Are you constantly trying to pursue a happy life? Maybe that vacation, that new outfit or the thought of riding around in a fancy car will bring you happiness.
Or maybe this year, you’ve set your new year’s resolution with the aim of leading a happier life.
But in fact, experts warn, this kind of pursuit is destined to fail. Instead of looking for the next best thing that may bring a touch of happiness in the moment, why not try to pursue meaning instead?
“Companies use happiness as a marketing tool. Businesses want to sell their products by saying you can consume your way to happiness,” said psychologist Dr. Paul Wong, a psychologist and president of the International Network on Personal Meaning.
“If you want to pursue happiness as your life goal, it is doomed to fail.”
Research shows that a happy life and a meaningful life are different. Psychologists looked at how seeking happiness could be self-defeating because the more people value it, the more likely they will feel disappointed.
A study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine suggests it’s not realistic to be happy all the time.
“This kind of frenzy built around this happiness fever has actually backfired,” said Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters.
When doing research for her book, Smith said she stumbled on a study that perfectly encapsulates why solely chasing happiness is a big no-no.
The study by three behavioural scientists asked participants to listen to an emotional song. Some were asked to try and feel happy while listening, while the others were simply asked to give ear to the music.
The researchers found that those who focused on being happy ended up feeling unhappier than the other participants after the experiment.
But what exactly does it mean to try and live a meaningful life? Smith explained it’s important to make a clear distinction between the two.
Living a happy life involves seeking pleasure and enjoyment, whereas a meaningful life is much bigger than that, she said. It can be as simple as having caring interactions with people or treating the people in your life with love, she explained.
Take the example of the NASA janitor. During a visit to the NASA space centre in 1962, then U.S. president John F. Kennedy noticed a janitor in the hall sweeping the floor. He asked the janitor what he was doing and the janitor responded, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”
“To one person being a janitor is about cleaning or making a paycheque but for this person it was about this purpose… helping man take one more step towards progress,” Smith said.
Essentially, finding meaning is all about how we frame our tasks, Smith added.
“It doesn’t matter who we are, what we are doing and what our station in life is, we all have the ability to contribute to something beyond ourselves and [to find] purpose in doing so,” Smith said.
People will find meaning in different ways through family, work, nature or religion. The thing to keep in mind, however, is that it doesn’t come easy and takes time and dedication.
Like raising children, although it doesn’t bring you constant pleasure and joy all of the time, in the long run it gives you a sense of satisfaction, she said.
So in order to live a meaningful life, you need to take the time to enjoy your surroundings, Wong explained.
Self-reflection is crucial, too, as is thinking about your role in the world and what gives you meaning. That includes the career you choose.
According to a survey of more than two million people, the most meaningful jobs are the ones that are service oriented and contribute to others — ones that are not necessarily glamorous but provide meaning and satisfaction. Clergy, teachers and surgeons made the top of the list.
You also have to be actively engaged in making meaningful decisions and nurturing your relationships.”Meaning requires some sort of self sacrifice to care for other people and to pursue something greater than your self-interest. If you only care about your self-interest then you will never experience the joy of meaning,” Wong said.
The beauty of living a meaningful life instead of a happy one is that you’re equipped to deal with life’s ups and downs, Wong explained.
“If you experience meaning then you find it easier to feel pain and to move forward because you have something worthwhile to pursue.”
Bottom line, you’re not predisposed to happiness all the time, experts warn.
“The best way to think about happiness is to consider it as a bi-product of pursuing something worthy and meaningful,” Wong said.
As for Smith, she recommends a combination of trying to find purpose, coherence and worth. According to a study published in the Review of General Psychology, meaningful lives share these three features.
Purpose is defined by your goals, aims and direction in life. Coherence, also referred to as comprehension, is the ability to understand and make sense of your life. And lastly, worth, or what researchers describe as mattering, is the belief that your place in the world matters.
So this year, instead of thinking about doing things that will make you happy, start doing things that are meaningful. “Your life has worth and dignity regardless of whether you are happy or not,” Smith said.
“And if you feel happy at the end of the day then great but if you don’t, you can still take comfort in knowing that your life is making the world a better place.”