Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Happiness and Meaning

When I was in my 20s and early 30s I dedicated my life (outside of work) to the pursuit of what you might call happiness.  I was the life and soul of the party (transl. got very drunk indeed), went on fantastic holidays, bought nice things and generally lived a great life.

And slowly I grew depressed.

In 2003 I read a book called Authentic Happiness in which Martin Seligman explained how there were three different types of happiness. 

The Pleasant life
Consisting of having as many positive emotions as frequently as possible.  

The Engaged life
Achieved by knowing your highest strengths and using these as often as possible.

The Meaningful life
Consisting of using your highest strengths in the service of something that you believe in.  

I intrinsically knew that this was true.  Overall life satisfaction is not just a function of pleasure, it is a function of engagement and meaning.  

On holiday, even my famous koala impressions brought only superficial happiness.
But I think that 'happiness' is most often interpreted as the pleasant life - in other words maximising the number of positive thoughts and emotions one has in any given day.  Society certainly points us this way.  Dare I say it, so does Martin Seligman.  The trouble is this is a very poor strategy for pursuing meaning, and it was meaning that I lacked.  That's why, for me at least, happiness is a trap.

Meaning involves taking a stand, following your values and quite often, change.  But in turn these things bring anxiety, doubt and worry.  In my case, I had to relinquish the pursuit of the pleasant life (or happiness) to pursue meaning.  It was that stark. 

There's nothing wrong with having a pleasant life, and I am quite sure some of Seligman's techniques can work to increase our 'happiness thermostats' from their set point.  But now I think, why bother?  I've realised you can't have the good without the bad  (see Ryan and Deci, 2001) and if you have happy thoughts as a goal you compromise the pursuit of a meaningful life.  

I think you have to be prepared to let go of happiness in order to find it. 

So, does it work?  Does letting go of happiness and pursuing meaning paradoxically bring happiness?  Well, the honest answer is no, not for me.  My levels of stress and anxiety have gone through the roof since pursuing meaning.  I am not happier, at least in the way I have been programmed to understand the term 'happiness'.

But my struggle for meaning has brought a certain amount of compassion towards myself, too, and this affords me more strength to be compassionate to others.  I am more grounded and stable than I was before and I feel far more purposeful.   And slowly I'm feeling a certain amount of pride in what I'm trying to do.  I even cry during My Way.  All of this brings a form of happiness, but not as I would have defined it before.

As I write, shafts of sunlight escape the cloud and bathe the room with light.  For a few moments I am typing with sunshine on my back.  Happiness feels like that.  Temporary, welcome, but out of my control.

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