Finding Meaning in Life #101

When a close friend of mine died right before Christmas, my reaction went immediately to, “What is the meaning of life? What is it all about? Why bother?” Carol devoted herself to helping others and teaching them to love, as I do. Our careers and callings have been parallel for decades, doing counseling, teaching workshops and seminars, leading groups, coaching, and teaching coaching. She coached right up to her final struggle with cancer and I know it gave her meaning, as it always did. But it brought up the depth of questioning in me about why we do life.

Finding Meaning in Life

Psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankl, in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, contends that those most likely to survive were those who had found meaning in life. Those who could cling to life’s meaning and purpose had the resilience to survive through the darkest of times.

Many of us, especially people under 35 are most interested in the pursuit of happiness and living the happy life. Researchers are finding the happy life is not enough, not the ultimate goal. Real contentment and well-being comes from living a life of meaning.
Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, defines the meaningful life as “using your signature strengths and virtues in the service of something much larger than you are.” He comments that Authentic Happiness is meant “as a preface to the meaningful life.”

What is Meaning in Life?

Researchers Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Vohs associate the quest for meaning in life with four main needs:

  1. Purpose: Present events draw meaning from their connection to future outcomes — objective goals and subjective fulfillment.
  2. Values, which can justify certain courses of action
  3. Efficacy, the belief that one can make a difference
  4. Self-worth, reasons for believing that one is a good and worthy person

However, George Vaillant thinks quite differently. George E. Vaillant, M.D. has studied adult development, including the lives of 800+ men and women as a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Where are the positive emotions in all this? To see meaning as due to purpose, values, self-esteem and efficacy is to judge the brain book by its cover. Positive emotions, not cognitions, are the engines that drive meaning.

The positive emotions that create meaning are love, compassion, hope, awe, gratitude, trust and joy.

The Atlantic wrote an article summarizing the 70-year Harvard project, The Study of Adult Development. When Vaillant was interviewed as the director of the study for 40 years, he made two rash generalizations, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people,” and “Happiness equals love—full stop.” He has defended these, “… seemingly sentimental generalizations about the findings of a multi-million dollar, seven-decade study designed to identify the key ingredients that lead to a ‘good’ life” in many publications. You can find a brief article on his defense in a chapter, Love and be Loved, in a book called Character Strengths Matter.

Should We Pursue Happiness or Meaning?

The pursuit of happiness and meaning are two of our most central motivations in life. A wealth of research in positive psychology suggests that happiness and meaning are, in fact, essential elements of well-being. Happiness and meaning are strongly correlated with each other, and often feed off each other. The more meaning we find in life, the happier we typically feel, and the happier we feel, the more we often feel encouraged to pursue even greater meaning and purpose. But not always.

An increasing body of research suggests that that there can be substantial trade-offs between seeking happiness and seeking meaning in life.

In recent years, a number of studies have further supported the differences between happiness and meaning. In one, Baumeister and colleagues found that factors such as feeling connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone or bored contributed to both happiness and meaning. However, they also found some important differences:

    • Finding one’s life easy or difficult was related to happiness, but not meaning.
    • Feeling healthy was related to happiness, but not meaning.
    • Feeling good was related to happiness, not meaning.
    • Scarcity of money reduced happiness more than meaning.
    • People with more meaningful lives agreed that ‘relationships are more important than achievements’.
    • Helping people in need was linked to meaning but not happiness.
    • Expecting to do a lot of deep thinking was positively related to meaningfulness, but negatively with happiness.*
    • Happiness was related more to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaning was related more to being a giver than a taker.
    • The more people felt their activities were consistent with core themes and values of their self, the greater meaning they reported in their activities.
    • Seeing oneself as wise, creative, and even anxious were all linked to meaning but had no relationship (and in some cases, even showed a negative relationship) to happiness.

It seems that happiness has more to do with having your needs satisfied, getting what you want, and feeling good, whereas meaning is more related to uniquely human activities such as developing a personal identity, expressing the self, and consciously integrating one’s past, present, and future experiences.

Gallup reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.

This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. We have found that leading a happy life is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the researchers write.

“Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others,” explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. “If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need,” the researchers write.

What Makes us Human?

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.

“Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy,” Baumeister writes.

“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”

Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.

Next time we’ll talk about what you can do to add more meaning to your life.

Meanwhile, if you want help with your happiness or meaning, email me (link) or call or text me at 702-242-4222.


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