As we enter the third week of a new year, humanity as a collective species is left to our endless pursuit of happiness.
A life of happiness and a life of meaning, while separate, can overlap each other when the idea of living life with purpose is seen as a long-term source of happiness. The idea that there is indeed an undefinable quality to all things in life is a very present realization that can channel present happiness into a direction for a life of meaning. While a life of happiness and a life of meaning are not one in the same, it is necessary to pursue both as a human being and to realize that happiness can lead to purpose and living a life of meaning will bring a greater retrospective happiness that outweighs present troubles.
In other words, find something that brings quality to life, follow it, and happiness will follow.
Happiness is that somewhat elusive thing that we know is there, that we know what it's like to feel, yet it is left largely undefinable. It can be something fleeting and shallow or it can be something profound and lasting. There is happiness realized in retrospect, happiness realized in the present moment, and happiness in anticipating something in the future we know will bring us happiness.
Happiness, while being a driving force for most decisions we make in life, from the very small (black or with cream) to the very large (take the job in Boston or hit the road west), remains at odds in the eyes of some to a life of meaning. Happiness is a very present pursuit that aligns itself with a way of living that has elements of Buddhism or Robert Pirsig's Metaphysics of Quality. To be happy is to be in the present, seeking something that will only really exist in the present. This is at odds with the definition of a life of meaning. While happiness is concerned with now, meaning looks to the past and the future as part of an overarching purpose.
A recent piece in The Atlantic looks to the life's work of Viktor Frankl. Frankl is a prominent Jewish psychiatrist who caught the attention of Sigmund Freud while he was just a teenager. His bestselling book, Man's Search for Meaning, chronicles his experiences living and surviving in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII. The story illuminates a life that saw the worst in humanity. Most of Frankl's family, including his pregnant wife, had perished in the camp, but still he survived. The story Frankl tells sheds light on his mantra for living a life of meaning in that the last human freedom is the freedom to choose one's attitude under any circumstance.
In a great little article for PolicyMic, Billy Kenneth touches on this very same idea that Viktor Frankl arrives at in his book: seeking happiness as something tangible will only lead to unhappiness. In trying to define happiness itself, the field of positive psychology took hold. In the paper, Some Key Differences Between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, Roy F. Baumeister et al. theorize that happiness is natural and meaning is cultural. The pursuit of happiness in any form reflects an animalistic instinct that seeks satisfaction and pleasure from something. Meaning becomes more like a web where each person has self-defined their part to add to a collective whole. Meaning reflects designed purpose to one's life that leaves the byproduct of happiness irrelevant.
Viktor Frankl boils these two separate pursuits as simply “takers” and “givers.” A person who leads a life in search of happiness only takes and a person who leads a life of meaning gives their life to a greater purpose. In a life of meaning driven by purpose, the present may be unenjoyable with the promise of a greater future.
But, with such broad definitions of happiness and meaning, it is impossible to really completely separate the two as two branches to live life. As I said earlier, a life with purpose is a source of happiness and the definition of happiness will be very different for all people. The Dalai Lama, in an interview with ABC News, said that “the 21st century will be much happier” than we have been in the past. In the interview, he pointed out an awakening compassion for all people. He pointed to “positive signs” of outpourings of support from all over the world in response to earthquakes and natural disasters in Haiti, Chile, the Philippines and his native Tibet. He pointed out that support of the magnitude we are seeing in the 21st century, while sometimes misguided, would have been unheard of 100 years ago.
With the information age, we are beginning to see a greater merge between happiness and meaning in the way we connect as a world community. The news from South Africa, England, China, or Brazil is no longer that far away anymore. We are living in an age where the world is nearly our doorstep. So happiness has become something very interconnected. The quality of life of someone else and feeling compassion for others becomes a meaningful pursuit and over time that meaning and purpose will be realized as profound happiness. In the 21st century, this just happens faster than ever before.
While happiness can take many forms, the profound happiness that comes from purpose places happiness into the realm of a life of meaning. The line between simply “givers” and “takers” is more gray as happiness can be seen as a result of living a life of purpose. In the same way, a life of meaning doesn't always have to be waiting on something in the future. Purpose can be found in the present in simply being and realizing the quality that can be found in the simplest of events.
Living a life of meaning and living a life of happiness, despite being inherently different, cannot be treated as two separate ways of living in the 21st century as the definitions of true happiness and true purpose are ever-changing.
The search for the quality in life is at the core of a life driven by purpose and meaning. While happiness remains hard to define, it is an undeniable result of our positive actions in life. Transitory day-to-day happiness is not the end-point of our being, it is part of the effort to illuminate quality for ourselves through a life guided by meaning. Aside from being simply “givers” and “takers,” we see the complex evolution of happiness become a result of purpose.