Meaning = Happiness?

I’ve been observing a possible growing trend of late. It might not be new. It might not actually be a ‘trend’. But it doesn’t have anything to do with kale. Or other foods claiming to be ‘super’.

There seems to be some discussion around the relationship between happiness and meaning. And a general belief that if we pursue a more “meaningful” life, we will indeed live a much more “happier” life. How super, indeed.

The good news from this discussion is that at least it seems like we’re moving on a little from the solo “pursuit of happiness”. Sort of. In today’s consumer-driven society, we might just be finding that it’s taking ever more and more of those dopamine-producing blingy things to make us happy. And a recognition that with the pursuit of this form of happiness, the effects wear off quicker and quicker.

Research has shown us that there is indeed some sort of relationship between happiness and meaning. A recent psychological survey of over 500 people, conducted several times over a three-month period, asked participants about their feelings of happiness, how meaningful their lives felt, and what their lives were like in other ways. The findings showed that happier people tended to have more meaningful lives and vice versa, but the relationship between the two was not perfect. Whilst happiness tended to go hand-in-hand with measures not linked to meaningfulness, such as being healthy, lack of money or other stresses, feeling that life was easy and being more short-term oriented; having a more meaningful life was associated with thinking more about the past and future, more stress and worry, experiencing more negative events, deep thinking, and engaging in activities that were true to oneself.

These findings make quite a bit of sense to me. When we experience negative events they usually decrease our happiness pretty dramatically, but they often increase the meaning in life. When I speak to people who have experienced episodes of trauma or mental illness and are in recovery they reflect that they would never wish the experience on their worst enemy, yet they would never take the experience away from themselves. Traumatic or emotional experiences have the capacity to build character and teach us hard lessons that make us more compassionate and give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. Working through grief and abuse and failures though often can lead to regret and resignation, but it can also bring resilience, resolve and even post-traumatic growth. In other words, they can – once healed – bring some meaning.

Consistent with this, is an organisational study published last year that asked over 100 people in various occupations to describe times that they’d found their work meaningful or meaningless. What the researchers noticed here was that many of the most meaningful situations were often the most challenging and poignant – not those that are happy and joyful.

All this suggests if we are looking to live a more meaningful life, we’re going to need to be prepared for much, much more than happiness. And this is where we might get stuck again

If we want to lead a more meaningful life, we really need to learn to tolerate our negative emotions and to see their value rather than seeking to avoid them. As I repeat all of the time, all of our feelings are important. They all serve a purpose. And they will always pass. Even the negative ones.

In the right context, controlled anger can be empowering, while sadness can be poignant and connect people. If we spend our life dodging feelings like disappointment and self-doubt we will struggle to take on new challenges, depriving ourselves of new opportunities for personal growth and development. Or meaning.

And research backs this up. A study published in Germany last year found that people who can see the value in their negative emotions are less adversely affected by them, in terms of mental and physical health. In contrast, people who see the more negative emotions as entirely unwanted and harmful tend to suffer a worse toll from them, and the more negative emotions they report experiencing.

I’m not sure if this observation/trend will continue. If so, I hope people that dive into it, do so fully prepared. Because as all of this suggests happiness and meaning are too quite different things. We can live a happy life when we get the things that we want. It’ll feel good, but the feeling will be fleeting. We can live a meaningful life but we need to be prepared for the fact that it may not include a great deal of day-to-day happiness. Instead, we’ll need to be ready to embrace some of the harder emotions that life can bring our way.

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