Happiness, Meaning and Les Miserables

Monk at golden Lake
Photo Credit: Hartwig HKD via Compfight

Some of those who work in positive psychology were surprised by a recent research study by Roy Baumeister showing that stress and anxiety was linked to less happiness but more meaningfulness in life.  Why would a meaningful life be more stressful and less happy?  Aren’t we always reading about how having a sense of purpose and meaning contributes to a happier life?  Isn’t meaning important?

I could at this point, as I often do on this blog, talk about “false dichotomies.” I could argue, as many often do, that meaning and happiness go hand in hand.  You do not have to choose one or the other.  You can have it all!

But I think what we are seeing here is actually a true dichotomy.  We all arrive at forks in the road where happiness lies down one branch and meaning is down the other.  Sometimes we do have to make a choice.

I was thinking about this the other night while watching the new film version of Les Misérables.  Les Misérables has long been one of my favorite stories and the musical soundtrack is easily one of the most listened to albums I have ever owned (Back in the day, I played the cassettes to death in my car on long drives and eventually had to repurchase the 2-CD set.)

I fell in love with Jean Valjean, the main character, from the very beginning of the story as he is completing his grueling 19 years of prison for stealing a loaf of bread in order to save his sister’s child.  A meaningful choice to be sure, but certainly not a happy one.

(Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen or read any version of Les Miz, stop reading this article and run, don’t walk to get the book or see the movie.  If you don’t mind hearing some of the details, read on . . .)

Again and again in the movie (or book, or play) the characters have to confront decisions for meaning or happiness.  And again and again, they choose meaning—exactly what makes the story so profoundly moving and inspiring:

The Bishop gives away his fine silver to save the soul of a poor wretch.  Fantine becomes a prostitute to raise money for her sick daughter.  Jean Valjean turns himself in to the authorities to save an innocent who would take his place.  Eponine takes a bullet for someone she loves.  Marius forsakes love and personal happiness to fight for a cause in the French revolution (“Who cares about your lonely soul/we strive towards a larger goal/our little lives don’t count at all.”)  In the same revolution, countless young men give their lives while fighting for their freedom.

It would be difficult to identify any character in the story that did not sacrifice their personal happiness in pursuit of some meaningful goal.  (But what do you expect from a movie called “Les Misérables?”)

At the end of the movie, Valjean is again called upon to decide between meaning and happiness.  He rescues young Marius and brings him home, knowing that Marius will take away his beloved Cosette, the girl that he raised as his own.

Obviously, these are examples from a fictional account, and you could find countless more fictional examples that tell this same story.  But you can probably also find examples in your own life—times when you took on extra stress and sorrow to do something that you believed was important.

Maybe, as in the case of Les Misérables, these meaningful examples involve sacrificing your own happiness for that of someone else; someone that you love or someone that is needier than you.

Jean Valjean ends the movie (double spoiler alert!) suffering from a broken heart for having to leave behind his beloved Cosette.  But there is no question that his life was a meaningful one and Cosette and Marius’ happy existence lives on as proof of that.

Like many meaningful lives, Jean Valjean’s redemption from suffering comes only with the evaluation of his life once it is over; with the knowledge of a love so deep that it came with great sacrifice.  “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

I think Baumeister’s research shows an important aspect of life.  The meaningful life and the happy life do not always go hand in hand.  Holistic health expert Dr. Daniel Friedland puts it simply: “sometimes you have to choose between what feels good and what feels right.”  What would you choose?

While Les Misérables is not a happy story, it does fill us with inspiration.  We come away not feeling happy, but questioning what we believe in, what are we willing to suffer for, and what kind of person do we really want to be.

All good questions for those who want to live a meaningful life.

References and recommended reading:

Hugo, V. (1987). Les Misérables. Signet Classics.


by Jeremy McCarthy

The facebook page for The Psychology of Wellbeing now has over 1,000 likes!  Please join us there!

, , , ,

13 Responses to Happiness, Meaning and Les Miserables

  1. Lisa Sansom January 29, 2013 at 8:29 am #

    I also love Les Miz, and perhaps it’s all the sacrifices in the name of love and meaning that ring for me. However, the one character you haven’t mentioned is Javert, and his sense of meaning actually gets in his way and the resulting “cognitive dissonance” actually leads to his suicide. So too much meaning (or blind beliefs?) can definitely get in the way…

  2. Jeremy McCarthy January 29, 2013 at 9:58 am #

    Interesting thought Lisa. I had not considered that in the case of Javert. Like the other characters, Javert also sacrifices his personal happiness (and eventually his life) for meaning. But you are right that his meaning got in the way.

    In some way you could say that meaning got in the way for all of these characters. But in the case of Javert it does seem like the meaning he constructed was not based on a solid foundation of truth. I love that you linked this to cognitive dissonance. You could compare Javert dying for his beliefs with others like Eponine or the young revolutionaries who also gave their lives for a purpose. The difference being that Javert died over dissonance with his beliefs and the others over coherence with theirs.

  3. Kathy Stolle January 29, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    Good dialogue, you two….Have another look at what Todd Kashdan has to say in http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201009/the-problem-happiness.

    Another interesting article: http://facultygsb.stanford.edu/aaker/pages/documents/SomeKeyDifferencesHappyLifeMeaningfulLife_2012.pdf

    The older I get the more I subscibe to the Aristotlean version of happiness: “”Happiness is desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else. But honor, pleasure, reason and every virtue, we choose indeed for themselves, but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself. Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient.”

    While many of the characters In Les Miserables chose courses of action not necessarily guaranteed to bring them personal happiness in every case, as you pointed out, they acted in coherence with their beliefs and were happy a great deal of the time. Doing the right thing, that which is personally meaningful and of value to others or to society in general, does bring happiness. Meaningful = giving; happiness = taking…..

  4. Jeremy McCarthy January 29, 2013 at 12:48 pm #

    Thanks Kathy, I also wrote about this (and cited Todd Kashdan) here: http://psychologyofwellbeing.com/201103/the-first-rule-of-happiness-you-do-not-talk-about-happiness.html.

    The problem is you can say pretty much whatever you want about happiness depending on how you define it. When researchers say happiness and meaning don’t go hand in hand, they are predominately referring to hedonic happiness or positive emotions. But most people (and Aristotle) use the word happiness to describe a sense of eudaimonic wellbeing. In other words, there is a sense that we are “happy” to suffer . . . for the right cause.

  5. Lisa Sansom January 29, 2013 at 1:05 pm #

    This also makes me think of Dweck’s fixed and growth mindsets (because I love the model and everything makes me think of it… but still…)

    Javert had a very fixed notion of Valjean’s ability to change – Javert saw Valjean as a criminal and therefore unchangeable. However, Javert does recognize (at least in his early days) that he was “from the gutter too” and rose to prominence as a enforcer of the law. Yet, I do think that his fixed mindset about others (and perhaps about his own inability to change, once he fixed his identity as a law enforcer) also contributed to his suicide.

    The lesson is clear – having a fixed mindset is deadly… 🙂

  6. Oz January 30, 2013 at 3:22 am #

    Happiness and meaning are mutually exclusive – perhaps for some people. I have always thought that meaning is the ultimate meta cognitive reframe.

    Me thinks you Have been listening to too many miserable ba….rds as we would say in oz.

  7. Oz January 30, 2013 at 3:28 am #

    As an aside do you think fredricksons upward spiral might lead to meaning

  8. Jeremy McCarthy January 31, 2013 at 10:35 am #

    I think you are right about meaning being the ultimate cognitive reframe. This is the basic premise of terror management theory. We are meaning-making creatures because we need to feel a sense of meaningfulness in order to confront the realities of our tiny existence and our own mortality. Not a very uplifting thought but worth pondering over a pint.

    I’m not sure I understand your suggested link between upward spirals and meaning except to say that the upward spiral is a feedback loop and perhaps an important one that we use in determining what is meaningful to us. When we find ourselves in an upward spiral we may have a sense that ‘this feels right” which could create greater meaning. But like Valjean or Fantine, you might also find a deep sense of meaning in something that creates a downward spiral.

  9. oz January 31, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

    Now imagine if we could transcend this search for meaning and except life for what it is.

    At obsessing about meaning is no better than obsessing about happiness.

    Perhaps we should just get on with life

  10. oz January 31, 2013 at 11:00 pm #

    sorry damned voice dictation – meant accept

  11. Jeremy McCarthy February 1, 2013 at 9:43 pm #

    I sometimes contrast a “universal scale” with “the scale of human experience.” For example, while it may be true on a universal scale that there is no free will (and science increasingly supports this) on the scale of human experience there is free will and it would be silly to live otherwise. Likewise, there may be no meaning to life on a universal scale, but on the scale of human experience meaning may be all we have.

  12. Oz February 3, 2013 at 3:02 am #

    now is all we have


  1. Coca-Cola Really Does Sell Happiness | The Psychology of Wellbeing - May 7, 2013

    […] These are often things we are willing to fight for or suffer for (see my article on the meaning in Les Miserables or another one on the “parenting […]

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes