Unofficially humans have been pondering happiness for a very long time. The scientific pursuit of happiness is more recent: a mere 15 years according to the unscientific, and yet oh so useful, Wikipedia. One metric of the speedy surge in this field reveals more than 1,000 titles released on Amazon over the last three months(!) Did we miss that book-writing bandwagon or what?! (Only last week we found a used copy of Happiness for Dummies in a bookstore; we wondered if the previous reader was done with happiness, or had simply mastered the basics?)
Not unlike findings on physical health, the research on happiness reported in many of these books ranges from the commonsensical and contradictory to the insightful. In a recent study profiled in The Atlantic, researchers describe how having a sense of meaning has a more positive impact on your well-being than the feeling of happiness. They equate meaning with virtuous behavior; that is, contributing to others or working towards something bigger than you. By contrast, their definition of happiness is basically feeling good. Their sober conclusion:
"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed
or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily
satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided. If anything, pure
happiness is linked to not helping others in need. ... Partly what we do as
human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes
life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy."
The Greek philosopher Aristotle thought pretty much the same thing 1,500 years ago:
"Some identify Happiness with virtue, some with practical wisdom, others with
a kind of philosophical wisdom, others add or exclude pleasure and yet others
include prosperity. We agree with those who identify happiness with virtue, for
virtue belongs with virtuous behavior and virtue is only known by its acts."
Not surprisingly to us, Create The Good Life does not attract the party-on happiness crowd; rather we are blessed with clients seeking a heaping dose of meaning with their well-being. And once you have tasted this combo, it's hard to be fulfilled without it. Imagine this headline:
Mother Teresa gives up her habit and parties down
during spring break in Florida.
We just don't see it.
Here are some things we have learned about living well and doing good through personal and professional experience. Since we will focus on the element of time we're calling this:
Meaning Making in Real Time.
7 — Human psychological development occurs, more or less, in 7 year spurts: 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56, 63, etc. Sometimes these changes are marked by what feels like a crisis in identity and meaning. People often start working with us during one of these periods: 28-30 year olds (a.k.a. Saturn Return), 42 and 49 year olds (a.k.a. mid-life crisis) and more recently 63 years olds (a.k.a. retirement). The issues are very different at each stage leading to our wildly original observation:
What is meaningful to each of us changes—often a lot—over the course of our lives.
While this sounds obvious, it is not uncommon to feel strangely stuck or frustratingly lost when you have begun to question your old ways but have not yet identified what really matters to you now.
3 — This is the number of years it frequently takes most of us to go from initial inkling to full realization of what is newly important in our lives. Yes, we know, who has that kind of time and what do you do (and how do you make money!) during this lengthy transition. During these periods the lines of meaning-making frequently run parallel with those of unhappiness because few of us enjoy being in the void. Courage, mes amis, courage! This is the time to hone your skills of letting go, not knowing, and perseverance as you will get to practice them again and again over your lifetime.
10 to 15 — Here again we are talking years and the time it takes to make a major shift in values from your first sense of disquiet to fully integrating them into how you live, work, and breathe. Think of it as turning an ocean liner 180 degrees. Obviously we don't do this often during a life time, usually just once as an adult (except for those of you who checked the personal growth box on your life preference forms). This change is usually so gradual that we don't realize how dramatic the shift has been until we look back at an earlier photo of ourselves thinking, "Who was that person?"
So while pursuing a meaningful life does not necessarily make you happy, it does—in our experience—give you a better than average shot at it. But it takes time and lots of it. This is why we recommend you go slow, and as much as possible, enjoy the ride.
Check out the article in The Atlantic, which also describes the fascinating connection between meaning and happiness with respect to our biology. (It's only 1,400 words, or about twice as long as this essay.)
Reflect on what is meaningful to you now and how that has shifted over time. This might be a good topic to talk over with a loved one or a longtime friend. What has been your experience of discovering meaning? What skills and perspectives have been helpful?
Merry meaning making to you!
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
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