Getting Over Happiness: Why Meaningfulness Is A Better Life Purpose

People continually ask themselves and each other, “Are you happy?” Many would say that a major goal of life is to be happy. This is what we most want for our families and friends and, of course, ourselves.


This obsession with happiness has led to an emerging field of research that informs us about relative levels of happiness reported in various countries. In this year’s survey, Finland tops the global happiness rankings. And the country of Bhutan goes so far as to regularly report its Gross National Happiness Index and base policies on increasing it.


I really have no idea whether or not I am happy. I am not often sad and depressed, but other than that, the idea of raising my level of happiness has no reality for me. My response to any happiness poll is to click on “Don’t Know.”


I actually have some visceral, negative responses to the concept, which may explain my reluctance to apply it to myself. It seems to me that doing things only to make oneself happy is a bit selfish and narcissistic. So I was gratified (happy?) when a colleague sent me an article from the Greater Good Science Center that was titled “Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One?” Written by Jill Suttie and Jason Marsh, it begins by differentiating the interrelated definitions of meaningfulness and happiness, which are often seen as equivalent. I find it easier to relate to meaningfulness, which seems less ephemeral, more robust and more substantial than happiness.


The article compares the two concepts and shows that satisfying your needs and wants is not really relevant to a meaningful life. Indeed, we all are able to put immediate needs aside for a bit when something is meaningful, like when we forget to eat or sleep while working on an important project. Meaningfulness is future-looking, while happiness is here-and-now. Meaningfulness is found in giving, while happiness is too often focused on taking. And, unlike happiness, meaningfulness can be stressful and challenging.


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