and Mercury, the planets that concern themselves with the tangible world.

Kama: Houses 3, 7, and 11

This goal is probably the closest to “happiness” in the way we see it in the world today. It pertains to the built-in yearning in every human being to seek pleasure and delight, including sexual gratification.

Our senses are designed to seek out experiences that give us elation and joy, be it scrumptious food, a sunset, music, art, or even studying something we enjoy. However, this remains a lower goal because it is easy to fall under the tantalizing spell of the senses. Left unchecked, our senses can lead to us to creating an imbalanced life, lacking in meaning or resources, which ultimately results in much sorrow. 

Kama houses flourish under the influence of Venus, the planet that would like to give you the world on a sliver platter if it could. Mercury also does well here, as does Jupiter for monetary gains.

Moksha: Houses 4, 8 and 12

In Vedic philosophy, permanent or long-term happiness can only be attained by achieving the final and most difficult goal of life, which is detachment from the game of life and yielding personal will to divine will (karma).

Happiness here is not dependent on achieving, creating, winning, acquiring or sustaining any outer circumstance but rather living in the present and simply being with what is. This is the happiness Mr. Lienderman was talking about in the conversation at the beginning of the article (too bad he turned out to be such a villain in the series).

These Houses require "letting go" and swimming with the currents, as they are tremendous at giving on the inner but not necessarily on the outer.

The fourth house does it through home, inner sanctuary and even sleep. Houses 8 and 12 are the most difficult of all the houses in the horoscope, as they are concerned with unraveling that which we fear; they bring us into the realm of the unknown, mysterious and unfamiliar. This can cause us much sorrow and pain but also have the potential to heal us to the core.

Even though Moksha it is the foremost aspiration of human birth, it comes in as the last because most of us cannot truly move towards this goal until the first three have been fulfilled. Only then are we genuinely ready to recognize that there is no permanent happiness to be found in this impermanent world and that everlasting bliss (ananda) is only attainable in the infinite and eternal.

Much caution is recommended to navigate these houses as they have the danger of becoming a pathway to escape and flight from “real” life.

Jupiter, Venus and Moon flourish in the 4th house but most planets with the exception of Ketu feel uncomfortable in houses 8 and 12, as these are our discomfort zones. 

A True Hero

The four goals were prescribed by the ancient yogic teachings to give us a life well lived with meaning, purpose and happiness, and to help us overcome our individual difficult karmas that often compel us to exclude one over the other, while still craving it. As we progress through our evolution, an aspiration may naturally lose its importance and predominance in our life, this natural progression is preferred over forced or exclusive pursuit.

Each facilitates the other when we pay attention to all four goals simultaneously. However, Dharma virtue, meaning and honor, should always remain the primary impulse behind all while keeping an eye on Moksha, transcendence, as the final prize.