The pursuit of happiness is often stressed as a goal that many people should strive to achieve in their lifetime. While happiness has been the focus of several research studies and hundreds of books, there are two other important factors that appear to also relate to the topic happiness- purpose and meaning. While general happiness may be the focus of our efforts, without two of our most central motivations in life, purpose and meaning, happiness may often feel unobtainable, or even empty.
Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression.
In a study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, Jennifer Aaker of Stanford Graduate School of Business, along with colleagues, found answers about life in how people spend their time and what experiences they cultivate.
The researchers surveyed 397 people over a month-long period, examining whether people thought their lives had purpose and were meaningful or happy, as well as their choices, beliefs and values. They found five key differences between meaningfulness, purpose and happiness:
• Getting what you want and need: While satisfying desires was a reliable source of happiness, it had nothing to do with a sense of meaning or purpose. For example, healthy people are happier than sick people, but the lives of sick people do not lack meaning or purpose.
• Past, present and future: Happiness is about the present, and meaning and purpose are about linking the past, present and future. When people spend time thinking about the future or past, the more meaningful, and less happy, their lives become. On the other hand, if people think about the here and now, they are happier.
• Social life: Connections to other people are important both for an added sense of purpose and deeper meaning and happiness. But the nature of those relationships is how they differ. Deep relationships – such as family – increase meaning and purpose, while spending time with friends may increase happiness but had little effect on meaning or purpose. Time with loved ones involves hashing out problems or challenges, while time with friends may simply foster good feelings without much responsibility.
• Struggles and stresses: Highly meaningful lives encounter lots of negative events and issues, which can result in unhappiness. Raising children can be joyful but it is also connected to high stress – thus meaningfulness and purpose– and not always happiness. While the lack of stress may make one happier – like when people retire and no longer have the pressure of work demands – meaningfulness drops.
• Self and personal identity: If happiness is about getting what you want, then meaningfulness is about expressing and defining yourself. A life of meaning is more deeply tied to a valued sense of self and one’s purpose in the larger context of life and community.
Leading a meaningful and purpose driven life is not beyond reach, but it does take effort. When you set the intention to find and live your life’s unique purpose, you will begin to find that your life truly is full of great meaning and ultimately that will lead to a deep sense of happiness. The key is to not focus on the end result, but to build and savor moments and experiences that add to your overall sense of purpose and meaning.