The pressure to be happy is taking us down the wrong path in life. What does being ‘happy’ really mean? How do we know if we’re living a fulfilled life? These are questions asked throughout history. Will they ever be answered?
When asked what it would mean to live a “good life,” a lot of people say “I just want to be happy.” And in that response, may lie the problem — or perhaps not the problem, but rather, the challenge.
I’m of the belief that happiness is not something we find, but something we embrace, because the key to being happy, is usually found within us.
In her book, “The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters,” author Emily Esfahani Smith firmly believes that “All the intense pressure to feel bliss is making us chase the wrong thing. What makes life truly worth living is meaning.”
“If you’re chasing happiness, you’re building your castle on a very shaky foundation because the feeling can slip away easily. Meaning is something that endures, that you can seek out and find.” – Emily Esfahani Smith
Why a life of meaning is so vital
According to Smith, human beings are wired to seek out meaning — to have a purpose.
Smith points does point out though: “The happy life is associated with being a taker, whereas the meaningful life is associated with being a giver. It requires sacrifice and requires us to put our own needs and desires on hold. But that ultimately leads to meaning because there’s something in us that wants to know that we’ve made a difference in the world and that our lives amounted to something. We weren’t just kind of here for this short period of time, chasing our own goals.”
Smith added: “When you’re on your death bed and reflecting back on your life, what you are going to be proudest of are the things that made your life meaningful. You won’t necessarily regret not being happy, but you’ll regret if you didn’t lead a meaningful life.”
It’s not easy: happiness vs. meaning
Obviously, if we pursue selfish pleasures that we think make us happy, we end up living a life filled with short-spurts of happiness. At the end of the day however, one cannot look back on life and think “wow, I really did something with my life!” Living a life that is meaningful takes focus and sacrifice, but ultimately, it makes life more fulfilled — more whole and valuable and thus, much happier.
How can we create a meaningful life?
Smith says it’s cultivating the four pillars of meaning:
Belonging: We all need to find our tribe and forge relationships in which we feel understood, recognized, and valued—to know we matter to others. This may be the most important pillar, because we are social by nature and having meaningful relationships with others is essential.
“We get a lot of our cues about how our lives are going by the way people treat us. If people treat us like we don’t matter — if they ostracize us, bully us, reject us — that communicates to us, ‘Oh, maybe my life isn’t worthwhile.'” – Emily Esfahani Smith
Purpose: We all need a far-reaching goal that motivates us, serves as the organizing principle of our lives, and drives us to make a contribution to the world.
The first step is to discover what our strengths are. If you’re struggling with this pillar, Smith suggests taking a VIA Character Strengths Test.
Once we discover our personal strengths, our purpose is about using them to give back and serve others for the better.
Storytelling: We are all storytellers, taking our disparate experiences and assembling them into a coherent narrative that allows us to make sense of ourselves and the world.
What is your story? How do you see yourself, describe yourself…perceive yourself. This pillar requires us to do deep reflection on our life and get a feel for how our individual experiences have shaped us. And, while they may have shaped us, they don’t need to define us.
Transcendence: During a transcendent or mystical experience, we feel we have risen above the everyday world and are connected to something vast and meaningful.
Seek out and cherish those times — even just moments that uplift us and make us feel joy and “above it all,” and connected to something much bigger. This may happen for you in Church, or in private prayer, meditation, or even while out in nature.
“You don’t have to travel to India to find transcendence; it can be in your own backyard. One study found students who were asked to gaze at a grove of towering eucalyptus trees for a minute felt less self-centered and more generous,” Smith said.
Live life bold and beautiful
Living a life of meaning makes us feel more secure, welcome, grounded, accepted, loved, appreciated and perhaps above all, it helps us to do something good in the world. A life of meaning helps us to leave our mark of positivity and goodness and this above all, is the very definition of happiness. Rather than chasing happiness, we should let our inner joy bubble up and envelop us by living a life of purpose and meaning.