Author: Akhela Sri
A recent study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, conducted by Jennifer Aaker and colleagues of Stanford Graduate School of Business, concludes that a meaningful and a happy life are not identical, even though the notions frequently overlap. On a giving-taking axis, meaningfulness leans a lot stronger toward giving, while happiness is a more selfish quality that requires taking in order to be satisfied.
Modern societies have constructed strong narrations around both happiness and meaningfulness, often misrepresenting one or the other; this has resulted in people pursuing happiness in a shallow, egotistical manner. People have been sacrificing their lives for a purpose without taking any particular pleasure out of it other than fulfilling a sense of duty; all the in-between stages in more or less healthy manifestations.
The social construction of happiness.
Happiness is a complex notion, hard to objectively define and hardly ever unanimous. It comes in various manifestations depending on culture, religion, financial status and age. It appears formally, possibly for for the first time, in the United States Declaration of Independence, created by the Second Continental Congress on the 4th of July, 1776. The Declaration recognizes, “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”. The text of the Declaration of Independence lies in the roots of Modernism. It is based on modern western societies as the introduction of the ideas of equality, liberty, humanism and self-fulfillment. These concepts have influenced modern life greatly and still are the ground base of the principles we live by.
In more modern times, happiness became irrevocably associated with well-being and financial status; the sense of self-fulfillment got closer tied to the idea of personal wealth. The 2002 awarded documentary The Century of the Self, by Adam Curtis, presents a well-argued case of how (and why) happiness was used in the early 1920s as a consumerism tool. Through advertising, happiness was portrayed in an almost industrialized attempt to push capitalism and create the new society that could abide by the material consumption that fuels the economic system. The results of this aggressive campaign, led by Edward Bernays, are obvious today, as western societies still mostly abide by these doctrines.
As a result, the idea of happiness has involved into the idea of owning “stuff”. In the 1910s, someone would be happy to have all their teeth. In the 2010s you’re happy to have the new iPhone, and this crude but real distinction has made the pursue of happiness more selfish (and less satisfying) than ever.
The 2013 World Happiness Report, by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, makes a point of associating happiness with financial well-being and questions the viability of this mentality in the emergence of a new era. They point out the contradicting finding that “at any particular time richer individuals are happier than poorer ones, but over time the society did not become happier as it became richer”. Furthermore, the happiness deriving from consumption and financial prosperity is a short-lived one, measured permanently against the same-minded happiness of others, turning into a permanent source of competition which does not allow the individual to be content with what her or she can afford. This selfish aspect of pursuing happiness is ultimately leading to more stress and less personal and social satisfaction.
Meaningful life as a pursuit of happiness.
As the world changes and becomes more financially unstable by the day, the current happiness trends need to be considered upon and the dominant model needs to change. A sudden thrust of financial stability is known to have caused serious anxiety disorders and depression which may demand medication. It can stir distress and pain in families, communities and the individual, and my lead up to suicide. A new model for happiness and self-fulfillment is now more necessary than ever, and the necessity of life to acquire meaning past material goods and financial assets is becoming more and more crucial.
Meaningfulness cannot substitute happiness. They are not identical notions. It can, however, divert the attention and channel the energy of the individual into something new which can provide them with satisfaction, pleasure and ultimately, a new aspect of happiness.
How can I make my life meaningful?
A paradigm change is never a simple task and cannot be completed overnight. People need to go a long way against the current situation to firmly establish a new trend which will define a new way of thinking, acting and living. You need to first change the way you personally perceive your reality and the everyday. You need to meditate. You need to do some hard personal work. You will come to realize that finding meaning in life by giving and caring can be infinitely more pleasurable and rewarding than acquiring material goods and piling up briefly new technological devices.
Start today by considering what you find satisfying and how this ties in the rest of your family, friends and community. If you find that you can only be happy with something that affects you personally and has no positive impact on others, think again. How can you make a difference? How can you communicate your happiness and make it a shared commodity which can have a positive effect on other people?
Meaningful means caring.
Donating to a charity, participating in philanthropic galas and giving away your old clothes to the homeless can be great gestures of altruism, but they do not present themselves as particularly fulfilling. They are more or less a different manifestation of the same structural model of social happiness that today seems bound to crash and burn. Meaningfulness is not about exchanging or relinquishing material goods, but about demonstrating a deep understanding and caring about fellow humans, animals and the environment.
Start by finding someone close to you, someone you love by default. Try to offer not material assets but instead your time, effort and good will. Cook a hot meal for someone who works late, bring flowers to someone who lives alone, read a book to the children of your best friend while she enjoys a hot bath. Small gestures of care will have you longing for more. See what your natural inclination in giving is and take it upon you to expand this activity to your wider community, and if you can –why not?– to the world!
Easier said than done.
It certainly is, but it is not unachievable. By starting small, you educate yourself to a novel system of thinking and you set the bedrock for constructing a new pleasure centre in your brain. This centre will soon start asking for more, and will push you to a better understanding of yourself, to the need to be more empathetic to others and to disassociate happiness from ownership. A meaning in life is a much stronger drive than mere (usually momentary) happiness. Be happy with finding the love of your life; be happy with the birth of your first child; be happy about getting a new job. Also make a point about creating opportunities of meaning that can help you sustain gratification by being open and sociable. Trust me, these things hold a lot more significance than making money. Cherish your old times with buddies. Give your life a new turn by creating a strong change in your perception. And then?
You’ll end up as the happiest person on earth. Work on it today. Happiness doesn’t cost a thing!