Although we might think happiness – or the pursuit of it – will make us feel better about ourselves and our lives, research indicates that it’s actually finding greater meaning in our lives that, at the end of the day – or our lives – is more fulfilling. In Emily Esfahani Smith’s fascinating article, “There is more to happiness than being happy,” she reports, “While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning. Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future.” We wholeheartedly agree, and have devoted our professional careers to helping to make that a reality shared by as many people as possible.
The Pursuit of Happiness
In the days of yore, our nation’s Founding Fathers included in the Constitution a concept that had been unthinkable in all earlier generations of all nations: “the pursuit of happiness.” But by today’s standards, in those days it didn’t take much to make someone happy: Freedom to worship however they wanted – or not, the right to bear arms in order to protect themselves from the French and the British – especially since there was no real militia, a roof over their head, food to eat, wood for a fire, maybe a little money from selling crafts made on the side. These things that we take for granted today were huge for the people who founded our country. Today, like yesterday, we are happy when our needs, wants and desires mesh. But the pursuit of happiness has become connected to what might be termed “selfish” behavior. In our consumer-driven society, it takes ever more goodies to make us happy. And happiness is, as mentioned above, fleeting. It is present-centered, present hedonism. The pursuit of happiness is, in effect, being a “taker,” in this new tech-centered existence.
Our Search for Meaning
Paradoxically, while negative events may decrease happiness, they may increase the meaning in life. Traumatic or emotional experiences can build character and teach us hard lessons that make us more compassionate and give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. When people who had a purpose, in other words meaningful goals which have to do with helping others, their life satisfaction is higher – even when they feel personally down and out – than those who did not have any life purpose. “People who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their life, though they were less happy.” Having meaning in our lives, in effect, is being a “giver.” Working through past grief, abuse, and failures should not just lead to regret and resignation, but rather resilience, resolve and even post traumatic growth. Especially when helping desperate others handle their suffering, we become hardier, and in doing so build up our grit potential. A survivor of the horrors of being interned in Auschwitz Concentration Camp, Viktor Frankl, focused each day on finding meaning in his existence and in the future he would find when the nightmare was over. It is worth reading his classis, Man’s Search for Meaning.
Happiness VS Meaning
According to researchers, “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future…” We add that it’s about living in the present and doing things that bring us temporary pleasure. In Time Perspective Therapy, these folks are present hedonists; living moment to moment, day to day, seeking pleasures and novel sensations. In their best scenario, they “make time” for friends, fun and fantasies. Back to the researchers: “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life.” We beg to differ a bit. In our clinical work, we’ve found that in general, those with past negative orientations are unhappy because they are stuck in the negative experiences or traumas of their past; we call this past negative. Folks who focus mainly on the good old days are past positive. Future-oriented folks are the go-to people who get things done, who are achievement oriented; however, in the extreme, they may become workaholics. While we agree they feel their lives are meaningful, their future-mindedness can cause them to miss out on present hedonistic fun. How can we find balance – happiness and meaning – in our lives?
Living a Meaningful Life
In Annie M. Gordon’s article. “Take a Picture Today, Feel Happy Tomorrow for Greater Good”, she lists several suggestions to capture everyday events today that you’ll be happy you did in the future; here are a few of her ideas:
- Take a Photo a Day – or once a week – no matter what you are doing. At the end of the year, you’ll have a ready-made yearbook. This helps us find greater meaning in our lives that we may have lost track of due to the many activities and stress of day-to-day life.
- Capture the Context in Your Photos – don’t crop out the environment. In the future, the environment will be as interesting as the subject.
- Start a Day in the Life album – chose a day and take a picture of what you are doing each hour. A typical day may not seem fascinating now, but it will in coming years.
- Keep a Gratitude Journal – write down three good things that happened each day for a week or longer. You likely enjoy reviewing the all the positive things that occur each day.