Most of us make life choices hoping to increase our happiness. It seems like a simple goal, one that shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve, assuming that our basic needs are being met. Ironically, however, the pursuit of happiness has been found to negatively impact our well-being. For example, a study reviewing daily diary entries found that those who highly valued happiness reported feeling more lonely on a daily basis. The clearest path to happiness seems to be to one in pursuit of meaningfulness, as well as happiness.
Happiness is typically defined by having pleasure and enjoyment, while meaningfulness is much broader. A meaningful life is one connected and contributing to something broader than the self, such as family, work, nature, or God. Psychologists Login George and Crystal Park identified three features of a meaningful life; “purpose- the degree to which you feel directed and motivated by valued life goals; comprehension – the ability to understand and make sense of your life experiences and weave them into a coherent whole; and mattering – the belief that your existence is significant and valued. “
Meaningfulness is more than a characteristic or trait, it is a mind-set, impacting choices and priorities in one’s life. Pursuing meaning doesn’t imply that one forgoes happiness. One can pursue meaning as well as happiness. In a recent study, psychologists (Veronika Huta and RichardRyan) found that people behave very differently depending on whether they emphasize pursuing happiness or meaning. They asked college students to choose daily activities that would either bring them meaning or happiness over the course of 10 days. Those asked to pursue happiness chose such things as sleeping in, playing games or eating candy. Those asked to pursue meaning reported forgiving a friend, studying, and helping or cheering up another person. Although the students in the happiness group initially reported more positive feelings, these faded over the next three months. Those pursuing meaning didn’t feel as happy right away, but three months later reported feeling “enriched”, “inspired” and having fewer negative moods. So while pursuing meaning may require some sacrifice and effort initially, over the long run it seems to be more deeply satisfying.
Pursuing meaningfulness rather than happiness will make our lives more significant and worthwhile. And perhaps, we will find happiness along the way, as well. As Viktor Fankl, the Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning said, “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.”
Much of this article references Emily Esfahani and Jennifer Aaker ’s article in Science of Us, “In 2017, pursue meaning instead of happiness.”