Why a Meaningful Life Is the Best Route to Happiness
Celebs as diverse as Kendall Jenner, Zayn Malik and Emma Stone have all recently opened up about their difficulties with anxiety and low mood. It’s a timely reminder that It isn’t the material things you gather around yourself that bring you happiness.
There are three reasons for this:
– We quickly adjust to material items and the goal posts for what’s ‘enough’ shift
– Humans weren’t designed to be happy all of the time
– You can’t chase happiness, 2017 is all about meaning (something I’m a big fan of!)
It can be all too easy to tell yourself that if you had a bit more money or the perfect job, you would wake up happy every day and no longer suffer from the ups and downs of life. But lasting happiness is not obtained from buying the latest flatscreen TV or having the best trainers.
Of course these things give you a flush of momentary pleasure (if they’re really good shoes a little longer!), but while it may feel good at the time, it doesn’t necessarily do anything for you in the longer term. In fact some purely pleasurable activities can leave you feeling worse (e.g. drinking too much, shopping when you’re broke, eating the whole pack of biscuits).
Even the bigger things like buying a new car or moving house don’t tend to have a long-term effect and there’s plenty of evidence to back this up. Research shows we quickly adjust to new life circumstance – for better or worse – and consider it normal.
Although the human capacity to adjust can be helpful if things get harder, it also means that we quickly get used to many of the things that make us feel good. This is called the “hedonic treadmill” – when you chase happiness it doesn’t actually get you anywhere. The good feelings wear off and you end up no happier than you were before.
Expectations and desires increase to match what you have. When we reach our goals, we often reset them a little further away. You earn more money, but you start to spend it on a higher standard of living and suddenly there’s something else that’s just out of reach. It’s like chasing the pot of the gold at the end of the rainbow – it keeps moving over the next hill.
Humans weren’t designed to be happy all of the time
The reality is that no one feels good every day and we all have our ups and downs. It would be strange to be permanently happy all of the time.
Emotions are an important form of communication – we have the full spectrum because they are all necessary and useful to us. For example, anxiety helps us detect threat, jealously to protect, guilt to put right a wrong.
This also makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Being happy all of the time wouldn’t have been much good for the survival of the species! If we were permanently happy, we wouldn’t be driven to achieve, personally develop, meet a partner or reproduce. Having happiness that little bit out of reach is more adaptive as it keeps you moving forwards and facilities personal growth.
Aim for meaning in life rather than happiness
If you want to feel your best and gain the most from every day, then it’s clear it’s not about having it all. What you need instead is meaning.
Research shows that those who feel real meaning and purpose in their lives have a greater sense of wellbeing and happiness, and live longer_ than those who do not. Having meaning helps you define your life, cope with adversity, find inner strength and gives you a clear plan of where you’re headed.
If you want to stop pleasure chasing and step off the treadmill it’s time to focus on meaning as a way to maintain the good feelings. It’s these ingredients (not money) that are essential for psychological growth, integrity and general well-being. It’s also from meaning that you gain happiness, purpose and contentment.
How to make 2017 more meaningful: four proven routes to increased meaning in life.
How you spend your time is one of the most important decisions you make in what makes life meaningful. Meaningful activities make you feel that you matter, that things are worthwhile and are proven to boost your mood. It’s good to enjoy the small things that happen each day and focus on what’s here right now.
– What are the things that you really enjoy and make you feel good?
– What stimulates you and brings you a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment or achievement?
– What is personally important to you?
– What really fits with your personal values and needs?
If you want to feel life is meaningful it’s really important to work on your relationships. Research shows that feeling connected and close to others makes life more meaningful and that being able to spend more time with your friends, relatives and neighbours provides an increase in happiness worth up to an extra £85,000 per year! So ensure some of the above activities include others.
Whether it’s community, charity or religion – it’s good to remember that life is larger than you. Letting go of self-interest and looking outside of yourself helps you to see the bigger picture and can put the problems in your own life back in perspective. Research shows that the good feelings you experience when helping others may be just as important to your health as exercise and a healthy diet.
Set yourself goals
These act as a map of where you’d like to head and carry you through the harder days giving you something to aim for and look forward to. Working towards and reaching your goals gives you a sense of purpose, fulfilment and increased meaning in life. Goals focussed on personal growth or community contribution lead to higher levels of wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment.