Would You Pick Happiness or Meaning?

Abundance Community Purpose


Key Point: There has been a lot of “happiness talk” lately. Understandably the holy grail of achieving personal happiness is a popular thought. Even countries like England are attempting to measure citizen happiness. But is the obsession with discovering happiness by itself the best course of action? For some time I (and many others) have been writing about the vital need to have a defined purpose and meaning in one’s (work) life. It is a key message in both of my books The Character Triangle and The Character Triangle Companion. Let’s face it, devoting serious time to thinking about and defining our life purpose and meaning is deceptively challenging for most of us. It can even feel academic and artificial. Who has time for it?

But more and more research demonstrates that people who have meaning in their lives in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher, even when they were feeling bad than those who don’t. What sets human beings apart from animals is NOT the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans. This is a tenant expressed by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, in their recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Martin Seligman, one of today’s leading psychological scientists, states that when living a meaningful life, “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” And Wharton professor Adam Grant‘s new book Give and Take reinforces the value of giving without expecting reciprocity as a key route to success. I believe it’s also a powerful connector to greater meaning and sustainable happiness.

Indeed some researchers are cautioning against chasing mere happiness. In a new study, as referenced in a recent article from The Atlantic by Emily Esfahani Smith, notes key findings in the pursuit of happiness and meaning. The following is a highlight:

“Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning. Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

(Ed. Note: This does NOT mean we shouldn’t be present and live in the now).

Character Moves:

  1. Keep working on defining and refining your purpose and meaning. Focus on that and I genuinely believe achieving “happiness” in a more sustainable form will take care of itself.
  2. Give more without the expectation of reciprocity. (Abundance). This behavior does not mean you’re a “push over” or “chump.” On the contrary, it is a totally free investment in you. This is not silly self-sacrificing martyrdom either. I believe, and lots of data supports this view too, that a commitment to adding more value in every exchange you have with others leads to greater success. Read Grant’s “Give and Take” to evaluate the reasoning behind this.
  3. Connect PURPOSE/MEANING with GIVING as a way of life: This is a personal winning combination for lasting contentment and sustainable happiness. (Along with the Character Triangle values)!

Beyond happiness in The Triangle,


P.S. The inspiration and some of the research referenced for this blog came from this wonderful article in The Atlantic.