As I reflect on my life, I realize there are moments when I feel happy in the sense of positive emotions. I feel good physically and emotionally. My basic needs are met, there’s no major obstacles to my goals, and no serious negative emotions creeping up. “Life is good”—at least in one sense.
But sometimes in the midst of these moments, I feel a sense of unease, or unsettledness. Something inside me says, “There’s more to life being in a good mood.” There is something more important in life than experiencing pleasure and feeling good.
There are other moments when I experience a sense of fulfillment or meaningfulness in my life. These moments seem to relate to not just feeling good, but doing good for others. More particularly they seem to be linked to close relationships, and they often come with struggles and unpleasant emotions, even if they’re mixed with a sense of fulfillment.
Let me give you an example from my life. I recently ended a long psychotherapy treatment with a client I’ll call Ann. Ann experienced severe trauma as a child. I saw Ann several hours per week for over 10 years. It was extremely difficult work on many counts.
There were definitely pleasant moments in my work with Ann in which I felt positive emotions. These were moments when we shared a laugh about something, and moments when she talked about experiencing significant growth. But I also experienced many stressors and negative emotions in my work with her. It just goes with the territory of working through severe trauma.
Overall, however, Ann’s life was transformed, and this body of work—a quest really—was one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done in my life. While I didn’t necessarily experience a lot of “happiness” in my work with Ann, I did experience the work as profoundly meaningful. She healed and changed, and I grew as a person.
If I had it to do over again, I would in heartbeat. Despite the struggles and pain I encountered, I would do this again because it helped Ann live a better life and that is meaningful, and I want a rich and meaningful life, not just a “happy” one.
A recent study* by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues explored the overlap and differences between the happy and meaningful life. As you might expect, the two overlap quite a bit. But they’re distinct, and this research sheds light on how we might go about pursuing a life that is meaningful, and not merely happy.
If you’re like me, you realize at the end of the day, mere happiness doesn’t cut it. You want to create a meaningful life. There are five factors that stand out that uniquely contribute to meaningfulness as distinct from happiness.
Baumeister and colleagues found that, while happiness was associated with the present, meaningfulness had to do with linking the pieces of your life together across time. In order to do that, you have to step out of the flow of life and reflect on it. How do your past, present, and future fit together? What do you want your future to look like so that your future self will link with your past self and present self into a coherent whole? How does your current work fit into this whole? What will you do now and in the near future to make this come about?
When people do things that express themselves, they tend to experience them as meaningful. Baumeister and colleagues found that when they asked people whether a series of items were an expression of themselves, the majority of these items correlated positively with a sense of meaningfulness. What activities express or reflect your unique sense of self? To what extent does your work express yourself? How can you approach your work differently to better reflect your authentic self? The idea of core motivation, assessed by the MCORE, ties in here. There are distinct patterns of achievement in your life that express your unique personhood. Reflect on 2-3 achievement stories—things you did really well and thoroughly enjoyed. Look for themes here. The combination of your top 2 or 3 core motivations represent the motivations that uniquely express who you are.
Baumeister found that helping others predicted a sense of meaningfulness, but it didn’t boost happiness as distinct from meaning. So think about how much your typical week involves helping others. What can you do to help others more? And how can you help others in a way that expresses yourself based on your core motivations?
Baumeister and colleagues found that spending time with friends contributes to happiness (i.e., positive emotions), but was unrelated to meaningfulness. In contrast, caring for one’s own children and spending time with loved ones was linked to meaningfulness, but was irrelevant to happiness.
This makes sense. Hanging out with friends is usually pleasant. Spouses and children are sometimes pleasant. But sometimes… not so much. But the deep relational connection built over time in the midst of both pleasant and painful moments—and everything in between—is inherently meaningful. This reflects our very nature; we’re born to connect and pre-wired to experience meaningfulness in relationships.
So stick with your close relationships. Don’t give up. Put serious effort into building them and developing them. Forgive liberally. Give and receive love every day. This is one of the most powerful catalysts for growth. And when you’re on your death bed, it’s what will cause you to look back on your life and say, “It’s been a meaningful life.”
This doesn’t mean you seek out struggles. It just means that struggles go with hand-in-hand with trying to make a positive difference in the world, which is a big part of what facilitates meaningfulness in life. So, the take home point here is this: strive to contribute good in ways that are challenging. Stretch yourself. Find a quest that expressed who you are and pursue it. (And check out Chris Guillabeau’s wonderful book, The Happiness of Pursuit). You’ll inevitably experience struggles, but that is a signpost of meaningfulness.
I hope these reflections help you to create a sense of meaning and connection in your life and work.
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* Roy F. Baumeister, Kathleen D. Vohs, Jennifer L. Aaker and Emily N. Garbinsky (2013). Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(6), 505-515, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17439760.2013.830764