April 3, 2019

A happy life vs A meaningful life

Don’t we all want to be happy? Don’t we all long for purpose and a meaningful life? 

We try various activities:  outings with family reminiscing about great childhood moments, lunch with our girl friends talking girl stuff, share funny stories and have loads of laughter…  We feel so happy afterwards, and yet, that happiness does not last very long!

And then we try something else again, because we crave long lasting happiness, a fulfilled life.  We long for a happy kind of feeling that can carry on day after day after day…

Happiness and a meaningful life goes hand-in-hand, no doubt about that, but there is a difference between the two.

It is possible that something can bring happiness to one’s life, but not meaning; and there are things that bring meaning, but not necessarily happiness.

A study was done where participants had to either do an activity related to “pleasure” (e.g. shopping, sleeping late, playing games, eating ice cream) or an activity related to “virtue” (e.g. reviewing your values, do a short online course, assisting a charity, cheering on a friend).

The outcome of the study showed that those who chose “pleasure” had an instant increase in their positive emotions, but it disappeared quite quickly; while those who chose an activity of “virtue” did experience a major increase in positive emotions, but rather an increase in their well-being in the long term.

Aristotle was one of the first philosophers to distinguish between a “life of pleasure” (hedonism) and a “life of meaning” (Eudaimonia):

“To Aristotle, a “life of meaning” is not a fleeting positive emotion. Rather, it is something you do. Leading a “meaningful” life, Aristotle argued, requires cultivating the best qualities within you both morally and intellectually and living up to your potential. It is an active life, a life in which you do your job and contribute to society, a life in which you are involved in your community, a life, above all, in which you realize your potential, rather than squander your talents.”

This summary certainly explains a meaningful life – a life that requires the ability to connect and contribute to something that is bigger than ourselves.  It’s far more than chasing happy (pleasurable) emotions.

In a study by one of the world’s most prolific and influential psychologists, Roy Baumeister, summarises the difference between feeling happy and meaningful as follows:

*Happiness is related to health, wealth, ease in life, things that happen in the present and is connected to benefits one receives from social relationships, e.g. friendships. Happiness is furthermore something fleeting.

*Meaningfulness on the other hand, follows from giving to others, or adding value to people or a cause – doing something that goes beyond oneself. Meaningfulness is long lasting – continues even in tough times.

So, is drinking tea with my sister-in-law happiness or meaningful?
If we are just having a cup of tea and catching up on news, its happiness.

If however, she teaches me a new life skill while we are having tea, something that will change my life and add value to the quality of my life (e.g. teaching me how to say “no” to those who love to take advantage of me J ), our tea-drinking becomes meaningful.

Have you found that meaningful activity that creates long lasting happiness?




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