“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, so wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Constitution of the United States. Fast-forward 225 years to 2013…In our hot pursuit of happiness, have we lost the “meaning” in our lives? All indications are a resounding “Yes.” Jefferson was likely contrasting a life of happiness rather than one filled with the suffering that our early forbearers had to endure just to survive. But for most of us these days survival is taken for granted.
In Emily Esfahani Smith’s fascinating article, “There is More To Happiness than Being Happy” (http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-th...), she reports, “While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning. Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future.” We wholeheartedly agree, and now we are devoting our professional careers to helping to make that a reality shared by as many people as possible.
The Pursuit of Happiness
From a modern perspective, in the days of yore, it didn’t take much to make someone happy: Freedom to worship however they wanted – or not, the right to bear arms in order to protect themselves from the French and the British – especially since there was no real militia, a roof over their head, food to eat, wood for a fire, maybe a little money from selling crafts made on the side. These things that we take for granted today were huge for the people who founded our country. Today, like yesterday, we are happy when our needs, wants and desires mesh. But the pursuit of happiness has become connected to what might be termed “selfish” behavior. In our consumer-driven society, it takes ever more goodies to make us happy. And happiness is, as mentioned above, fleeting. It is present-centered, present hedonism. The pursuit of happiness is, in effect, being a “taker.”
The Search for Meaning
In a new study in the Journal of Positive Psychology (to be published this year) researchers discovered that while negative events may decrease happiness, paradoxically they may increase the meaning in life. Traumatic or emotional experiences can build character and teach us hard lessons that make us more compassionate and give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. The study also indicates that people who have a purpose, in other words meaningful goals which have 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. “People who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.” Having meaning in our lives, in effect, is being a “giver.” Working through past grief, abuse, and failures should not just lead to regret and resignation, but rather resilience, resolve and even post traumatic growth.
Happiness versus Meaning
According to the researchers, "Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future…” We add that it’s about living in the present and doing things that bring us temporary pleasure. In Time Perspective Therapy, these folks are present hedonists; living moment to moment, day to day, seeking pleasures and novel sensations. In their best scenario, they ”make time” for friends, fun and fantasies. Back to the researchers – “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life." We beg to differ a bit. In our clinical work, we’ve found that in general, those with past negative orientations are unhappy because they are stuck in the negative experiences or traumas of their past; we call this past negative. Folks who focus mainly on the good old days are past positive. Future-oriented folks are the go-to people who get things done, who are achievement oriented; however, in the extreme, they may become workaholics. While we agree they feel their lives are meaningful, their future-mindedness can cause them to miss out on present hedonistic fun. How can we find balance – happiness and meaning – in our lives?
The Time Cure
Finding balance in our lives – seeking happiness as well as meaningful experiences – is what our book, The Time Cure, is about. If you are stuck in the rut of thinking about all the bad things that happened to you, you’ll discover how to replace those past negatives with past positive experiences and start making plans for a brighter future. If you are present fatalistic and think your life now isn’t worth much and can’t be fixed up better, find out how to have some fun and happiness by practicing selected present hedonism while working towards a future positive. And if you are so future- oriented that you don’t have time to be happy in the moment, learn how to stop your pursuit of endless goals, take time to smell the flowers, to be more self-compassionate, to make someone else feel special, and to share your aloha with others.
For more information on the effects of PTSD, see The Time Cure: Overcoming PTSD with the New Psychology of Time Perspective Therapy (Zimbardo, Sword & Sword, 2012, Wiley Publishing,) and for strategies to reduce stress and improve communication, visit www.timecure.com and www.lifehut.com.