“A meaningful life is more satisfying than a merely happy life. Happiness is about enjoying the present; meaning is about dedicating oneself to the future. Happiness is about receiving; meaningfulness is about giving. Happiness is about upbeat moods and nice experiences. People leading meaningful lives experience a deeper sense of satisfaction.” ~ David Brooks
Happiness seems to be a big topic of interest in the field of psychology lately. Even the latest edition of Psychology Today’s cover is dedicated to the topic. And why shouldn’t it be? After all everyone wants to be happy, and happiness sells. But there’s something really deceiving about how happiness is being marketed as the greatest possible emotion one could ever hope to experience. I argue that instead of a happy life, it is a meaningful one we should be pursuing.
What makes the idea of a holistically happy life so deceptive and problematic, is that is an impossible goal. While one may certainly experience moments of happiness, it is in fact impossible to know what happiness is without sadness, anger, frustration, boredom, etc. It is the contrast of other emotions that allows us to access even the mere notion of happiness. Happiness is, therefore, little more than any other fleeting emotion rather than the goal of life pop culture and the media has marketed it into.
Furthermore, aspiring for a “happy life” can all too easily invalidate the pain and anguish everyone experiences from the trials and tribulations of existence. Having happiness as the standard for how we want our lives to feel can make life challenges even more difficult because it can be a reminder of how unhappy we are at the given moment. This can easily lead one to regretting whatever life choices they made that brought them to said unfortunate juncture rather than have you going deeper in the inner conflicts and issues you are wrestling with. A perfect depiction of the utility in working through pain and struggle is Viktor Frankl’s book titled Man’s Search for Meaning. It is a stirring true story about a Jewish psychiatrist’s experience of surviving the Holocaust through his relentless search for a meaningful life.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” ~Viktor Frankl
The real beauty of creating a meaningful versus a happy life for yourself is that there is no standard or value judgment of what that exactly means. There is no universal right or wrong way for how to go about this – it is up to you to decide what a meaningful life is for you. The only requirement is that there be something in your life that pulls you outside yourself – the feeling that you are growing, evolving, and moving in harmony with the general tempo of the universe. For many people this entails some sort of creative outlet (i.e. music, dance, art), for others it involves a ‘calling’ of sorts, and for some little more is required than simply having the ability to breathe. A balance, in other words, between yourself and the current of life. At the very least, one has to be able to deal with and invite every aspect of life, not just the convenient moments of happiness, because believe it or not there is meaning in the traumas and sadness despite how much we’d prefer to not have to deal with them.
So how do we achieve this? What do we do? How do we start? While I wish I could provide the formula for how to achieve a meaningful life, I’m afraid there is no such possibility. In fact, this is the beauty of the challenge – it is up to each of us to discover and create the meaning within and external to all of us. It is the state of being in the unknown while simultaneously feeling grounded, not a series of actions or behaviors. It is an evolving experience that is never finished or necessarily clear. It is the reason we still wake up every morning and try to make the best of it even though we know that someday we and everyone we know will be no more. For now, it is at least a start to know that the meaning of life does not lie within a series of accomplishments, but in a giving in to the moments that we find ourselves resisting.
Many of the clients I work with come to me for a number of reasons that all basically entail them coming back to the feeling that they are somehow ‘lost.’ When they reveal this they are frequently confused and unsatisfied when I respond with a cathartic “good!” As inconvenient as such a feeling is, it is actually an incredibly therapeutic place to be in because of the plain and simple truth that the meaning of life is to make life meaningful. While feeling lost is not an easy or convenient experience to deal with, it does provide the canvas for painting the landscape of whatever meaning your life has.
“Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” ~Søren Kierkegaard