Living Meaningful Life vs Pursuing Happy Life

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Aristotle

The field of Positive Psychology (PP) has been in the forefront propagating this perspective. PP assumes that people, like all animals, are governed by the instinct of pursing happiness and avoiding pain as much as possible. Consequently, the first wave of positive psychologists focused on painless and easy activities to achieve happiness and success.

PP has tended to be defined in terms of a concern with ‘positive’ psychological qualities. However, over recent years, a more nuanced ‘second wave’ of positive psychology has been germinating, which explores the philosophical and conceptual complexities of the very idea of what constitutes the ‘positive.

The new wave of Positive Psychology (PP), which some people call as PP 2.0, assumes that people are spiritual beings. It accepts that there is more to life than either our physical needs for pleasure & comfort or our psychological needs for power & fame. What we crave for is for meaning in our lives and self-transcendence. Therefore, the second wave of positive psychologists prescribe the long path of pursuing self-transcendence.

The new wave of PP researchers do not bash happiness perse, but remind us that negative emotions also serve a purpose. Anxiety, for instance, helps to alert us to problems before they loom larger. Anger helps us to mobilize ourselves and others to confront challenges or threats. For instance, social psychologist Carol Tavris and others have argued that anger could motivate someone to act against and change an invidious situation that had been hindering their wellbeing. They caution that human experience is complex and sometimes bad things lead to good outcomes. Also, sometimes good things lead to bad outcomes. To ignore this simple truism is to leave humanity undiscovered under a patina of illusion.

The overemphasis of PP on self-directed happiness completely ignores collectivist mindset. People in strong collectivist cultures may be more concerned about securing a better life for their family than for themselves. Many professionals from developing countries work at low-paying jobs in developed countries so that their children can have a better education and a better future. They endure their own marginalization and downgraded social status in order to promote the happiness of their children. Thus, there are cultural differences in the balancing act between Me and We. Positive benefits for self-centred individuals include life satisfaction, achievement, and self-esteem, while positive outcomes for group-centred individuals would encompass harmonious relationships, group morale, and collaborative success.

“He who has a Why to live for, can bear almost any How. Friedrich Nietzsche

A meaningful life is not necessarily a happy life. We feel happy, when we get what we want and when our needs and desires are easily met. We need to realize that such happiness is short-lived. It is experienced in the here and now, and it then fades away. Meaningful life, on the other hand, is enduring. One way we derive meaning is from sacrificing ourselves for the benefit of others and by facing hardship and challenges in life. The meaningful life thus connects us to the others and to the bigger picture and encompasses both the past and the future.

Although researchers are agnostic about what kinds of meaning-in-life can be considered “best”, they argue that as people mature, their concept of meaning-in-life gets increasingly directed at a greater good which transcends their own individualistic desires. Incidentally, this notion of self-transcendence is often a descriptor that is used for people experiencing a mindful mindset.

Researchers have established that we do not become happy by pursuing happiness. We can become happy only by living a life that means something to us. Closely linked to meaningful activity in life is finding one’s purpose. Purpose provides the impetus for getting us out of our beds every morning. One’s purpose might be personal, like rearing children in a loving environment or as noble as saving the planet from environmental destruction.

Viktor Frankl said, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”

In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp along with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who managed to live and those who had died in the concentration camps came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he had become aware of very early in his life.

Frankl wrote “To the European it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy’.”

It is worth emphasizing that what makes us uniquely human is our ability to care deeply for other people and for causes larger than ourselves. Putting our selfish needs aside, helps us to realize that there is more to a good life than just the pursuit of happiness. Deep happiness comes from using whatever strengths, skills and talents that we have to somehow make the life better for others. Prof Stew Friedman of Wharton, puts this into words beautifully in his book ‘Leading the life you want’. He says, “Significant achievement in the world results from consciously compassionate action, from using one’s talent to make the world somehow better. It’s a paradox that leading the life you want actually requires striving to help others.”

Behavioural economist Prof Kathleen Vohs says “While happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others, people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others”.

UCLA’s Semel Institute of Neuroscience has identified a part of the brain, the posterior superior temporal cortex, that seems to be hard-wired for contributing to others. Researchers hypothesize that altruism has allowed us to survive as a species by compelling us to help one another. The reward for helping comes in the form of a rush of oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin – what neuroscientists call the ‘happiness trifecta’. Oxytocin supports empathy and social bonding. Dopamine plays a major role in motivation and movement. Serotonin regulates mood.

The feeling that one’s life has meaning can come from any number of things. It could come from the work we do that we feel is worthwhile. It could come from our cherished relationships, from religious faith or even from sitting down and appreciating the sunset regularly. While it does not matter what gives us the purpose, it does matter that we do find it somewhere.

Prof Jennifer Aaker of Stanford and Emily Garbinsky claim that people who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. They say, “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need”.

In his book ‘Springboard’, Prof Richard Shell of Wharton, describes ‘deep happiness’ as a kind of feeling that transcends momentary happiness. Its source connects us to our souls, our purpose and to something larger than ourselves. As Shell writes, “It is the path that leads to look into ourselves and to build deeper connection with others. It is a path that is very likely to include tension, challenges and struggles along with happiness”. Thus people who pursue happiness for the sake of happiness may be missing out on this kind of deep happiness which is experienced when we live a more meaningful life.

People’s perception of their own purpose may have profound consequences not only for the legacy they leave behind for others, but also for the quality and quantity of their own life. We have all heard of anecdotes of people who have suffered tragedies in their lives only to persevere and move forward with newfound purpose and zest for life. Current research in an area called Purpose in Life (PIL) reveals exciting correlations between higher levels of PIL and variety of positive health benefits. Researchers, for instance, found that a higher baseline PIL was linked to a lower risk of heart attack. They also found that for each standard-deviation increase in PIL score, adults reduced their stroke risk by 22 percent. One study found that a strong sense of purpose was associated with a 72 percent lower rate of death from stroke, a 44 percent lower rate of death from cardiovascular disease, and a 48 percent lower rate of death from any cause.

One particular area of health where PIL is proving to be very useful is the CNS or the central nervous system. Research has shown that knowing one’s life purpose and mission may help protect the brain physically, increasing its ability to withstand greater injuries. In particular, PIL seems to help people protect what is known as a cognitive reserve or cognitive resilience, which is the human brain’s ability to recover from trauma and protect against diseases.

Similarly, a study in 2019 by JAMA Network Open (Open access medical journal published by the American Medical Association covering the biomedical sciences) found that adults over the age of 50 who scored highest on a scale that measured “life purpose” had a longer life expectation and were also much less likely to die from heart, circulatory or blood conditions. This was further endorsed by Eric S. Kim, PhD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who said “There have been a number of studies suggesting that a higher sense of Purpose in Life is associated with reduced risk of early death”.

Research has shown that people with higher levels of meaning-in-life had increased connectivity within nodes of the default mode network of their brains, implying that purposeful people have stronger mental connections between the many functions the default mode network plays. What’s more, people with more meaning in their lives had better cross-network connectivity, indicating that it was easier for their brains’ limbic and default mode networks to work together.

The default mode network and the limbic network are two key sets of structures in the brain. The limbic network controls emotions, motivation, and long-term memory, among other functions. The default mode network regulates our sense of self, our memories, our emotions and helps us envision the future.

Meaning is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future. In other words, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the struggles and sufferings of the past as well as things they want do in the future, felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.

Even our achievements have their own set points. When we achieve them, we feel happy but this happiness does not last long. Once the condition is met, we start looking for the next goal that we need to pursue to remain happy. What we might eventually discover is the idea that happiness is not at all related to setting goals and achieving them, but in finding that sense of happiness and joy within ourselves and in our daily lives.

In his book ‘Out of the Darkness’, bestselling author Steve Taylor of Leeds Beckett University, tells the stories of more than 30 people who have undergone permanent spiritual awakening after intense trauma and turmoil in their lives. These “suffering-induced transformational experiences” include being diagnosed with terminal cancer, or suffering bereavements, or becoming seriously disabled, or losing everything through addiction or having close encounters with death during combat. What all these people had in common is that after undergoing intense suffering, they felt they had “woken up”. They stopped taking life, the world and other people for granted and gained a massive sense of appreciation for everything. They spoke of a sense of the preciousness of life, their own bodies, the other people in their lives and the beauty and wonder of nature. They felt a new sense of connection with other people, the natural world and the universe. They became less materialistic and more altruistic. Possessions and career advancement became trivial, while love, creativity and altruism became much more important. They felt intensely alive.

Fortunately, we do not have to go through intense suffering to experience these awakening effects. There are also certain temporary states of being when we can sense meaning which Taylor calls as ‘awakening experiences’.

The most common characteristics of these experiences are positive emotional states, including a sense of elation or serenity, a lack of fear and anxiety, intensified perception, and a sense of connection which can be towards other human beings, nature, or the whole universe in general. Other significant characteristics include a sense of love and compassion, altered time perception which often includes a sense of being intensely present. Then there is this strong sense that a person has transcended a limited state and that awareness has become more authentic than normal.

Scientists have coined the phrase self-transcendent experiences (STEs) for these transient mental states of decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness. This occurs under certain circumstances when the subjective sense of one’s self as an isolated entity temporarily fades into an experience of unity with other people or one’s surroundings, involving the dissolution of boundaries between the sense of self and “other.” These temporary mental states are experienced along a spectrum of intensity that ranges from the
routine like when losing ourselves in music or a book, to the intense and potentially transformative like when we feel connected to everything and everyone, to states in between, like those experienced by many people while meditating.

Professor William Damon, one of the world’s leading researchers on the development of purpose-in-life, offers another approach to help people to develop a sense that their lives have been worthwhile, even in the face of difficulties and wrong turns. The idea is to reminisce one’s past in ways that balance negative events with positive achievements which can lead to feelings of gratitude and tranquillity. Life satisfaction does not mean avoiding all misfortunes which anyway is impossible. Nor does it mean always avoiding mistakes which is also impossible. Rather, we aim to do the best we can, learn from our past experiences, and remain hopeful for the future. In this way, our past, present and future selves become integrated into a positive identity that can provide the fulfilling sense of ego integrity that development psychologist Erik Erikson described. Erikson wrote that ego integrity, the most fulfilling form of personal identity, requires a positive sense of where we’ve been, who we’ve now become, what purposes we are seeking to accomplish, and where we hope to be heading.

Every human life, even the most fortunate, is filled with pain. Painful loss, painful disappointments, the physical pain of injury or sickness, and the mental pain of enduring boredom, loneliness, or sadness. Pain is an inevitable consequence of being alive. Thus all the good things in life entail suffering. Writing a novel, running a marathon or giving birth to a baby – all these cause pain and suffering but are done in pursuit of the final joyous results.

4 thoughts on “Living Meaningful Life vs Pursuing Happy Life”

  1. Thank you for pulling all this research together in a meaningful manner. I believe that “suffering-induced (aka traumatic experiences) transformational experiences” create deeper and longer lasting neural connections. To this effect, we need to increase the frequency and the duration of “awakening experiences” and reflective activities such as the one proposed by William Damon in order to continue to focus on our Purpose in Life.

  2. Thank you sir for your deep insights for living a meaningful life. I simply understood it as, God has appointed us as stewards of all His creation and to carry out our stewardship duties wisely.

  3. A deeply enriching and immersive read. Thank you very much for such a well threaded treatise on such an elusive concept…..

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