If you were to ask the person closest to you, “What do you want in life?,” I’d be willing to bet $2 (please, I’m in university, what more did you expect?) that their answer will be “to be happy.” After all, if it’s Beyoncé’s answer, that basically means it’s right. But it really is a unique question in that its answer can be predicted despite not knowing anything about the individual being questioned. For the most part, we’re all striving for happiness.
It speaks to the universal and strong grip that the concept of happiness has on the human species. It definitely wasn’t always this way — for much of our existence, the goal was simply to see the next day. In many parts of today’s world, this goal is met and surpassed to the point that having too much of life’s necessities has become a problem. On a global level, more people have died from obesity than from being underweight in recent years.
Once more and more of us started to have easy access to what we need to survive, and even to concepts that we now consider fundamental rights like healthcare and education, we needed to shift our time and effort to something — and so we turned to finding happiness.
Let me be clear — the quest for happiness has existed for thousands of years. Philosophers as early as Aristotle pondered upon and disseminated their thoughts on what makes us happy. But I would argue that the concept’s hold on our world has never been quite as strong. Positive psychology (simply put, the study of what makes a “good life”) has exploded in the 21st century, with self-help books, corporations and media all telling you why you’re not happy and what you need to do or buy in order to change that.
Millions of dollars are injected into convincing us of what we need in order to be happy, so we feel like that’s what we should be working towards and consequently pump our own money into finding. So the cycle thrives.
The Pursuit of Happyness is so ingrained in my mind that I don’t know if I’ve ever even wondered if my goal in life is anything but the same as Will Smith’s. (No offence intended to him at all. Great actor. Great guy.) But some reflection has led me to slightly alter the course of the journey that is my life.
Happiness is technically defined as a mental or emotional state of well-being that can be defined by positive or pleasant emotions.
I see a few issues with using this concept as the mantra for the way I live. Firstly, its definition seems to imply that having a happy life means to have a constant feeling of a pleasurable or positive emotion. I think we can agree that this seems highly impractical to work towards, given that every experience and interaction every day of my life is unlikely to result in such a state of being. Let’s say I somehow do enter this steady stream of happiness. What’s to stop me from wondering if there exists a higher level? And once I get there (if I ever get there), what about an even higher level?
This seemingly never-ending pursuit of a constant state of ever-growing pleasantry seems not only impossible, but counterproductive to its intent. The more I feel like I could be happier than I am right now, the unhappier I will be.
Furthermore, studies have shown that a human being tends to live within a certain range of happiness — higher-than-normal levels of happiness eventually return to this level, and the same goes for lower-than-normal periods of feeling happy. This level is determined by genetics and environmental conditioning. It isn’t to suggest that our happiness is entirely out of our control, but I believe it’s important to note that a higher-than-normal level of happiness for every breathing moment of one’s life seems implausible.
Lastly — and perhaps most importantly — I know what being happy feels like, I know what results in me feeling happy, and I definitely know that it’s not what I want to spend my entire days doing.
Happiness is what I feel when I catch up with a friend I haven’t seen in a while. It’s what I feel when I find out one of my favourite artists is releasing new music. It’s what I feel when I hug my mom after a long day.
It’s important to note that these are all experiences or moments in time — I may feel happy when I exist in them, but that’s not to say that I’d like to spend my entire life, say, listening to music.
So this leads me to my question — why am I so focused on this idea of happiness, when to me, being happy isn’t something I want to feel every second of every day? What exactly do we mean when we say, “I want to be happy?”
This all may sound crazy to most people, considering that happiness is what we’re conditioned to desire and work towards. But if I still wouldn’t want to live my days doing the things that make me happy despite knowing that they make me happy, that must mean something else has to fill in the gaps. There must be some desirable state to fit in the missing pieces of the puzzle when feeling “pleasant or positive” doesn’t make the cut.
To me, that something is meaning.
Scientifically speaking, there’s no such thing as meaning. We haven’t yet been able to prove that a definitive or objective meaning for life actually exists, or that an individual is “feeling meaning” in a given moment. It’s a story that we as a species have created and tell ourselves.
That being said, I don’t mean to question the integrity or validity of meaning — in fact, I hope for it to work itself into more answers to the question “What do you want in life?”
I definitely can’t claim to be a meaning guru. As a 19-year-old, I’m still trying to understand what the concept looks and feels like. I don’t have a definition or list of tips and tricks that I can give to you so you can go and find meaning. All I have to offer is how my experiences and beliefs have shaped what it means (pun intended and bolded) to me, and that is that meaning represents that which helps navigate us through the journey of life and feel at peace with ourselves.
The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and live well. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are a few reasons why meaning makes more sense to me than happiness.
All of us — at some point — go through some sort of problem or struggle in life. I would say that “happy” is an emotion that’s close to the bottom of the list during these challenging times. But just because you feel unhappy doesn’t mean that it’s time to throw in the towel and call it quits. Meaning reminds you to keep going when things get difficult. It’s a culmination of what you stand for — your values, your beliefs, your priorities, and what you have to offer to the world.
When faced with a difficult decision or problem, there are two options: take the easy route out and give up, or work through the scenario and extract valuable lessons from it, regardless of what happens. The first option might make you happy. Not having to deal with, say, an awkward confrontation with someone can definitely invoke a pleasant feeling of relief. But is it the best decision? Meaning represents a beacon of light in the situations where a seemingly dark and endless void swallows you up in self-doubt and fear.
I believe that meaning in one’s life can lead to a happier life. By that, I mean a life with more and greater moments/experiences of happiness. I’ve found that happiness can be extracted from meaning, but I don’t believe that the opposite is always true. It is why, when contemplating decisions or creating goals, I ask “What does this mean to me?” in addition to asking myself “Will this make me happy?” It often leads to deeper insight into whether I’m interested in something for the short run and the momentary sensation it creates, or if it has the potential to have a lasting, deeper impact on my life.
Meaning, similar to happiness, can look like different things for different people. Some find it in their family, others in their work, religion, community, or artistic expression. Through whatever medium it may come to you, I hope you find it in your heart to ask happiness to scooch over to make some room for meaning in your life.
Thanks so much for reading! I would love to hear your thoughts on happiness, meaning, and the different roles they play in your life. If you like what you read, feel free to check out my other posts and follow me.