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Why meaning outshines happiness

Apr 27, 2022 | Insights

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There are good arguments for replacing happiness with meaning as a life aspiration and helping others solve the problems that caused us grief
A few years ago, a couple from the US had concerns about their lives and money and decided to seek help from a financial planner. They selected a possible candidate and met in the planner’s offices for an exploratory meeting.

The planner welcomed them and opened the conversation by asking the couple why they were there. After a short pause, the answer came back:

“We are here because we have just hit fifty and all we have is toys and bling!”

The point is straightforward. The couple had spent a quarter of a century earning enough money to buy themselves the toys and bling they imagined would bring them happiness. Then, after twenty-five years, they realised that happiness was a chimaera, and what they really sought was meaning.

Happiness is not mandatory

Happiness is a simple and understandable concept, regarded as a worthwhile aspiration. In the Western world, happiness is considered the ultimate goal. Indeed, the American Declaration of Independence lists the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right.

But should happiness hold this much influence in our lives? For the couple in the story, the pursuit of happiness led to a life of hedonism. Their goals had been to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, a superficial happiness that had become hollow, even unhealthy.

And is happiness even an achievable goal? Experience suggests we spend more of our time unhappy than happy, leading to greater unhappiness.

Aim for meaning instead of happiness

Our couple had begun to realise that they wanted a higher purpose in their lives, a deeper and more fundamental reason for living.

There are sound arguments for replacing happiness with meaning as a life aspiration.

  • Unlike the pursuit of happiness, a life of meaning will probably make you more resilient to life’s setbacks.
  • Life with a purpose will lead to integrity and direction
  • Paradoxically, a life of meaning and purpose has an excellent chance of generating true, deep and long-lasting happiness.

“Meaning” seems to come from inside ourselves, whilst “happiness” is externally driven. Nevertheless, we often find purpose and meaning through our suffering and distress, using our experience to help others solve the same problems we have experienced.

In other words, we can lead a meaningful life by helping others find meaning in their lives. This will deliver resilience, direction, and purpose. Moreover, a life of meaning will deliver deep and fundamental happiness from understanding who we are and living with integrity, rather than superficial happiness derived from “toys and bling”.

Image attribution and references

Photo by Marc Rafanell López on Unsplash

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