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There’s no shortage of tips about what brings happiness, but what gives your life meaning?
“Meaning in life” is one of those things everybody insists is vitally important — yet nobody tells you what it really is, and directions to get there never seem to come up on Google Maps.
I had to take geometry to graduate high school but knowing what a rhombus is has never helped me. Nobody thought it was important to teach me about meaning. Seriously, my air conditioner came with better instructions than anything that’s important in life.
Thankfully, somebody took it upon themselves to get to the bottom of this by looking at what the research has to say.
Emily Esfahani Smith has written a wonderful new book entitled The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. And it has many of the answers we need.
So what makes for a meaningful life? How does it differ from just being happy? Let’s get to it…
People commit suicide because they’re unhappy, right? Wrong. They do it because they lack meaning.
When they crunched the numbers, they discovered a surprising trend: happiness and unhappiness did not predict suicide. The variable that did, they found, was meaning — or, more precisely, the lack of it.
So there’s more to life than “pleasure good, pain bad.” (Sorry, Epicurus.) But that ain’t the half of it…
Research shows meaning and happiness can be at odds with one another. People with the most meaningful lives were “givers.” But those with the happiest lives were “takers.”
Best example? Parenthood. Cleaning poopy diapers makes nobody happy. Kids are really expensive. They crash your Mazda. (Sorry, dad.) My MBA friend Vlad loves his kids but also adds, “They’re definitely ROI negative.”
And the research agrees. Kids don’t make you happier:
Using data sets from Europe and America, numerous scholars have found some evidence that, on aggregate, parents often report statistically significantly lower levels of happiness (Alesina et al., 2004), life satisfaction (Di Tella et al., 2003), marital satisfaction (Twenge et al., 2003), and mental well-being (Clark & Oswald, 2002) compared with non-parents.
However, I’m guessing you aren’t rushing to schedule a vasectomy or a tube-tying right now, are ya? Why?
Because as Emily points out, research also shows children bring enormous meaning to people’s lives. Getting zero sleep for the first year of your child’s life does not make you happy. But as we saw, happiness isn’t everything. Parenthood is the ultimate form of giving. And givers lead meaningful lives.
So it seems we’re in a real sticky wicket here: do you have to be unhappy to have meaning? Thankfully, the answer is no.
A life focused exclusively on happiness is like that container of ice cream that quickly brings a huge dose of pleasure — followed by a stomachache, regret and a root canal. A meaningful life does produce good feelings — but it takes a while to catch up.
For a 10-day period, researchers told one group of students to do things that make their life meaningful. They helped people. They studied hard. They cheered up friends.
The researchers told another group of students to just do stuff that made’em happy. They slept in, played video games, and ate candy. (My guess is they probably also did other stuff the study did not discuss but to my knowledge, nobody got pregnant or had their liver explode.)
So what happened at the end of the study? Initially, exactly what you’d expect. The “be happy” group got happier. And the “be meaningful” group got meaningful-er. But three months later, things changed. The happy feelings of the second group faded fast. Meanwhile…
The students who had pursued meaning said they felt more “enriched,” “inspired,” and “part of something greater than myself.” They also reported fewer negative moods. Over the long term, it seemed, pursuing meaning actually boosted psychological health.
Parenthood can be a pain in the ass. But it also brings tremendous meaning to life. Don’t sell your kids on the black market just yet. Meaning is the tortoise. Happiness is the hare. You remember who won that race? Exactly.
(To learn the 7 step morning ritual that will keep you positive all day, click here.)
So over the long haul, meaning beats happy. But how do we get there? Emily’s book covers 4 things that came up time and time again in the research on meaningful lives…
Remember how it wasn’t unhappiness that led to suicide but lack of meaning? When Emile Durkheim, the father of sociology, looked at suicide demographics the numbers initially seemed all over the place and didn’t make a lot of sense. For instance:
What the heck was going on?
It was about belonging. War is miserable — but it bonds people together against an enemy. Education often means leaving friends and family to go to school or that fancy job. Jewish people were educated, but they often lived in strong communities.
I am lucky enough to belong to a group that gets together as often as three times a week. Chances are, I’ll see Andy, Justin, and Charlie tomorrow. Bob’s outta town but should be back soon. And we’re still coaxing Drew to move back from Montreal.
What groups do you belong to? Quickest way to add meaning to your life is to see them more often. Not part of a group? Join one. No groups to join? Start one. It’s as easy as texting people to get together regularly around a common interest.
(To learn the 4 rituals that neuroscience says will make your brain happy, click here.)
Alright, so you gotta belong. But you can’t just sit around “belonging” all day. What do you actually have to do?
The word “purpose” is downright intimidating. Relax — you don’t have to strive to cure cancer. Purpose is less about what you do and more about how you see what you do.
In her book, Emily tells a story I love. It was 1962 and President Kennedy was visiting NASA. He runs into a janitor. The President asks the guy what he’s doing. The janitor replies, “Helping put a man on the moon.”
That’s purpose. He didn’t say “emptying trash cans” (and he didn’t make a Marilyn Monroe joke like a certain blogger who has issues with authority might.)
“Helping put a man on the moon” has both of the qualities that Stanford developmental psychologist William Dawson says we need for purpose:
First, it’s a stable and far-reaching goal. “Make it to the end of the workday without getting fired” doesn’t cut it. You need something that motivates you and that you can organize your actions around.
Second, it involves a contribution to the world. It makes a difference in the lives of people who don’t happen to be you.
Wharton’s Adam Grant did a study that looked at over 200 million people in 500 different jobs to figure out which careers are the most meaningful. All of the ones at the top (surgeons, clergy, educators) were roles that helped other people.
So how can you redefine your role at work to find more meaning? What’s a bigger goal it contributes to? How does it better the lives of others?
In school I hated writing term papers. Now, one could argue, I write them for a living. But I don’t see it that way; I’m helping people learn.
(To learn the 6 rituals that ancient wisdom says will improve your life, click here.)
Alright. You feel like you belong. You’ve got a purpose to what you do. But that doesn’t seem to sum up a deep “meaning” in life that you could explain to others. And, as it turns out, that’s vital…
No, you don’t have to write a novel or anything. But you need to remember that your brain is wired for stories. It’s how you make sense of the world. And you have a story you tell yourself about your life — whether you realize it or not.
My story is that I was a nerd who got picked on in high school but after being bitten by a radioactive spider I… Oops, that’s not my story, that’s Spider-Man’s. But there is something we can learn from Spider-Man’s story…
Dan McAdams is a professor at Northwestern who studies “narrative identity.” And he found a trend in the stories that people with meaningful lives tell themselves. Their lives are a “redemption story.”
In these stories, the tellers move from suffering to salvation — they experience a negative event followed by a positive event that resulted from the negative event and therefore gives their suffering some meaning.
Peter Parker gains superpowers from the radioactive spider bite. But filled with hubris, he refuses to help stop a criminal. The criminal later kills Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben, the man that raised him. Wracked by guilt and loss, he realizes that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Peter resolves to use his superpowers to fight crime and becomes Spider-Man.
It’s a redemption story. But people who lack meaning in their lives usually tell a very different kind of story: a “contamination story.” In these stories, tragedy doesn’t produce growth. No good comes from the bad. Is this you?
If so, the good news is you can change your internal story. You get to decide what scenes it contains, and whether it ends with the death of your uncle, or in your decision to snare evildoers with your webs.
Professor James Pennebaker has shown that just 20 minutes of writing your story for 4 days has the power to dramatically improve your life. It helps people overcome anxiety, tragedy and heartache. Those who wrote about their problems felt happier, slept better, and even got better grades.
You rarely get to change the world, Peter Parker. But you can change your story, Spider-Man.
(To learn how to do the writing exercise that changes lives — from Pennebaker himself — click here.)
So we’ve talked about friends, purpose and stories but what gives that real whammo-bammo visceral feeling of meaning?
Another intimidating word. Don’t worry. It doesn’t involve any heavy lifting or math. You don’t need to know what a rhombus is.
Sometimes life feels so small. You’re heavily focused on a few things or maybe just one thing, like your career or your romantic relationship. And then that bubble pops. You lose the job. You get dumped.
You’re all-in on that one thing and now that thing is gone. It’s absolutely crushing. There’s a whole big world out there overflowing with opportunities and potential but right now it doesn’t feel that way. It feels meaningless.
But there are experiences that provide that feeling of just how big and amazing life is. The secret is a little word with big impact: awe.
Astronauts have reported seeing the Earth from a distance has these sorts of life-changing transcendent effects — but let’s focus on a slightly more practical option, shall we?
Get out in nature. Researchers had one group of students stare at 200 foot trees. Another group looked at tall buildings. Afterward, those who had looked at the trees became far more helpful when tested. Why?
The awe-inspired people, researchers found, felt a diminished sense of their own importance compared to others, and that likely led them to be more generous… They abandoned the conceit, which many of us have, that they were the center of the world. Instead, they stepped outside of themselves to connect with and focus on others.
You don’t need a spaceship to find meaning. But a trip to the Grand Canyon might not be a bad idea.
(To learn what Harvard research says will make you successful and happy, click here.)
Alright, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up…
Here’s how to find meaning in life:
Life can be hard. But remember, while the difficult moments may decrease happiness, they’re essential for building meaning. And that’s what matters in the long run.
We flourish around friends. Unbearable stress becomes yet another challenge when you have purpose. A superhero origin story gives you hope and redemption. And nature makes your big problems seem tiny.
Collect all four and you’re on your way to learning the meaning of your life.
And that’s a lot more important than learning what a rhombus is.
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