It’s not you, it’s me (looking for a better answer).
If you were to ask the (physically) closest human being to you right now “what do you want in life?”, I’d be willing to bet $2 (please, I’m in university, what more did you expect?) that their answer will be “to be happy”. After all, if it’s Beyoncé’s answer, that basically means it’s correct. But it really is a unique question in that its answer is one that can be predicted to a considerably high degree of accuracy despite not knowing anything about the individual being questioned. For the most part, we’re all striving for happiness.
This speaks to the universal and strong grip that the concept of happiness has achieved on the human species. It certainly wasn’t always this way — for much of our existence, the goal has been simply to live to see the next day. In many parts of the world today, this goal is met and surpassed to the point that having too much of life’s necessities has become a problem in itself. On a global level, more human beings have died from obesity than from being underweight in recent years.
Once more and more human beings started to have easy access to what we need to survive, and even to concepts that we now consider “fundamental rights” like health care and education, we needed to shift our time and effort to something — and so we turned to finding happiness.
There is no doubt that the quest for happiness has existed for thousands of years. Philosophers as early as Aristotle have pondered upon and disseminated their conclusions on what makes humans happy. But I would argue that the concept’s hold on millions of human beings in every part of the planet has never been quite as strong. Positive psychology (simply put, the study of what makes a “good life”) has exploded in the 21st century, with self-help books, corporations and media all telling you why you’re not happy and what you need to do or buy in order to change that.
Millions of dollars are injected into convincing us of what we need in order to be happy, so we feel that that’s what we should be working towards and consequently pump our own money into finding. So the cycle thrives.
The Pursuit of Happyness has been so ingrained into my mind that I don’t know if I’ve ever even wondered if my goal in life is anything but the same as Will Smith’s (No offence intended to him at all. Great actor. Great guy.). But some introspective thinking and conscious contemplation has led me to slightly change the course of the journey that is my life. Let me break it down.
Happiness is technically defined as a mental or emotional state of well-being that can be defined by positive or pleasant emotions.
I see a few issues with this — firstly, using this definition seem to imply that “being happy in life” means to have a constant feeling of a pleasurable or positive emotion. To me, this seems impractical to achieve. It seems highly unlikely for every experience and interaction every day of my life to result in such a state of being. And let’s say I somehow do enter this steady stream of happiness— what’s to stop me from wondering if there exists a higher level of such an emotion? And once I get there (if I ever get there), what about an even higher level?
This seemingly never-ending pursuit of a constant state of ever-growing pleasantry seems not only impossible, but counterproductive to the very intent of the action. The more I feel like I could be happier than I am right now, the unhappier I will be.
Furthermore, studies have shown that a human being tends to live within a certain range of happiness — higher-than-normal levels of happiness eventually return to this level, and the same goes for lower-than-normal periods of feeling happy. This level is determined by genetics and environmental conditioning. I don’t mean to suggest that our happiness is entirely out of our control, but I believe it is important to note that it suggests that a higher-than-normal level of happiness for every breathing moment of one’s life seems implausible.
Lastly — and perhaps most importantly — I know what happiness feels like to me, I know what results in me feeling happy, and I certainly know that these actions are not what I want to spend my entire days doing.
Happiness is what I feel when I catch up with a friend after a long period of not seeing each other. It’s what I feel when I find out one of my favourite artists is releasing new music. It’s what I feel when I hug my mom after a long day.
It is important to note that these are all experiences or moments in time — I may feel happy when I exist in them, but that is not to say that I would like to spend my entire life, say, listening to music. And I love music, so that’s saying something.
So this leads me to my question — why am I so focused on this idea of happiness, when to me, being happy is not something I want to feel every second of every day? What exactly do we mean when we say, “I want to be happy”?
This may sound absolutely bizarre to most human beings, considering that happiness is what we’re conditioned to desire and work towards. So let me explain. If I still wouldn’t want to live my days doing the things that make me happy despite knowing that these things make me happy, that must mean something else has to fill the gaps in the void. There must be a desirable sense of being to fit in the missing pieces of the puzzle when “feeling pleasant or positive” doesn’t quite make the cut.
To me, that something is meaning.
Firstly, I believe it’s important to highlight that scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as meaning. We have not yet been able to prove that a definitive or objective meaning for life actually exists, or that an individual is “feeling meaning” in a given moment. It is something that we as a species have created using our minds.
That being said, I don’t mean to question the integrity or validity of “meaning” — in fact, I hope for it to work itself more into our answers to the question, “what do you want in life?”
I should also preface my words by saying that I certainly can’t claim to be a meaning guru. As a young human being, I’m still trying to understand what exactly the concept looks like and feels like to me. I don’t have a definition or list of tips and tricks that I can give to you so you can go and find meaning. All I have to offer is how my experiences and beliefs have shaped what it means (pun intended and bolded) to me, and that is that meaning represents that which helps navigate us through the journey of life and helps us feel at peace with ourselves.
The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and live well. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are a few reasons as to why meaning makes more sense to me than happiness.
All human beings go through some sort of problem or struggle in life, and I would say that “happy” is an emotion that is close to the bottom of the list during these challenging times. But just because you feel unhappy doesn’t mean that it’s time to throw in the towel and call it quits on this whole “life” schpeel. Meaning reminds you to keep going when things get difficult. It is a culmination of what you stand for — your values, your beliefs, and what you have to offer to the world.
When faced with a difficult decision or problem that seems like a barrier to achieving your goals, there are two options: take the easy route out and give up, or work through the scenario and extract valuable lessons regardless of what happens. The first option might make you happy — not having to deal with, say, an awkward confrontation with another human being may certainly invoke a pleasant feeling of relief. But is it the best decision? Meaning represents a beacon of light in these situations where a seemingly dark and endless void swallows you up in self-doubt and fear.
I believe that meaning in one’s life can lead to a happier life — by that, I allude to a life with more and greater moments/experiences of happiness. I’ve found that happiness can be extracted from meaning, but I don’t believe the reverse is always true. This is why, in addition to asking myself “will this make me happy?” when contemplating decisions or creating goals, I ask “what does this mean to me?”. It often leads to deeper insight into whether I’m interested in something for the short run and the momentary sensation it creates, or if it has the potential to have a lasting, deeper impact on my life.
Meaning, similar to happiness, can look like different things for different human beings — some find it in their family, others in their work, religion, community, or artistic expression. Through whatever medium it may come to you, I hope you find it in your mind to ask happiness to scooch over to make some room for meaning in your life.
Originally published at medium.com