Is one of your goals in life to be happy? What does a happy life look like to you? If I shared with you what I believed to be a happy life for myself, would that satisfy you?
Or if you’re questioning the goal of happiness at this point, you’re right to. There are two main problems with happiness as a goal for our life.
First, we are – as a general rule – poor at defining happiness, and poor at identifying what will make us happy. I might think not working will make me happy, but when I’m between jobs I feel unmotivated and lethargic. I might even notice a substantial drop in my mood. Happiness as a goal tells us very little about the life we’d be leading to achieve and maintain that happiness.
Second, we are not good at sustaining happiness. As a species, we are highly adaptable. This is our greatest strength in times of hardship; we are able to endure more than we ever thought possible. In times of abundance, our adaptability also kicks in, meaning that we get used to the things that have brought us happiness and become somewhat desensitised to them so that they now don’t make us quite so happy.
What does this mean in practice? Taking a negative view, it means that striving for happiness is ultimately futile. But don’t lose hope. There’s something much more important than happiness in living rich, fulfilling lives: meaning.
Meaning is much more enduring than happiness. Happiness is an emotion, so by definition, it is a short-lived experience. Developing a “meaningful life” keeps us going, even when the going gets tough. Think back on anything significant you’ve achieved in your life, whether it is a project you’re proud of, a challenge you overcame, a goal or milestone such as running a marathon, or a relationship in which you’ve invested a lot. Did this experience always make you feel happy? I would guess that you experienced many difficult emotions along the way – stress, frustration, sadness, regret. But was it worth it? Absolutely.
Ask yourself, what is it that creates meaning in your life? What is it that you value? What kind of person, partner, parent, employee do you want to be? At your 80th birthday, what would you want people to stand up and say about you, the life you’d lived, and the things you’d stood for? If you knew your life was going to be shortened would that influence you?
Take some time this week to reflect on your personal meaning and any changes you would like to make. Talk with people you are closest to as well, it can be helpful to reflect on shared meaning and how to match that with lifestyle choices..