Are you happy? Apparently, there is a connection between being happy and having a meaningful life. Our culture is obsessed with happiness, but what if there’s a more fulfilling path? Happiness comes and goes, but having meaning in life, serving something beyond yourself and developing the best within you, gives you something to hold onto.
In the 9 January 2003 issue of The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith, wrote about Viktor Frankl, a prominent psychiatrist, neurologist, Nazi death camp survivor and author of “Man’s Search for Meaning.”
He said, “It is the pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” The article goes on to explicate the difference between the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of meaning, the former requiring selfishness in order to maintain a satisfactory level for oneself but in turn is rendered less satisfied than someone who pursues meaning. The latter is often an act of selflessness, and the article uses parenting as an example. Parents are often not very happy creatures, yet their existence is meaningful because they must provide for another. Even when these people were feeling bad, they feel more satisfied than those who lacked meaning. To once again quote Frankl, “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
The most thought-provoking highlights from Smith’s article for me are below.
- There is a correlation between being happy and finding meaning in life.
- The search for meaning distinguishes humans from animals.
- Finding meaning is a choice and involves realising that there is something in life, bigger than one’s self, to sacrifice and live for.
- Happiness is fleeting whereas finding meaning is not.
- The mere pursuit of individual happiness is a selfish behaviour whilst the search for meaning involves having, or looking to, something larger than one’s self. “Meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants.“
- Our society emphasises more the pursuit of individual happiness than the search for meaning.
Happiness is a driven by a desire, something we want. When this desire is satisfied, we experience feelings of happiness. Now, I’m not saying that having wants and desires is wrong, that’s a natural human thing. But the fact that we only become happy after we get what we want, that’s wrong. A happy life is associated with taking. Taking what you want until you’re pleased. So you ask, what’s associated with giving? When you give to others, you’re bringing meaning into your own life. Somebody who leads a meaningful life is selfless, humble, generous, and willing to sacrifice their own happiness to give to others, or a greater cause.
Let’s dissect me for a minute. Within the last year I have re-entered the world of “healthy people” after years of hospitals, operations, emotional destruction, fear, sadness, anger, scars and countless hours in waiting rooms. If you had asked me what I wanted out of life this time last year, I would’ve said “to be healthy, and happy again.” I’ve truly been on the pursuit of happiness. And I can honestly say that I’m in a much better place than I was even six months ago. My biggest realisation is that I have been so totally blindsided to what happiness is. It is so temporary. A Chinese proverb sums it up perfectly. “If you want to be happy for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a month, get married. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.”
Permanent happiness is called joy, and this can only be found by helping others and giving to others. Those who find meaning even in the darkest pits of their suffering are those who make it out of the tunnel to see the light on the other side. We live in a country and culture where this is so prevalent. The pursuit of happiness actually makes people less happy!
You’re tired? Stressed out? Feeling minor anxiety? Chances are, that means you’re giving time, effort, money to something greater than yourself and therefore finding meaning in your life. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s time for people to stop looking to technology, food, or romantic relationships to give them happiness because the world doesn’t owe us anything. It’s time to put down the phone, the remote and your cuppa. Get off the couch. Go do something for somebody. Trust me. It will make you smile. If it doesn’t…. you have bigger problems.
Leo Tolstoy once said that “the happiest moments of our lives are the ones we’ll never remember.” That’s because we were so absorbed in the moment, so utterly happy, that we literally didn’t have any faculty left to record it with our minds. I like that. I’d like to think that I’ve had a million instances that I was happy, but my overly calculative brain was just too busy to jot it down because maybe it was just too busy finding meaning.
Take the time to listen to Emily Esfahani Smith’s wise words and let us know your thoughts.