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Which Path to Happiness? Barbie or Oppenheimer? Or Barbenheimer?

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

I don’t know if we can be trusted with such a weapon. But I know the Nazis can’t. We have no choice. – Oppenheimer, the movie

Yay space! - Barbie, the movie

The purpose of life is to have an good time. - Albert Ellis, American psychologist, founder of rational emotive behavior therapy

If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life. Abraham Maslow, American psychologist, creator of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

If you could pick what sort of life you would like to lead every day, would you prefer to:

A. do fun things? OR

B. would you prefer a life in which you were doing things for others – things that you felt made the world a better place? OR

C. would you prefer a life with a balance or mixture of pleasure and making the world a better place?

This question was what I was asking one of my thirteen-year-old granddaughters, Sophia, yesterday. I tried to simply explain to her what hedonic meant in terms of life-aims (a life oriented toward pleasure) and eudaimonic (which she thought was an exceptionally weird word…a life oriented toward purpose and meaning).

Sophia chose a balance of pleasure and meaning – hedonia and eudaimonia. She explained why that would be important to her … and anyone really she argued.

“Of course, one must have some fun. Being full of fun and happiness could give people energy to help others. So it is a good thing. And doing good things for others would make you happy and others happy and it is just good for everybody.”

Researchers seem to agree to a large extent with Sophia. Not the exact ratio of hedonic to eudaimonic activities, but to the general scheme, some of each.

However, I read some recent research, a study published in the Frontiers of Psychology which offers some nuance on choosing a path or life orientation and the effect on life satisfaction and happiness.

It seems that people with higher levels of "psychological maturity" get more of a bang out of experiencing meaning and from developing what we might call character and resilience (these are my words). Not to say these folks can’t enjoy the simple pleasures too.

Now I bet I know what you are thinking…what the heck is "psychological maturity" and how would you measure that? Well, I’d say psychological maturity as these researchers explain it sounds pretty close to what we might think of as moral development if that makes more sense.

What this study reported (using Russian volunteers…so think about that for a minute) was that people’s paths toward happiness change along with their psychological maturity. They used American psychologist, Dr. Jane Loevinger’s stages of development and an assessment she devised.

According to Loevinger as people mature psychologically, they attain new strategies for establishing and strengthening relationships, making sense of their life experiences, and they become more self aware - skillful with their ability to regulate themselves.

Essentially, people move from a pre-occupation with their own desires and emotions to understanding how they differ from others. They are more able to cope with their feelings, and more able to make difficult decisions. They slowly learn that they are not the only person in the world…not everything revolves around what they want, or feel, or think. They are more compassionate toward others, more thoughtful of others' needs.

Now this is a rather hard lesson to get. Saturday I told three grandchildren who were visiting for the weekend that John was giving a presentation on Sunday. Our job was to focus on his needs around the presentation (which also involved setting up food) and help the day go well for the presentation.

We were take to care of our own needs. Offer support and encouragement to John.

Well, ten minutes before we were to leave, seven-year-old, Eli, became intensely occupied with getting his camera re-charged. I reminded him that we would normally be able to help, but not today. I asked him to try to switch his focus from his camera to helping John.

That switching focus idea, from my needs to considering another's needs, just did not seem possible for Eli at the time. But he rallied with some tears. Later, I heard him telling someone at John's presentation – “I had a hard time switching my focus off my camera today.”

Impressive. Gave me hope for myself.

So, if you are like me, you are curious about what sort of assessment people complete to determine their psychological maturity. It’s a finish this sentence thing.

For example, the person being assessed might get this sort of stem to complete “Being with other people is…”

If you are in an early stage of ego development, you might finish the sentence with “cool” or “something I enjoy” or “awful.”

Later stages of ego development finish the sentence in more complex ways like “can be tiresome but valuable.”

People with high levels of ego development have a greater desire for personal development, to reach out and accept new challenges. This is not to say that older adults cannot be immature – we can remain all our lives in impulsive, self-protective stages with little advancement according to the researchers. One little nugget I learned, however, did associate the search for meaning with age. Those in their twenties and sixties seemed to be more actively exploring meaning.

Okay, then how to experience more meaning. If we want to. Short answers.

A sense of belonging to social group gives more meaning. Learning how to savor everyday experiences gave more meaning; there’s much more (I listened to a podcast which I will share later about finding meaning and happiness as we age which had some bearing on this topic), but I liked this one the most…

Movies. Meaningful movies. What are meaningful movies?

Movies that integrate challenging life experiences – the sad along with the happy. Movies that make us laugh and cry. Movies that help us make sense of the world.

Movies like (in no particular order):

§ The Shawshank Redemption

§ Forrest Gump

§ The Pursuit of Happyness

§ Into the Wild

§ The Green Mile

§ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

§ Schindler’s List

§ A Beautiful Mind

§ The Pianist

§ Slumdog Millionaire

§ Gran Torino

§ Rain Man

§ Good Will Hunting

§ Saving Private Ryan

§ Dead Poet’s Society

§ Braveheart

§ Hotel Rwanda

§ Million Dollar Baby

§ Gladiator

§ Up

Since I love movies and believe stories can have a huge impact on how we orient our lives, I’m going to opt for re-connecting with some of them. And I'll watch Oppenheimer. I’m also not going to just seek out movies for meaning. Sophia and I will be watching Barbie together in a couple of days, just for fun. But who knows? I'll stay open. Maybe we'll find unexpected complexity there. I heard some say they laughed, cried, and screamed through the entire movie.

How might we journey to together to the good life by figuring out our own best path to the good life…hedonic, eudaimonic, or a mixture of some sort?

And I’m thinking either way, we get to go to the movies or Netflix or Hulu…

And I hope you'll let me know some of your own more meaningful movies.


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