Happiness and Meaning

When I was in my 20s I dedicated my life (outside of work) to the pursuit of what you might call happiness.  I was the life and soul of the party (i.e. got very drunk indeed), went on nice  holidays, bought nice things and generally lived a nice life.

And slowly I grew depressed.

In 2003 I read a book called Authentic Happiness which explained how there were three types of happiness:

  • The Pleasant life – having as many positive emotions as frequently as possible.  
  • The Engaged lifeknowing your highest strengths and using these as often as possible.
  • The Meaningful lifeusing your highest strengths in the service of something that you believe in.  

This was a revelation to me.  Authentic happiness is not a function of pleasure, but meaning.

On holiday, even my famous koala impressions brought only superficial happiness.

But society points us increasingly towards maximising the number of positive thoughts and emotions we have in any given day.  The trouble is, for me at least, this was a very poor strategy for pursuing meaning, and it was meaning that I lacked.  For me, happiness was a trap.

Meaning involves taking a stand, following your values and usually, change.  But in turn this bring anxiety, doubt and worry.  In contrast, happiness is an emotion that says nothing needs to change.  In my case, I had to relinquish the pursuit of the pleasant life to pursue meaning.  It was a stark choice.

There’s nothing wrong with having a pleasant life, and I am sure some of Seligman’s techniques can work to increase our ‘happiness thermostats’.  But now I think, why bother?  We can’t have the good without the bad  (see Ryan and Deci, 2001) and if you have happy thoughts as a goal then what happens when anxiety shows up?  You will almost certainly turn away from what matters to you. With happiness as a goal we become insular, focused on our own state of mind.  With meaning as a goal we can focus on fighting to change the world for the better.

This is why in career change we often have to be willing to let go of happiness in order to find meaning.

So, does letting go of happiness and pursuing meaning paradoxically bring happiness?

Well, yes and no.  My levels of stress and anxiety have increased since pursuing meaning.  I am not happier in the way I was programmed to understand the term.

But I am more more compassionate to myself than I was before and far more purposeful.   I feel pride in what I’m trying to do, for the first time ever.  All of this brings a form of happiness – but not as I would have defined it before.

As I write, shafts of sunlight escape the cloud and bathe the room with light.  For a few moments I am typing with sunshine on my back, before it disappears.  Happiness feels like that.

Temporary, welcome, but out of my control.

windows of light

Career Change, Career Development, Developing Coaches - ACT Training, Executive Coaching, Getting Unstuck coaching


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