Misguided Notion: Pursuit of Happiness

“The Constitution only guarantees you the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” — Benjamin Franklin

Most parents when asked will tell you that all they want for their children is for them to grow up to be happy. However, happiness is elusive and ephemeral. What makes us happy one day will not sustain us the next.

So much in life is transitory and we fail to accept that what we want, what brings us pleasure will continually evolve. Despite the fact that most of us claim our favorite foods, movies, music, books, etc. will remain consistent over time, research has shown that even our taste in these things change as we grow older.

A life in pursuit of happiness is like a life in pursuit of wealth—one of the results perhaps, but it should not be the focus. Instead, the focus should be meaning.

A for-profit company’s mission should not be about making money, but it should certainly be one of the results. Their mission statement should instead include something meaningful such as delivering a product or service that enables customers to do something faster, better or cheaper than ever before. If the company is successful, profits will result.

The same is true for individuals with regard to happiness. A meaningful life is one that is in some way in service to others or in something larger than oneself, and this will likely result in happiness because happiness is a byproduct of a life that has meaning.

“Feeling happy is not enough,” says Paul Shoemaker, author of Can’t Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World. “People need meaning to thrive.”

“There is a tension between a meaningful and a happy life,” says Shoemaker. “They’re not mutually exclusive, but if you are going to tilt one way, tilt toward meaningful because, done with sustained commitment, a meaningful life can eventually lead to a happy life. I’m not sure about the other way around.”

According to research conducted by the Journal of Positive Psychology, there are key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. These are:

  • Happiness is considerably more short-lived and fleeting than meaningfulness.
  • Happiness is largely present-oriented, where meaningfulness involves integrating past, present and future.
  • Having sufficient money to purchase objects of desire is important for happiness, but makes essentially no difference as to whether a life is meaningful.
  • Challenges may reduce present happiness but are linked to much higher future meaningfulness.
  • Happiness is linked to being a taker rather than a giver; meaningfulness is the opposite.

The research also found that those with a purpose—specifically meaningful goals having to do with helping others—rated their life satisfaction higher (even when they felt personally down and out) than those who did not have any life purpose.

Another study found that people who put the greatest emphasis on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction about their life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms than people that had their priorities elsewhere.

Feeling happy is not enough because meaning is essential to a valued sense of one’s purpose in life and in community.

The great leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith, author of Mojo: How to Get it, How to Keep it, How to Get it Back if You Lose it, says there are five things that really matter in the lives of successful people. In no particular order these are: health, wealth, relationships, happiness and meaning.

Goldsmith suggests that in order to find more happiness and meaning in your life, both at home and at work, you need to spend less time on activities that are simply surviving, sacrificing and stimulating. And you need to spend more time on activities that are considered sustaining and succeeding. These provide both short-term satisfaction (happiness) and long-term benefit (meaning).

Perhaps Victor Frankl, author of the best-selling Man’s Search for Meaning, said it best: “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.”

Whether it’s finding your “Can’t Not Do” or your “Mojo,” meaning is essential. Meaning is required for sustained happiness. Change your focus from yourself alone to something bigger than you. Change from short-term satisfaction alone to include long-term benefit.

You will catch sustained happiness only when you attach meaning to your pursuit.

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