Happiness vs. Living a Life With Meaning

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, so wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Constitution of the United States. Fast-forward 225 years to 2013…In our hot pursuit of happiness, have we lost the “meaning” in our lives? All indications are a resounding “Yes.” Jefferson was likely contrasting a life of happiness rather than one filled with the suffering that our early forbearers had to endure just to survive. But for most of us these days survival is taken for granted.

In Emily Esfahani Smith’s fascinating article, “There is More To Happiness than Being Happy” (, she reports, “While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning. Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future.” We wholeheartedly agree, and now we are devoting our professional careers to helping to make that a reality shared by as many people as possible.

The Pursuit of Happiness
From a modern perspective, in the days of yore, it didn’t take much to make someone happy: Freedom to worship however they wanted – or not, the right to bear arms in order to protect themselves from the French and the British – especially since there was no real militia, a roof over their head, food to eat, wood for a fire, maybe a little money from selling crafts made on the side. These things that we take for granted today were huge for the people who founded our country. Today, like yesterday, we are happy when our needs, wants and desires mesh. But the pursuit of happiness has become connected to what might be termed “selfish” behavior. In our consumer-driven society, it takes ever more goodies to make us happy. And happiness is, as mentioned above, fleeting. It is present-centered, present hedonism. The pursuit of happiness is, in effect, being a “taker.”

The Search for Meaning
In a new study in the Journal of Positive Psychology (to be published this year) researchers discovered that while negative events may decrease happiness, paradoxically they may increase the meaning in life. Traumatic or emotional experiences can build character and teach us hard lessons that make us more compassionate and give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and others. The study also indicates that people who have a purpose, in other words meaningful goals which have to do with helping others, rated their life satisfaction higher – even when they felt personally down and out – than those who did not have any life purpose. “People who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.” Having meaning in our lives, in effect, is being a “giver.” Working through past grief, abuse, and failures should not just lead to regret and resignation, but rather resilience, resolve and even post traumatic growth.