Pursue Meaning, Not Happiness

Source: NY Mag, Dec 2016

What would you rather have: a happy life or a meaningful life?

Research by the two of us shows that the happy life and the meaningful life differ — and that the surest path to true happiness lies in chasing not just happiness but also a meaningful life. Psychologists have started to look more closely at how seeking happiness affects people, and unearthed some unsettling trends. The pursuit of happiness, it turns out, negatively affects our well-being.

The happy life is defined by seeking pleasure and enjoyment, whereas the meaningful life is bigger. … the defining features of a meaningful life are connecting and contributing to something beyond the self, which could be your family, your work, nature, or God.

Those in the happy group tended to avoid difficult or taxing entanglements, described themselves as relatively self-oriented, and spent more time thinking about how they felt in the moment. In contrast, those high in meaning spent more time helping others, being with friends or taking care of children, and thinking about the past, present and future.

… meaningful lives share three features, according to a paper published this year in the Review of General Psychology. After conducting an extensive review of the literature, the psychologists Login George and Crystal Park of the University of Connecticut identified the three features as:

  • purpose — the degree to which you feel directed and motivated by valued life goals;
  • comprehension — the ability to understand and make sense of your life experiences and weave them into a coherent whole; and
  • mattering — the belief that your existence is significant and valued.

When people say their lives are meaningful, in other words, it’s because they feel their lives have purpose, coherence, and worth.

But meaning isn’t something you either have or don’t have. It’s an approach to life — a mind-set. People can choose to pursue meaning as well as happiness.

Over the long term, it seemed, pursuing meaning was more deeply satisfying than chasing happiness.

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