Having a sense of purpose and meaning in life increases your happiness levels, studies reveal.
If I look along my bookshelf, I notice a lot of volumes with the word ‘happy’ in the title. The study of happiness has boomed recently with books, webinars and courses designed to help us find this elusive emotion. However, recent research suggests that the more we try to be happy, the unhappier we become.
In a recent study, people who put the most focus on being happy reported 50 percent less frequent positive emotions, 35 percent less satisfaction about their life, and 75 percent more depressive symptoms than those that prioritized other things.
So, if trying to become happier actually gets in the way of happiness, what should we do instead?
Seeking meaning rather than happiness
Research has shown that having a sense of purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being. Seeking meaning in life, rather than just happiness, leads to increased life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency and self-esteem, and decreases the risk of depression.
Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University, and his colleagues surveyed 397 people and looked for correlations between their levels of happiness, meaning and other various aspects of their lives. He suggests that,
What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.
This is not a new idea. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor, helped his fellow prison camp inmates get through their terrible ordeal by encouraging them to focus on the meaning of their lives. He reminded them that there were people who needed them or important work they needed to do which gave many the determination they needed to survive.
He who knows the “why” for his existence, will be able to bear almost any “how.”
So why is meaning in life more important than happiness?
Meaning lasts longer than happiness
While happiness is felt in the here and now, it is transient and fleeting, just as all emotions are.
However, meaning in life is more enduring. It connects the past, present and future giving a sense of a more purposeful, cohesive and satisfying life. People who think more about the future or about past struggles and suffering have more of a sense that their lives are meaningful.
Meaning makes you kinder
To be happy, we need to fulfill our desires and needs. Basically, we feel happy when we get what we want. However, when we aim for meaning we are more likely to help others. Raising children is a good example of how meaning in life can be more important than happiness. Looking after children don’t always make us happy, it can be stressful and worrying, however, it can add meaning to our lives. The same is true of having a meaningful job or cause that we are committed too.
Meaning increases social connection
While superficial social connections may increase happiness, deeper relationships increase meaning. So while some friends may be great to go out partying with, we need deeper relationships with people we can trust with our concerns and problems, to feel valued and connected.
So it seems that we should give up the pursuit of happiness and focus on creating meaning in our lives instead, and in that way, we may stumble upon happiness and satisfaction when we least expect it.