The purpose of our lives is to be happy, right? Isn’t that what we all aim for? For a lot of people, it seems something like this: good grades, popularity at school, good education, excellent job, ideal life partner, as well as beautiful home, and money for great vacations.
Self-reflection is good, but to what extent it can be too much? At every point in our lives, we ask ourselves the question: Am I happy? This question bothers us as we live our everyday lives, but according to psychology, what people really wish for is finding the meaning in life.
Is there something wrong with expecting happiness as a result of the success in our lives? Clearly, it is not working. In one study, which was conducted by the Harris Poll Survey of American Happiness, just 1/3 of Americans reported feelings of happiness. What about the others? Well, they do not so.
At a time when we are encouraged to consistently evaluate our position in the world, and therefore, how we actually feel about being in it, the search for happiness not only becomes tedious but also discouraging.
For example, the rate of suicide rises all over the world, and although life is getting objectively better by nearly every conceivable standard, more people feel hopeless, as well as depressed and alone.
As one study from 2011 affirms, actively looking out for happiness actually leads to a feeling of unhappiness.
Even when life changes for the better, people continue feeling hopelessness, as well as loneliness. So what seems to be the problem?
According to one psychologist, the solution is not to pursue happiness but meaning in life.
Those people that end up being more positive in life, acquiring better attitudes for everything they do – from pleasure to working.
In her popular 2017 TED Talk, viewed by almost 3 million people, the writer Emily Esfahani Smith explains what she learned from spending five years interviewing hundreds of people, as well as reading through thousands of pages of psychology, philosophy, and neuroscience.
In her research paper, Emily found out that it is not a lack of happiness that leads to despair, but it is a lack of having meaning in life.
When asked what the difference between being happy and having meaning in life is, Emily said:
A lot of psychologists define happiness as a state of comfort and ease, feeling good at the moment. But, the meaning is deeper. The renowned psychologist Martin Seligman says that meaning comes from belonging to, as well as serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you.
While we are searching for meaning may be as big of a task as pining for happiness, the five-year study of Emily led her to the discovery of the four pillars that underpin a meaningful life. Here are the four basic pillars:
We usually turn to people around us for happiness, and with meaning, there is not much of a difference. Usually, we feel as though we are alone, that our existence in the universe does not affect the greater good.
While we may not have the ability to test our presence against the greater odds, there are some ways in which we can assure our sense of self through belonging, and that is with our family, with our friends, and with our loved ones. When we surround ourselves with the people that we love, we will have the ability to realize that our experience resounds with the people around us.
For a lot of people, belonging is the most important source of meaning. For them, their bonds with their family and friends give real meaning to their lives.
The problem with looking for our happiness is actually that sometimes we cannot find it. We sit down and reflect. And when we realize we are happy, we usually retreat, defeated.
When a person strives for meaning, he or she instead looks beyond the current situation and looks at the bigger picture.
Regardless of what has occurred in your life to break you, you can heal again and again, and you can find new purpose in life like so many people that have permitted the bad in their lives to be hidden by the good.
Finding a way to seek meaning without focusing on whether or not you are happy at the moment permits you to find a solution which is not bound to time. Instead, you are looking beyond what you feel knowing that what you feel now does not define your entire existence.
A lot of people think that their purpose in life is waiting to be found, but that definition is problematic as it renders human agency useless. The purpose is not the same thing as finding that job which will make you happy.
Smith says that the key to purpose is using our strengths to serve others. For a lot of people that happens through work and when they find themselves unemployed, they flounder.
The purpose actually is to find the meaning in things which are not tied to finite things. Jobs can end, relationships can disappear, and money can fade away. What is left when everything else collapses is our sense of purpose, and one can take that away from us.
Look for things which are bigger than what you are and what you know. In two words: seek transcendence.
Transcendent states are actually those rare moments when you lose all sense of time, as well as place and you feel connected to a higher reality.
Transcendence doesn’t have to involve something spiritual or anything remotely religious. Transcendence is permitting our sense of self to disappear, or better yet, blend into a bigger part of our reality.
Transcendence can be experienced differently by different people, but it is usually described as elation, which is a feeling of belonging to a greater thing.
To you, transcendence could be awe, as well as speechlessness. To someone else, transcendence could be reflection and self-awareness.