Michael J Formica MS, MA, EdM

Enlightened Living

The Unhappy Life

Happiness, meaning, and being present

Posted Jan 13, 2014

A recently published study in the Journal of Positive Psychology revealed some specific differences between meaningfulness and happiness. It turns out that a meaningful life can be an unhappy one, but momentary unhappiness is often informed by positive social contribution, and connected to a broader sense of purpose and self-value.

Researchers surveyed 397 people, looking into decision-making, belief systems, and value sets, while also addressing the question of whether these people would describe their lives as either meaningful or happy. In doing so, they discovered five key features differentiating meaningfulness and happiness.

First was the question of want, or desire, versus need. Fulfilling a desire is a dependable basis for establishing happiness, yet it is unrelated to a demonstrable sense of meaning. A clear example of this might be found in someone who is chronically ill, or debilitated. An individual challenged in this way may be less happy than someone who is not, but their lives are not wanting for meaning. Anecdotally, we could point to people like author Toni Bernhard, who actually found an enhanced sense of meaning through her chronic illness, or Stephen Hawking who has said, “It matters if you just don’t give up”.

The second feature researchers uncovered was how time relates to happiness and meaning. Individuals who reflected on the past and projected into the future, in relationship to the present, were more inclined to establish a sense of meaning, although experiencing a diminished sense of happiness. Those who focused solely on the present experienced an increased sense of happiness. There is likely something to be said here about how mindfulness practice and being present can have a positive impact on one’s emotions and state of mind.

Third was social life, which is central to both meaning and happiness, but differentiated by the nature of relationship. Longitudinal relationships increase a sense of meaning. More transient relationships, on the other hand, increase happiness, having little impact on meaning. This outcome points back to the second result in that present experience enhances a sense of happiness, while lifespan experience impacts sense of meaning.

Highly meaningful lives are often fraught with challenges and stress, which was the fourth finding in the study. A reduction in stress influences one’s degree of happiness, but diminished challenges also diminish sense of meaning. Parenting, for example, is typically regarding as highly meaningful, but the attendant stress associated with childrearing can, and often does, diminish the experience of happiness.

Lastly were issues of self-identity and sense of self. Happiness is connected to fulfilling a desire, or getting what we want or need. Meaningfulness, on the other hand, is about self-expression and self-definition. In other words, happiness can be seen as an outcome of an ego-centric worldview (I, Me, Mine), while meaningfulness is associated with a more ethno-centric (Us), or even geo-centric (All of Us) worldview. Meaningfulness is thus tied to self-value as a reflection of purpose within a larger social context.

The recent cultural imperative focused on cultivating happiness is something of a distraction from the notion of a meaningful, but potentially unhappy—or better put less happy—life. That is not to say that the pursuit of happiness, as we each define it for ourselves, is unwarranted or a fool’s errand. What these finding describe is the fabric of our happiness and how we weave meaning into that happiness.

Similarly, our recent focus on mindfulness and being present invokes a comparable distraction. It brings to mind an old(-ish) Zen aphorism: “It’s all well and good to be enlightened, but, if the light is on, who’s paying the bill?” This notion speaks to that same sense of how a perspective informed by a long vision brings meaning, while immediacy brings contentment and joy.

We seek happiness through satisfying desires. We find meaning and a sense of purpose by bringing the past to bear on the present, propelling us into the future. Balancing our vision against the present moment may not always bring us joy, but will, in the end, create the context of a purposeful and gratifying life. 

© 2014 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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