The Forbidden Sea: Happiness or Meaning?

By: Bruce
March 31, 2011

Forbidden Sea 2

This post is some thoughts from having read The Forbidden Sea. While I avoid giving specific story details, just mentioning the themes does potentially give spoilers. So please consider reading the book before you read this post.

In a review of Sheila Nielson’s (my sister) book, The Forbidden Sea, over at M* I mentioned that the book impressed me because it challenged our notions of what we want out of life. This is a subject that is of significant interest to me.

So what do we want out of life?

Ask someone to come up with an off the cuff answer and you’ll probably generally find that people believe we want happiness. Certainly ‘happiness’ is a good pat answer to this question. But then I’d want to know what ‘happiness’ is. And that might be a more difficult question.

In the realms of fiction, the idea that we want ‘happiness’ out of life has been challenged many times. Star Trek alone has probably redone the ‘we don’t really want happiness’ theme probably 10 or more times across all series and movies. Brave New World chilled me with how scary and pointless perfect happiness can be. Fiction seems to be an ideal outlet to explore this idea.

But if we don’t want happiness out of life, then what is it that we want?

C.S. Lewis suggested that joy and happiness were not the same thing. After reading The Forbidden Sea (and other thematically related stories), I’m starting to agree.

In The Forbidden Sea our heroine lives an unhappy life. Nothing seems to go right for her and it just keeps getting worse. But then something fantastic occurs – this is the “Forbidden Sea” portion of the story — that rips her out of her unhappy life and promises the potential of giving her immense happiness.

The story helped me solidify something that I had already been wondering about: might it not be that what we want out of life isn’t happiness, but meaning. And might it not be that meaning can only come through suffering — particularly from choosing to suffer when it could have been avoided for the sake of someone else. Is this not the concept of taking up one’s cross: a choice to suffer for another’s sake – be it God or our neighbor? (Luke 9:23)

So here are some questions that come to mind that I offer up for discussion:

  1. Are joy and happiness the same thing? (A Warning to Word Police: Yes, they can mean the same thing at times. But do they really carry exactly the same connotations in all cases? If not, what are the differences?)
  2. What is the relationship between love and happiness? Is it a cause effect relationship (love causes happiness) or is it more of an Escher-like loop?
  3. If joy and happiness aren’t the same thing, then what is the relationship between love and joy?
  4. If you had a chance to find happiness, but you had to leave your loved ones behind (though with the potential to make new ones) would you choose to do it?
  5. What is the relationship between ‘meaning’ and happiness? Is there a relationship? What is the relationship between ‘meaning’ and joy?
  6. More to the point, what is the relationship between ‘meaning’ and ‘suffering?’
  7. Is there maybe even a relationship between ‘meaning’ and ‘joy’ and therefore ‘suffering’ and ‘joy’?
  8. Which do we really want out of life, happiness or meaning?


5 Responses to The Forbidden Sea: Happiness or Meaning?

  1. Stephen M (Ethesis) on March 31, 2011 at 4:23 PM

    We want motivation that leads to fulfillment. Just being a lotus eater rarely satisfies anyone, or so I think.

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  2. FireTag on April 1, 2011 at 3:48 PM

    If I thought my life was meaningless, I doubt happiness for me would be possible.

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  3. Andrew S on April 1, 2011 at 8:15 PM

    1) For me, joy and happiness are definitely different (I preface with “for me” because I recognize I probably use “joy” and “happiness” as idiosyncratic proxies for specific feelings.) Happiness is like pleasantness or being pleased. Joy is more like internal peace or resilience.

    2) No idea.

    3) No idea.

    4) Not for happiness. For joy, yes.

    5) I actually saw a TED talk for positive psychology that posited “three” types of lives…I think they were split into the pleasant life, the “engaged” life, and the “best” was the “meaningful life.” I don’t remember much else about the talk, so I probably should go listen/watch it again, because I remember that it resonated with me.

    I think that meaning creates a “buffer” from various unpleasantnesses…it creates a context for enduring suffering (so that, even when one is unhappy/undergoing “unpleasant” events, one is not *miserable* (misery, I guess, is my “opposite” to joy.)


    6) I’m not sure that meaning requires suffering. But the relationship would be that some meaning frameworks can protect against suffering.

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  4. Bruce on April 1, 2011 at 8:54 PM

    Andrew S,

    The best book I’ve read drawing a direct connection between suffering and meaning was Brave New World. One of these days I’ll do a blog post on by thoughts on that.

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  5. Alexander Hong on July 13, 2012 at 6:28 PM

    I think joy, is short term. It is a feeling. For example, company with ones friends would achieve a state of joy. Happiness, however, would be long term. It is ones permanent perception which is positive of the world around him and himself. Given the same example, suppose the person was with his friends and they left shortly after. The feeling of joy would go away, and therefore gone. Happiness would depend on the individuals perception upon his environment and his own character.

    Love CAN contain happiness, but it could also contain misery. Love can only cause either one depending on the “beholder’s eyes”. Since I previously stated that happiness is purely subjective, the same applies to the relationship of love and happiness.

    I guess love can have many joys… The relationship between the two would probably be that love comes with joy.. but joy does not necessarily come from love… Joy is independent from love.

    Me personally… Yes I would leave everything behind. Under the condition I can come back to see what I have left behind.

    Living in meaning means you have to worry about the future. And all your present efforts are not for you right now, but the you of times to come. The person you want to be, or the person you have to be to fulfill a purpose which you can not do in your current state. An example of an ambitious musician wanting to be a star will endure years of practice and sacrifice time doing other things he or she likes. Right now he or she can not be the star the person hopes to be, but with time spent eventually, the dream will be fulfilled. Happiness is living for now, not worrying what is to come. The person who has acheived happiness sees the world and himself as something positive. I beleive it is possible to live with both… however, when someone lives with meaning, there will be challenges that might distort the individuals view of what was previously positive. The variable of whether or not person of meaning will lead a happy life is whether he has the will to want to be happy despite hard times.

    Living with meaning and living with suffering has a massive relationship. To live with meaning, you will have obstacles. And to deal with obstacles you will have to become uncomfortable even to a point where it will be painful. Meaning automatically comes with suffering. But the degree of suffering also depends on the individuals willingness to accept it. Two people can come from the same background, go on the same path, yet one will actually prevail. Back to the point. You can walk the path of suffering and have no meaning . You can also walk the path of meaning and automatically walk the path of suffering. Once you’re purpose is fulfilled, the suffering ends.

    They are all connected… Joy is a subset of happiness, happiness and suffering is a subset of meaning. From reading my previous paragraphs, you can see how.

    I cannot speak for others… However, from what I see, is that some people just live to achieve joy and others live to do something great. I honestly don’t know how people want to live by, for I have not fully understood people as of yet… But either direction one goes through, both have a pot of gold awaiting them.

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