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Are you pursuing a happy or meaningful life?

A meaningful life includes tension and struggle as much as it does happiness.

Source unknown.

I have always been fascinated by what makes life worth living, and I have come to the conclusion that there is so much more to life than happiness. What makes life worth living is building a meaningful life. In an article in The Atlantic  Emily Esfahani Smith writes that “meaning comes from the pursuit of more complex things than happiness”. As a life coach, I am particularly interested in this topic. I want to help my coaching clients achieve ‘deep’ happiness, which is unlike the fleeting and easy kind of happiness many seem to pursue in life. 

I first read the term ‘deep happiness’ in Wharton professor Richard Shell’s book Springboard. He describes ‘deep happiness’ as a kind of feeling that transcends momentary happiness. Its source connects you to your soul, your purpose, to something larger than yourself. As Shell writes, “It is the path that leads to yourself and to a deeper connection with others. It is a path that is as likely to include tension, challenges and struggles as it is happiness”. People who pursue happiness for the sake of happiness may be thwarting this kind of happiness. Deep happiness is experienced when we live a more meaningful life. 

Research into happiness and meaning shows that happiness and meaning overlap, but are also distinctly different. Leading a happy life, psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker”, with a relatively shallow, self-absorbed life in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing situations are avoided. Living a meaningful life, on the other hand, is associated with being a “giver”, with self-sacrifice, giving a part of yourself away to others, and contributing to others. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, professor of Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self”.

A meaningful life is not necessarily a happy life. We feel happy, when we get what we want, when our needs and desires are easily met. Happiness is short-lived. It is experienced in the here and now, and it ultimately fades away. Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. We derive meaning from sacrificing ourselves for others, from hardship and challenges in life. The meaningful life connects us to others, to our humanity, to the bigger picture, and to the past and the future. 

What makes us uniquely human is our ability to care deeply for other people, for causes larger than ourselves. Putting our selfish needs aside helps us realize that there is more to a good life than the pursuit of happiness. Deep happiness comes from using what we’ve got – our strengths, skills and talents – to somehow make the life better for others. Wharton professor, Stew Friedman, puts this into words beautifully in his book Leading the life you want, “Significant achievement in the world results from consciously compassionate action, from using one’s talent to make the world somehow better. It’s a paradox, leading the life you want requires striving to help others.”

In my own ongoing investigation of what drives deep happiness in my life I have realized that my inner life needs to fuel my outer life. Initially, I focused mainly on the outer life, on personal achievement. During my time at university and in my early career, I was chasing goals. I was always setting exceedingly high standards for myself. While I enjoyed the thrill and excitement of pursuing goals, achieving them often felt empty and meaningless. It took me some time to realize that my definition of success was externally focused. My achievements in the outer world weren’t fueled by my inner life. My goals were not personally significant. At the time, I didn’t have a strong connection to my inner life. I ignored my inner voice. I didn’t really know what made my life worth living. The only thing I knew is that things felt ‘off’, out of balance, and it was stressing me out. I burnt out. 

Burn-out occurs when your inner life is out of balance with your outer life, when you are not using your strengths, skills and talents in a personally meaningful way. I left the corporate world to explore what gives my life meaning. I quickly realized that I wasn’t honoring my inner life. I wasn’t living in alignment with my personal values, with what mattered to me most. After a few detours I ended up becoming a teacher and a life coach. Today I still focus on achievement in the outer world – I still want to excel in what I do -, but my work is fueled by who I am, by my values and by how I want to contribute to other people. My inner life is my engine. It drives me to do the work that I love, working as a coach and a teacher. My work has redefined my definition of success. My own success is no longer the end goal. As Oprah Winfrey said in an interview: “The real end goal is not your own success, but how you can leverage your success to impact others.” My definition of success is living in alignment with my values and purpose, and leveraging my skills, talents and strengths to make a positive difference in other people’s lives. 

Ever since I build my career around what matters to me, I no longer feel the stress and inner conflict, that I used to experience in my early career. As Simon Sinek writes, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.” Following your passion and trying to make a difference in people’s lives can be deeply fulfilling, but it does not necessarily lead to an easy and worry-free life. As a solo entrepreneur and in my work (and training) as a coach, I face many challenges. But I experience what I call ‘good’ stress. Good stress is the stress related to taking action on what you believe in. It is the fear you experience when you step out of your comfort zone, when you challenge yourself and take risks to pursue goals that are deeply meaningful to you. It is the kind of fear that deepens passion and joy, that brings deep happiness, if we learn from it and have the courage to act in spite of it.

Through self-exploration and experimentation I have discovered what brings me deep happiness. My greatest insight was that I did not have to change my environment to find my ‘happy’. I needed to look within, discover who I really was, and what makes my life meaningful. My life changed around completely when I discovered my strengths, skills and talents, and learned how to leverage them to make my own life better and to make life better for other people. In order to experience deep happiness you need to understand who you truly are, what matters to you, and why who you are matters to other people. Only then you can use what you’ve got in a personally meaningful way to act on something larger than yourself. 

My definition of deep happiness is “other people”. Or as Christopher Peterson, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, used to say: “Other people matter. Anything that builds relationships between and among people is going to make you happy.” In my work as a coach, building a meaningful relationship with my client is essential for the coaching process. The relationship is completely focused upon my client’s fulfilment in life. As a coach, I put aside my own troubles and selfish interests and I give my presence fully to another person. To be present there, to be part of the transformative change that unfolds in my clients, gives me a deep sense of purpose. I am creating the means for transformative change in my clients, and, by extension, in the lives of the people that matter to them. 

Happiness in the ‘simplistic’ sense of the word is no longer what I am after in life. My work as a self-employed coach and teacher gives me purpose, joy and connection, but it is also brings challenges and obstacles. The difference is that I choose to do this work. It aligns me with my values and purpose in life, which brings me deep happiness. In many ways, coaching is similar to deep happiness. Coaching, like deep happiness, is not easy. Yet, it is deeply meaningful. Coaching is confrontational and does not give quick results. Like deep happiness, the coaching process is as likely to include struggle and tension as it is joy and happiness. Coaching moves you through the full range of emotions, both negative and positive. This is part of the coaching journey, and it is what I love about coaching. It is real. It is human. It connects to me to people in a meaningful way. And I can use and develop what I’ve got – my skills, strengths and talents – to make a difference in people’s lives. 

What makes your life worth living? How can you do what you love to make life better for other people?

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