We all want to be ‘happy.’
There is a problem with our existing approaches to happiness.
We want to smile, laugh, and enjoy the moment. We want to be deeply engaged. We want serenity.
This element in particular is what this page, and this whole website, is about.
The feeling of life satisfaction and value we’re talking about is a sense of meaning, and the joy that results from it.
A Timeless Misconception
Where ‘happy’ is defined:
Happy (adj) – 1. Feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.
“There’s more to life than being happy” – A TED talk by Emily Esfahani Smith
With today’s research in the bountifully blossoming field of Positive Psychology, we see these ever-important distinctions being categorized further.
Philosophers like Aristotle and scientists of present-day psychology both converge on a central idea:
Meaning is the key to a well-lived life.
Organized religion is on the decline in America, especially for younger people. The 2018 American Family Survey, conducted by Deseret News in Utah, found that “for millennials and GenXers, the most common religion is no religion at all.” This may not be problematic in itself, but for centuries, religion served as a driving purpose for many people. When nothing fills this vacuum, the effect can be a negative one. A study published earlier this year in JAMA Network Openfound that people without a strong life purpose—defined as a sense of feeling rooted in your life and taking actions toward meaningful goals—were more than twice as likely to die between the years of the study (2006 to 2010) compared with people who had one, even after controlling for things like gender, race, wealth, and education level. Speaking to NPR, Celeste Leigh Pearce, one of the authors of the study, said, “I approached this [study] with a very skeptical eye, [but] I just find it so convincing that I’m developing a whole research program around it.” Alan Rozanski, a cardiology professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, in New York City, says that purpose is “the deepest driver of well-being there is.” — from Outside’s article “We’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of it is Nonsense.“
Note: “Purpose” is often used to mean the same thing as “Meaning.” But in reality, purpose is part of meaning. Living a meaningful life means that you probably have a sense of purpose, and meaning can still come from other things, like a sense of significance or coherence.
In his TED talk, David Brooks lays out a relatable vision of life with and without meaning, while presenting some of the cultural myths that keep us stuck.
Meaning in life is related to higher social integration, better health, higher everyday competence, high psychological well-being, and lower depressive symptoms. (Steger 2013)
It’s no wonder that sayings like these are so common:
- “Follow your heart”
- “Be the change you wish to see in the world”
- “The purpose of life is a life of purpose”
- “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
In his best-selling book, Daniel Pink declares purpose as one of the three keys to motivation, together with Autonomy and Mastery.
“Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”
An assertion here is that a ‘rich’ life is not simply a life of ephemeral pleasures.
This has been shown in research. Wealthy people are more likely to report themselves as happy and comfortable, but unless they also carry a sense of meaning, their Life Satisfaction tends to be lower. Even when a sense of purpose brings anxiety (for example, caring for a child) it makes us more likely to be open-minded and interested about the world around us.” (Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan, & Lorentz, 2008)
Purpose at Work
It’s a simple fact: most of us will spend a vast time of our lives at work.
For this one, short life, we may end up spending surprising time behind a desk or computer screen, managing transactions, or populating spreadsheets.
In his book, The Purpose Revolution, John Izzo shows evidence that employees who are focused on purpose perform better on almost every metric that leaders care about: engagement, commitment, service, productivity…they even call in sick less.
His book is one example of the trend in employers to hire people driven by a sense of purpose. And the reasoning is sound.
Purposeful companies do better in their market. In this case, what’s better for individuals is also better for company culture, and even productivity.
Meaning IN Life vs. Meaning OF Life
A central premise of this site is the non-exclusivity of meaning IN life and meaning OF life.
Meaning OF Life – This concept is the notion that existence has an inherent, overarching meaning. Generally this approach is one of faith and spirituality. Various religious traditions (which we summarize HERE) assert an idea of a cosmic law or order of meaning, as created by a deity or otherwise. It’s the idea of ‘meaning’ as a thing outside of us. Part of the fabric of reality itself, meaning is of life, per the inclinations of a god/gods/cosmic order.
Meaning IN Life – Simply the experience of meaning. In this sense, meaning is a sensation that an individual can partake in by living and acting in according with their values.
Intuitive, right? And now that we know the difference, we can see something crucial: it isn’t between one or the other.
Religious people can still experience meaning IN life, perhaps contextualized by the ‘OF’ worldview of their faith. Likewise, Atheists/Agnostics can experience meaning IN life, without belief in an ‘OF’.
Did you know?
Actively religious people are:
- more likely than their less-religious peers to describe themselves as “very happy”
- more likely to join non-religious organizations like charities or clubs.
- more likely to vote
*From a Pew research study in 2014.
Despite rising rates of non-faith worldviews, especially in Western countries, the world remains religious by majority. Most of human society champions some form of “OF” worldview to meaning.
On a large, cultural scale, this predominant attention to meaning “OF” life worldviews may be overshadowing our attention to meaning “IN” life.
And the experience of meaning is accessible to everyone.
A study conducted by Victor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, found that among both patients and personnel in his Vienna clinic, about 80 percent believed that human beings needed a reason for living, and around 60 percent felt they had someone or something in their lives worth dying for. (Frankl 2000)
With that being said, our focus throughout this site is on meaning IN life.
Discovery / Exploration
Growth is often an arduous process. Echoing the difference between happiness and joy, it can even be downright unpleasant. Yet, it is nevertheless fundamental to meaning in life.
Martin Seligman, often regarded as the founder of Positive Psychology, heralded the development of personal virtues, saying the good life is one in which we “use signature strengths every day in the main realms of your life to bring abundant gratification and authentic happiness.” (from Authentic Happiness)
Similarly, the Sources of Meaning Scale (23 – Schnell 2009) identifies a dimension of Self-actualization: “Employing, challenging, and fostering one’s capacities”.
The research derived 13 primary themes in their responses: social relationships, parenting, personal goals/self-improvement, religion, spirituality, helping others, legacy, pursuit of knowledge, hobbies, travel, career, nature, and no meaning/uncertainty.
Notably, social relationships stood out as the most prominent source of meaning in life for all participants.
Love is vast and illusive. Our section on the subject covers a LOT of ground, and contains sections in their own right. The following are some highlights of what you’ll find within that cornerstone on the site. You can click the buttons to skip straight there.
This section is like a manual for one of the most valuable (and misunderstood) interpersonal skills out there.
Learn in detail how and why to love yourself. From your physical health to your general self-esteem, there is room to grow!
What does it mean to really truly be there in the moment? What’s the value of it? Can I train it?
Learn the skill that has captured Microsoft CEO’s, Intentional Communities, and leaders around the world. ‘Nonviolent Communication’ is the art of listening and speaking with empathy.
The ancient Greeks had 6 different words for love. Here, we’ll learn many more, and why the distinctions are important.
Make makes valuable friendships? This section is devoted to one of the most important forms of relationships out there.
Well, now we know for sure. And, maybe you already knew. To know is one thing, and to act is something else entirely.
So what do we do with knowledge?
These books are about the power of meaning and in life. By reading them, you’ll develop further insight into the value of meaning for well-being, the latest research in positive psychology, and more.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced “mee-high cheek-sent-mee-high”) presents key research on engagement and optimal experiences. When, along with this, life is full of meaning, one experiences a ‘Unified Flow State’.
The Science of Meaning
Here is the nitty gritty. This page is for you if you’re interested in the less-layman, more scientifically-inclined breakdown of meaning, including a helpful tour of some of the best research models and findings in positive psychology.
- Happiness Greatest Hits – A collection of articles on the subject of happiness from the Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley. Notice the prominence of meaning.
- The Pursuit of Meaning, Not Happiness, Is What Makes Life Incredibly Better – A simple overview article of meaning vs. happiness.
- Why You Should Prioritize Meaning in Your Everyday Life – Can simple, everyday actions make life more meaningful? Awesome article from Greater Good Science Center.
- Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One? – A scientific controversy about the relationship between meaning and happiness raises fundamental questions about how to live a good life.
- Getting Over Happiness: Why Meaningfulness Is A Better Life Purpose – Another take, with a focus on meaning in organizations.
- On The Power of Meaning: A Conversation With Author Emily Esfahani Smith – A look from her book, The Power of Meaning.
- Choose Meaning Over Happiness – Another quick and trendy article.
- The Happiness Ruse – How did feeling good become a matter of relentless, competitive work; a never-to-be-attained goal which makes us miserable?
- Key Scientific Papers of Positive Psychology – This list, containing a collection of key paper from Pos. Psych., serves as a great overview for the field, and quickly shows the importance of meaning.
- How a Sense of Purpose in Life Improves Your Health – A more meaningful life is likely to be healthier as well. Here’s why.
- Does Your Life Have Purpose? – A decent, well-outlined look at purpose and health.
- Meaning in life and physical health: systematic review and meta-analysis – A scientific overview, as of 2017, of meaning’s effect on health.
- You’re More Likely to Exercise if You Have a Sense of Purpose – A telling correlation is addressed in this article from Time magazine.
- We’ve Reached Peak Wellness. Most of It Is Nonsense. – A long, multi-faceted, and insightful article dispelling the myths of well-being while highlighting the important parts.