Would you rather live a happy life or a meaningful life? More importantly, are the two mutually exclusive? Is it possible to be both happy and have a feeling of fulfillment at the end of each day? Or is that idea simply too naive in today’s society?
An upcoming article in the Journal of Positive Psychology examines some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful one. After reading the article, I may have to call myself naive. Although this article focuses mainly on the differences between happiness and meaning, I do believe we can create a life that is rich in both happiness and meaning.
There are several differences between happiness and meaningfulness. One major difference is that happiness tends to focus on the present moment, whereas meaningfulness focuses more on the past and future. When we shift focus away from the present moment, we tend to experience feelings of regret, anxiety, or concern so it is not surprising that a meaningful life is often based on those emotions rather than on happiness itself.
Does that mean that a meaningful life cannot be a happy one?
It may seem contradictory that a meaningful life is associated with negative emotions when we generally think of a life filled with meaning as a positive thing. And it is–but it is usually based on things we consider to be more important than ourselves. Things we are willing to make sacrifices for. Think of civil rights activists as an example. Their lives are full of sacrifice for a greater good. I doubt they would say that each day is a happy one, but each day is spent trying to make a difference. Their time and their actions matter. These actions give their life meaning.
Is that example a little too global? On a more personal level, consider the working parent. These are lives spent providing for their children–working, commuting, providing a home and putting food on the table. All are tasks that make up much of our days. And they are exhausting, yet they matter. Those daily chores may not make us smile, and they may not readily bring happiness but we do them anyway. Why? Because someone else matters. There is an underlying reason to do what we do.
Since happiness is often connected with the experiences in the present moment, it is considered to be one of the shallower emotions. Therefore, people who seem to be consistently happy are often viewed as simple or shallow. Oddly, few people would want to be thought of as simple or shallow yet when asked, most people would say they want to be happy.
So is there a disconnect between happiness and meaning?
I believe it is possible to be happy in the moment and still be fully engaged in a meaningful life.
Happiness may be a fleeting emotion but it is an important one. It makes us feel good. If you mindfully choose to experience moments throughout the day, you will find happiness during those moments. It’s a time when you fully realize elements outside of yourself such as the breeze on your skin, the feeling of the keys on your fingertips as you type, or the sun warming your face. Just for a moment that is all there is, and that is all that matters. Not the past, not the future, just that moment. And that feeling brings a very simple joy to the day.
However, although those moments may make us feel good, they won’t make us feel good about our lives. That emotion comes when we engage in activities that mirror our core values. It may be giving our time to a charity we care about, or making certain our ageing parents or children have made it safely through another day. Perhaps it is creating an oil painting or helping to drive forward positive changes in the workplace. It will be different for each of us, but it is the basis for the feeling of being fully engaged and motivated.
When we can combined these two factors–mindfulness and engagement–I believe it is possible to be both happy and fulfilled. To have a life that not only feels good, but that we feel good about.
To me, that type of happiness is something definitely worth pursuing.