Weekend Reading: There’s More to Life than Happiness

A big part of my work has been influenced by the French philosopher Volney who stated that human beings strive to become happy through becoming better and more virtuous. In Empire of Ruins he wrote that the purpose of life was:

“To render you more happy…by rendering you better and more virtuous. It is to teach man to enjoy his benefits, and not injure his fellows…”

In other words, happiness is not merely about making yourself happy. It is, in large part, about giving something to the world that makes the world a better place. That could be goods or services or your time or something else. Who knows? But happiness is not merely the pursuit of personal happiness, but providing something to your surroundings that gives other people reason to value your contribution. That’s the path to true wealth. We could go off on tangents here about what’s “productive” and what’s not, but the value of your contribution to society is ultimately determined by other people and the demand for your contribution (whatever it might be). So, the true path to wealth is giving something back. In essence, true happiness is derived from giving something more to others than you give to yourself.

Anyhow, I am blathering, but I was excited to read this story in The Atlantic from January about the same issues. Give it a read, give it some thought and tell me where I am wrong if you think so….




Got a comment or question about this post? Feel free to use the Ask Cullen section, leave a comment in the forum or send me a message on Twitter.

Cullen Roche

Mr. Roche is the Founder of Orcam Financial Group, LLC. Orcam is a financial services firm offering research, private advisory, institutional consulting and educational services.

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  • http://breedinginstability.com Mountaineer

    I’m unfamiliar with Volney, but Frankl’s work (referenced in the Atlantic piece) is exceptional. Contemporary American society consistently undervalues hardship. You should look into Aurelius, if you haven’t already.

  • http://www.orcamgroup.com Cullen Roche

    I’ve read Aurelius, but not Frankl’s. Meditations is a must read for everyone. I’ll look into Frankl so thanks.

  • Barak

    Men’s search for meaning is a must read book for everyone in the wealth society. i see so many people who lose proportions regarding their well being and can’t find a purpose in life. depression is a sickness of mostly the rich. poor people who have to find food don’t have the time to be depressed. it is also more common for people who didn’t go through hardships in their lives, since they can’t put their current situation in the right proportions. people who’ve gone through hardships can always look back and know that it can be much worse and rejoice in their present lives.

  • William Bedloe

    I agree…Frankl’s work is a must read. You can read Volney’s work here for free:


  • http://www.conventionalwisdumb.com Conventional Wisdumb


    “Man’s Search For Meaning” by Viktor Frankl is one of the great books of all time on the subject of the mind.

  • http://www.conventionalwisdumb.com Conventional Wisdumb

    One of my favorite philosphers, Zig Ziglar, put it this way:

    “You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.”

    Sadly he died recently.



  • James Kostohryz


    The story of Victor Frankl became forever ingrained in my mind from the first time I read it. I remember it every single time I am facing adversity or I see others facing it.

    I also agree with you there is nothing that can provide one with a more durable sense of satisfaction with life than being able to observe the attainment of virtue in oneself.

  • James Kostohryz

    By the way, Cullen, if you re-read the text and its context, the meaning of the quote that you provide from Volney is really not that which you suggest here. Not at all really.

    No matter because I think the idea you are trying to get at is a very good one.


  • http://breedinginstability.com Mountaineer

    “I also agree with you there is nothing that can provide one with a more durable sense of satisfaction with life than being able to observe the attainment of virtue in oneself.”

    Yes. The effective outsourcing of happiness (in the classical sense) to factors that develop almost entirely outside of one’s control is an odd way to live.

  • http://www.orcamgroup.com Cullen Roche

    What’s your interpretation of the quote?

  • Kyle F.

    Aristotle defined Happiness or “Eudaimonia” as activity or “being-at-work” (poiesis) for its own sake. He also describes it as living or doing well. Much discussion was given to the kinds of activities consistent with the aim of Eudaimonia and also to the very nature of creativity (poiesis). He concludes that the chief activity is the activity of the divine, for him understood as pure intelligence (Nous), the unmoved mover. Also, between him and Plato, and many others, the reflections on “poiesis” or creativity is very interesting, and somewhat contrasting to the modern concept that we actually create something but rather the ancient concept that we discover something.

    Nonetheless, I find history’s great thinkers full of insight and at least in this case an agreement that happiness is not a feeling but an act-of-being. Human ontology is constructed around the concepts of mission, objective, and purpose. There seems to be no better place to assume such a life than in business.

    P.S. I was just in San Deigo, but kept on reading you were traveling. Too bad, it would have been a treat to meet your ugly mug.

  • Kyle F.

    That part of the discussion between the theologians and the men is exactly what Cullen is getting at. It is the climax of the discussion, upon which no one has any dispute. The simple men then respond, ok can’t argue with the idea that the end of one’s life is to be happy, now stop being complicated and tell us which religion promotes this.

    It would be great if our political discussions booted the influences of Rand’s egoism and assumed Volney’s Enlightened Self-interest.

  • Lilly

    As a Deist, I believe Volney was illustrating in this passage the reason why he believed a man does not need to get his understanding from another man who claims to have gotten his understanding from God. Instead you should learn the laws of nature for yourself.

    “I conclude that…we are not happy except when we observe the rules established by nature for the purpose of our conservation; and that all wisdom, all perfection, all law, all virtue, all philosophy, consist in the practice of these axioms founded on our own organization:

    Conserve yourself

    Instruct yourself

    Moderate yourself

    Live for others so that they may live for you.”

  • http://www.nowandfutures.com bart

    “What’s the use of happiness? It can’t buy you money.”
    — Henny Youngman


  • Waitingtoretire

    If you have to depend on someone else to tell you what happiness is then you do not know happiness…………………

  • William Bedloe

    Interesting factoid: Ruins of Empires was influential in the education of….Frankenstein’s monster

  • InvestorX

    What they call in the article “meaning” is what I call true happiness. Probably the best would be to be able to combine the superficial happiness (satisfying the selfish needs) with the “true happiness”, which requires taking care of others, harder work, pain etc.

  • ES71

    Free ticket to work somewhere for a charity in the 3rd world could be the cheapest cure for depression as a preventative measure.
    Someone already depressed might go completely unresponsive from being suddenly faced with difficult circumstances.

  • ES71

    > The ‘giving back’ to society is a part of what Abraham Maslow termed *altruism*, which was at the highest level of his ‘hierarchy of needs’. People who reach this level become self-realized. Maslow was perhaps the most notable psychologist of the 20th century.

    Exactly. You have to reach this level first. 905 of the world populatio has not hoipe of reaching that level o prosperity ever to start worryign about meaning of life.

  • ES71


  • ES71

    It is true for many people, helping others makes us feel good. We do it for selfish reasons.
    But majority of people I observed through my life don’t actually feel this way. Majority of people want to assert power and control over others, that is what makes them happy. They don’t understand how helping others is of any value. They think altruists are fools.
    Sadly, the altruists are a minority. Altruism is counterproductive to the basic survival.

  • StJuste

    I should be pleased by this article being both an economist by profession and training and a student of philosophy by predilection and choice. I am not. It is amazing to me how society reproduces itself, an idea pioneered by Gramsci, Bourdieu, Saussure, Foucault, Habermas and Adorno among others. While you and several colleagues appear to be trying to think out of a purely materialistic “res economica” box what the prevailing ideology has done is simply construct new higher walls, where previously you were trying to clamber over the first few stories.

    I was surprised by the reference to Victor Frankl, an author whom I didn’t know, but mostly because it is a name rich among Marxist authors in various permutations. Try Boris Frankl’s writings on the interpretation of culture for a start.

    I am hardly a Marxist except when it comes to the sociology of class but one must begin by understanding one’s own society and the philosophy that it readily serves up to one, before being able to critique it, and either embrace it or move beyond. You have begun an exciting intellectual enterprise. If you can come to grips with its context and parameters in the history of political and philosophical thought, it will be a so much richer endeavor.

  • http://None Midas II

    We live in America that is very materialistic. Altruism is rare. It means more than giving charity. Mit Romney’s remark about the 47% is a model of such American values. It has been an uphill fight to try creating a truly fair economy. A tenuous marginal financial life dominates an individual or a parent. Feeling happiness is having a healthy accomplished child, a loving spouse, and at least one true friend. Then you can help others without having to feel gratification in your own virtue.

  • Geoff

    To say that altruists are a minority is an understatement. I’m not sure anyone is really an altruist. As you mentioned, we “do good” almost always for selfish reasons, i.e. to get into heaven, to avoid feeling guilty, or to simply feel happy. The only example of true altruism that I can think of is a parent who is willing to die for their child. But even then, perhaps the parent simply couldn’t fact that loss, which again means they really did it for selfish reasons.

  • James Kostohryz

    Hi Cullen:

    Here is the context:

    “”He has given you the natural law,” said the doctors.

    “And what is the natural law?” replied the simple men. “If that law is sufficient, why has he given any other? If it is not sufficient, why did he make it imperfect?”

    “His judgements are mysteries,” said the doctors, “and his justice is not like that of men.”

    “If his justice,” replied the simple men, “is not like ours, by what rule are we to judge of it? And, moreover, why all these laws, and what is the object proposed by them?”

    “To render you more happy,” replied a doctor, “by rendering you better and more virtuous. It is to teach man to enjoy his benefits, and not injure his fellows, that God has manifested himself by so many oracles and prodigies.”

    “In that case,” said the simple men, “there is no necessity for so many studies, nor of such a variety of arguments; only tell us which is the religion that best answers the end which they all propose.” {165}

    Immediately, on this, every group, extolling it own morality above that of all others, there arose among the different sects a new and most violent dispute.”

    JK Note: I sort of see that quote as a bit of a throw-away line. It was a response by the arrogant doctors to the question posed by the simple men — and one which the simple men found inadequate. Given the context, anything that the doctors say here is of suspect value. Furthermore, the idea that that men become more happy by being virtuous and serving other men is not really fleshed out here.

    What the doctors are saying here is not so much an ode to virtue but an exortation to obedience to the laws (and to subjugation to them, by extension). According to the doctors, the object of the laws are to make people more happy by “rendering them more virtuous.” In other words, people attain virtue by obeying the laws. But we may well ask whether external authority and obedience to it truly renders men “virtuous.” Note that the author invites skepticism of this, amongst other reasons, because the doctors disagree about what the moral laws are or should be — in fact bickering violently about it. It would seem that the implication is that that true virtue must have a different source than mere blind allegiance to law and authority.

    But I repeat: I agree with the idea you are trying to convey, although I don’t really think that it is being conveyed or advocated via this quote.


  • James Kostohryz


    “It is the climax of the discussion, upon which no one has any dispute.”

    We must be reading completely different texts. In the one that I read, the whole discussion climaxes into a bitter dispute between all parties at that very point. And at the end the doctors are discredited and the simple people are rebuked for their servility.

  • Anton

    “A look of pure relief, and gratitude, and joy, washes over her face, and in this look, in this courageous little girl, I find the thing that I have been seeking, the philosopher’s stone that unites all experiences, good and bad, of the last few years. Her suffering, her resilient smile in the face of that sufferinng, my part in easing her suffering, this, this is the reason for everything. How many times must I be shown? This is why we are here. To fight through the pain, and when possible to relieve the pain of others… Remember this. Hold on to this. This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting value or meaning. This is why we are here. To make each other safe.” from “Open” by Andre Agassi

  • LRM

    Interesting how when we change the way we look at things the things we look at change.
    BTW, Cullen is traveling so may not always have internet to respond in a timely manner.

  • Johnny Evers

    What is the meaning of life?
    Faith, hope, charity.
    For me, the answers are found in classic Christian theology, which teaches us the individual is part of the body of man. The Golden Rule is not a quid pro quo deal in which I’ll be nice to you so you’ll be nice to me, but an expression of the idea that you and me are one.
    Clearly, you can find these answers in other frameworks … the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, or the teachings of the Buddha.
    Modern man is unhappy, and anxious, because so much of society is pressing him to accept the values of accomplishment and appearance, and to focus on himself as an individual, but such values eventually leave him empty and disillusioned.

  • Johnny Evers

    I reject the Maslow pyramid entirely.
    I’ve known people who were flat broke and disabled, struggling to meet their level 1 needs, who were giving love and friendship to others.
    You go into the worst neighborhood in any city, and you’ll find some wise old dude whose working in the top of the pyramid and willing to give away his last dollar.
    On the other side, there are people with all the money in the world who don’t give a shit about anybody but themselves.

  • Scott

    If you haven’t read Man’s Search for Meaning by Frankl, you must.

  • William Bedloe

    Cullen says: “In other words, happiness is not merely about making yourself happy. It is, in large part, about giving something to the world that makes the world a better place. That could be goods or services or your time or something else. Who knows? But happiness is not merely the pursuit of personal happiness, but providing something to your surroundings that gives other people reason to value your contribution.”

    Cullen, I’m afraid your conclusion reduces manking merely to beings whose value is measured on the basis of their “usefulness” for the benefit of society. Let me explain (and I apologize in advance if I mistook your meaning). In your worldview, it is important to be a contributor to society. As an example – let’s say there is a man who has made it his life’s work to tend to another man who is bedridden. The man cooks for the sick man, cleans for him, tends to his needs. Would it be a true statement – in your mind – that the man who does all these things of his own volition is a benefit to society as a whole? Of course he is, and you would be right. But what of the other man who is bedridden? Where is his usefulness to society? He does not contribute, at least not in the modern sense of what is deemed a societal contribution. If we measured happiness or even meaning by one’s contribution to society alone, there would be vast numbers of people who do not fit that utilitarian description. The risk is that they are devalued as human beings. Let’s take the example above a bit further. Let’s say that the caretaker in the example above was once a doctor, but he decided to dedicate his life to cooking, cleaning and caring for this one bedridden man. In your mind, is it safe to say that this doctor is not living up to his full potential, and that as a result, society does not benefit from his expertise? After all, he has the ability to tend to the needs of many, but has instead decided to tend to only one person. Is the doctor living up to his potential as a contributor to society? Who then decides what is useful to society and what is not? Make no mistake, this is dangerous ground. Judging happiness or meaning solely on utilitarian criteria is fraught with hidden dangers.

  • William Bedloe

    mankind…not manking

  • James Kostohryz


    I do not see Cullen’s argument as necessarily utilitarian. I see it merely as an “other centered” approach. This can be concieved of in either utilitarian or in deontological terms.

    Ironically, I see what Cullen is saying more weighted to the latter since the object is not utility per se but the subjective sense of hapiness or contentment of the individual. The fact that serving others is the means to this end can be thought of as somewhat incidental to that purpose.

  • William Bedloe


    I’m not so sure. His statement “…the true path to wealth is giving something back” is pretty clear. One can possibly make an inference from his statements (particularly in the last paragraph) that if you do not give something back that is of value to society, you cannot be happy. However, I do agree that the “other centered” approach is at least on the right track.

  • Edmund

    But even then, perhaps the parent simply couldn’t fact that loss, which again means they really did it for selfish reasons.

    In that case, it’s also just preserving genetic inheritance. In the case of adoption, it’s probably the same behavioral response at play and, hey, that kid’s your life’s work.

    Regardless of one’s beliefs, people like Maximilian Kolbe are pretty close to pure altruism. Really, anyone who gives up a lot for a cause – something you simply think is right, even if it’s clearly of no benefit to yourself.

  • Geoff

    Good point about preserving genetic inheritance. I’ll have to look up Kolbe. Thanks for the tip, Edmund.