There’s a lot of talk about how to find and keep happiness in our lives, but recent research has found that finding “meaning” may be even more important. How does happiness and meaning differ? In a number of ways.
The research behind happiness and meaning has shown that happiness and meaning are often at odds with each other. This is shown most powerfully in the activities in our lives that give it great meaning but that might not make us happy. Parenting and grand-parenting is a great example. There are plenty of aspects of child rearing and child care that don’t necessarily make us feel very happy. But all those tasks and indeed having children brings enormous levels of meaning to our lives. The care and love of children is the ultimate form of giving and something that gives our lives purpose beyond the everyday.
The question is often raised as to whether happiness and meaning can co-exist and complement each other. Thankfully, the answer is yes. Research that was conducted at an American university split students into two groups. One group was instructed to spend 10 days doing things that made their lives meaningful. The other group was told to spend 10 days doing whatever they wanted to create happiness. The results at the end of the 10 days weren’t initially surprising. The happiness group got “happier” and the meaning group showed more inclination to continue completing meaningful acts. Not overly surprising. But after three months, when we interviewed, the students who had pursued meaningful activities reported continually raised happiness levels and fewer negative moods. The happiness group had found a nosedive in their levels and mood.
How can we encourage more meaning into our lives? Here are four ways.
- Find belonging – Belonging is a powerful antidote to isolation and loneliness. It connects us with others and forms a strong foundation for leading a meaningful life.
- Find purpose – Finding a purpose, however small, has the power to give life great meaning. Setting goals gives us both stability and the desire to achieve something. It also has the power to motivate and inspire.
- Tell your story – Creating a narrative about your life helps you to make sense of the world. Everyone has a story about how they got to where they are. The ones with the most meaning contain aspects of struggle and redemption. They show how tragedy or less than desirable events lead to personal growth and better understanding. Change your internal story, focus on where you’ve come from and where you are now and reap the benefits of the meaning it creates.
- Understand the big picture – Look for awe inspiring experiences in everyday life. Experiencing awe and wonder has the power to help you see the bigger picture and put your problems into perspective. It’s probably the reason why children are often such content little beings.
Life will always have hard parts but when you refocus and realise that they can (and do) shape meaning which ultimately leads to a better, happier life, your story takes on new meaning.
How do you find meaning in your life? Share your advice with other members of the Over60 community in the comments below.