If You Want Happiness, Resolve to Find Meaning

Happiness is a byproduct of living with purpose and meaning

Posted Jan 19, 2015

The importance on being happy can seem omnipresent. In the U.S., it’s practically a cultural imperative. Increasingly, we are bombarded with messages promoting the value of happiness and how it can be cultivated in one’s life. Some of these are earnest and well intentioned, while others are designed to sell us something to achieve that all-important goal. Happiness has become an industry—witness the proliferation of books, podcasts, workshops, webinars, coaching, etc.

Is it better to be happy than not? Do bears defecate in the woods? The question is not whether happiness is a good thing. Rather, it is two-fold: To what extent is it helpful and healthy to view happiness as an end unto itself, and how best to facilitate happiness?

It appears that organizing your life around trying to become happier and making happiness the primary objective of life gets in the way of actually becoming happy. As Viktor Frankl put it, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

The late 1990s saw the emergence of a “happiness movement” that began to suggest and even insist that people “should” be happier. In its extreme form this message implies that we have a responsibility to be happy, and if we are not, we are doing something wrong. “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Consistent with this trend, social expectations have transformed normal, natural sadness and sorrow (as distinguished from clinical depression) into a depressive disorder. What used to be considered appropriate emotional reactions to loss and other painful life events are now frequently viewed as problematic or even pathological, necessitating counseling and/or medication with the ever-expanding repertoire of antidepressants.

In this context, feelings of sadness and situation-specific depression—including that related to bereavement—are experiences to “not give in to,” and to “get over.” But what’s wrong with such feelings? The short answer is, absolutely nothing. Savoring the complete meal that is the human condition involves digging into a healthy portion of sadness, along with other difficult, painful emotions when life serves them up, to the best of our ability. Occasional heartburn and indigestion have a place in an overall healthy digestive process.

Expectations that we should find ways to be happy no matter the circumstances are not only unrealistic but also unhelpful and unhealthy. There is considerable power in positive thinking and validity in the “law of attraction,” but believing that by simply changing our thinking we can change anything and everything in our lives, including for example, our socioeconomic status, is downright delusional. It also runs the potential risk of tipping over into blaming the victim for hardships beyond his or her control.

Sometimes life is brutally challenging, and there is no easy way to get over, under, or around it. This notwithstanding, we always have choices. We can focus our conscious attention more on our problems or on potential solutions. We can learn and practice how to become more aware of our thoughts and attitudes, and use this awareness to shift our experience toward higher levels of satisfaction and happiness. The all-important space between what life presents to us and how we respond to it is ours alone. We can seek to avoid our emotional and physical pain or learn how to accept what we can’t change while building the skills to change what we can.

Many people seem to be under the impression that being spiritual means being happy. This is inaccurate. Although higher levels of spirituality can help to enhance happiness, being spiritual (in the non-religious sense) means being consciously aware. And being consciously aware is very different than being happy. Being consciously aware is about being in contact with the entirety of our experience—both positive and painful.

Happiness exists on a continuum—from overt joy and celebration to much more subtle serenity, contentment, satisfaction, and peace of mind. There are moments when we are blessed with profound joy, those precious ever-so-brief glimpses of beauty, clarity, and just how perfect life can be. However, we cannot coerce such transcendent experiences. The harder we try to make them happen, the more they will elude us. And they are always temporary. If we expect to keep them as if they were possessions, we invariably set ourselves up for serious disappointment.

If you want to be happier in ways that are more likely to endure, the most effective approach is to participate in activities that have meaning and value beyond your own self-interests. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being, life satisfaction, and, yes, happiness.

Many people find greater meaning through being of service. The concept of being of service has been part of most of the world’s important spiritual traditions for centuries. Service means to help or assist others, and its ethos is a connection with and responsibility to something beyond the self. It is usually associated with volunteering one’s time and energy and can take many different forms. People can be of service to their families, friends, neighborhood and community organizations, social causes, etc. The intriguing paradox of service is that through the act of giving, we receive.

The practice of service as a spiritual principle is also emphasized in the 12-step programs of recovery. It is a formal part of step 12, wherein being of service involves carrying the message of recovery to others in this community. Within 12-step recovery, being of service is considered both a responsibility and a privilege. It simultaneously allows us to pay back what we’ve been given and pay it forward to others. This dialectical relationship between helping others and helping ourselves is eloquently described by Pema Chodron: “We work on ourselves in order to help others, but we also help others in order to work on ourselves.”