Not happiness, meaning

A colleague of mine shared this recent article from The Atlantic titled “There’s More to Life than Being Happy” by Emily Esfahani Smith.  The article describes recent research on the difference between living a life in pursuit of happiness and living a life of meaning.

I’d have loosely assumed that the pursuit of meaning has as its outgrowth a high degree of happiness or, putting a finer point on it, of satisfaction.  Which would mean that happiness and meaning are pretty highly correlated.

The researchers came to a different conclusion.  They found that “a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different.  Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver.’”

The counter-intuitive piece of the research, for me, is around what a happy life devoid of meaning looks like, and how a life of meaning can sometimes have low degrees of happiness:

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided… In the meaningful life ‘you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.’  For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing.

Put another way, the pursuit of meaning isn’t always a bed of roses.  It can involve higher degrees of stress and anxiety, it’s characterized by more thinking about the past and the future, rather than the present.  It’s hard work.

And yet it is this work that makes us human.  Smith refers back to the wisdom of psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning:

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is… A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

The people I see making real and lasting change in the world distinguish themselves with their grit and resilience.  And while I believe that the foundation of grit and resilience is character and values, it makes sense that it is also a sense of meaning, of purpose, of “why” that gives people the strength to bear almost any “how.”

Emily Smith’s full article is definitely worth the read.