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The Marriage of Meaning and Happiness

“It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” Viktor Frankl

We want to be happy, find our purpose, and live a life of meaning. We want to change the world.

If Millennials had a slogan, I’m certain this would be it. Happiness, purpose and meaning are top priority for our generation.

I am no exception. I spent the second half of my twenties in pursuit of happiness, slowly discovering my purpose, all the while raising small children, which is considered an inherent act of meaning according to researchers.

Meaning and Happiness

On paper our “slogan” is perfect, however, when we dig a little deeper we stumble on some major issues – the main one being this: meaning and happiness are negatively correlated. Research has proven over and over again, that the acts and behaviors which make a life meaningful, actually contribute to decreasing happiness. According to an article titled, “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” from The Atlantic, those who focus on being happy are considered “takers,” while those who focus on meaning are considered “givers.” The two don’t peacefully co-exist.

Happiness and MeaningWhen I learned this fact, I realized that it directly clashed with my own worldview – and I suspected I wasn’t alone. I began to wonder: Is it impossible to live a happy AND meaningful life? Can we truly have it all? After all, post quarter-life-crisis, I do consider myself a very happy person, and believe I am living a life of meaning. But am I an exception to the rule? It seemed to me that the only way to answer these questions would be to get to the root of the modern pursuit of happiness.

First, I considered the plethora of research I had done over the years, which I then paired with the discoveries I made while writing about happiness on my blog – and it wasn’t long before the truth about happiness exposed itself. I was able to identify the culprit, or what I call the trifecta of happiness propaganda. I believe that this trifecta is at the core of our societal obsession with happiness.

  1. The in your face, self-help culture that was greatly shaped by the influential Oprah Winfrey over the past few decades.
  2. The social media-imposed comparison and recognition culture.
  3. Excessive choice and our lack of confidence in decision making.

We have an overabundance of self-help gurus telling us to be positive and vision-board-manifest our futures. We have too many perfected lifestyle photos on Instagram along with a rising celebrity culture. And, we experience far too many choices to be truly happy – because we can’t pick one. In my opinion, it is this underlying group of factors that have caused an internal battle within our generation. We feel the tug toward a life of meaning, and indeed believe we are seeking it, but we haven’t laid the proper foundation to achieve the combination of true happiness and meaning.

Going back to my original question: Can we live a happy and meaningful life? The research clearly says no – and after much consideration, I realized that I was asking the wrong question all along. The truth is, I don’t believe that we can pursue happiness in the traditional sense, while pursuing a life of meaning. However, I do believe that true happiness – a feeling that is underlying and is focused on a sense of well-being versus chasing a fleeting feeling – is attainable alongside meaning. 

Thoughts on How Foster True Happiness and Live a Life of Meaning

The real question we should be asking is this: How does one foster true happiness, while living a life of meaning? Here are my thoughts:

1 – Adjust your expectations:  There is a quote by spiritual teacher Sri Chinmoy that says, “Peace begins when expectation ends.” Once we liken true happiness to a positive sense of well-being, or inner peace rather than a fleeting feeling of joy, we have laid the groundwork to set and maintain realistic expectations. This is incredibly relevant to both our work and personal lives. If we enter situations and encounters with a bar of expectation that is not set by others or by comparison to the past, instead entering with a clean slate – then we will not feel the need to control the outcome or be disappointed by it.

2 – Foster Perseverance:  Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do – and we’ll be better for it. In fact, researchers have identified perseverance as the highest indicator of long-term success. It inherently brings you more joy because you feel rewarded when you push through and come out on the other side. This is a difficult trait to foster, because of the resistance, but the rewards are endless – just ask any professional athlete, published author, CEO or humanitarian aid worker.

3 – Focus Outward:  Regardless of how many friends you have, or how many people you know, most of us live in relatively small and safe bubbles. If you want to be happy and life a life of meaning, you’re going to have to leave your bubble sometimes. Sure, we all have problems, sometimes big ones, but it’s easy to lose sight of the opportunity we have simply by being born in North America. Read, watch, listen and continue learning about the issues plaguing humanity. Step outside of your comfort zone. Take action. Be generous with your time, your words, and your spirit.

I don’t mean to over simplify the marriage of meaning and happiness, because it’s obviously not an easy one. Instead, I hope to encourage you to look past the numerous articles stating its inherent clash, and instead join a growing movement of individuals who hope to see our generation turn this marriage into the rule, rather than the exception.

Heidi Oran
Heidi Oran is the author of the blog The Conscious Perspective, where she focuses on helping Millennials uncover their passions and dreams, and initiates conversations focused on the search for meaning and purpose. Along with raising her three sons, she is currently writing her first book, The Conscious Perspective: A Guidebook for Millennials Seeking Meaning, Purpose & Joy, which will be released in 2015. You can contact Heidi via email here.
Heidi Oran

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  • Randy Conley

    Wonderful insights Heidi! Your article is so timely for me because I’m in the midst of writing my own blog article on happiness (I should have asked you to write it for me!).

    The failed pursuit of happiness is not just a Millennial issue. As you pointed out, there are cultural dynamics that make this an issue for everyone. We’d all be wise to follow your recommendations.