For as long as human beings have existed, they’ve yearned to know what makes life worth living.
Plato described man as a “being in search of meaning”, and the first great work of literature – the 4,000-year-old Epic of Gilgamesh – is a hero’s quest to live a meaningful life in the face of mortality.
Today, many of us are no less interested in creating a life that matters. The question is how, and it’s one that author Emily Esfahani Smith takes up in her deeply-researched new book, The Power of Meaning, where she finds that many of us may be chasing the wrong thing.
So much of the self-help and career advice out there is geared towards helping people pursue happiness, but Smith believes our needs go far deeper than that.
A meaningful life, she argues, isn’t quite identical to a happy one. The good news is that fulfilment and purpose may be closer within reach than perfect happiness is – and ultimately more satisfying anyway.
READ: Happiness At Work And In Life: Can I Have Both?
Trying to be happier might be making you miserable
Smith traces our obsession with happiness to the positive psychology movement that began in the late 1990s.
Today, “happy” workplaces are heralded in business, and thousands of studies published annually describe all the ways we can supposedly make our lives happier. All of this, she says, has driven us off course.
“What the research shows,” Smith told me, “is that this pursuit of happiness tends to make people feel unhappy.”
We think that career success will make us happy, or that being wealthy or in positions of power will get us there.
“But when they pursue those things,” Smith says, “people are not finding what they expected.”
In a study Smith cites, one group of participants was told to spend the next 10 days doing things that made them feel happy (like sleeping in, playing games, and going out to eat).
A second group was told to use the same 10 days to do things that felt inherently meaningful (like helping out a friend or colleague or performing small acts of generosity and kindness).
But when these same people were brought back three months later, those in the first group admitted to feeling no better off: their feelings of happiness proved ephemeral.
Those in the second group found that the things they did in those 10 days produced a sustained “well-being boost”.
“Comfort and ease are the words psychologists use to define a happy life,” Smith explains, but a truly meaningful life is going to be hard and stressful at times.
“The truth is that it’s life’s struggles that create meaning, so it’s time we acknowledge that a meaningful life is inherently a good life even if we’re not feeling ‘happy’ all the time.”
And ironically, enough, when we pursue meaning, true happiness tends to follow.
Serving others gives life meaning
“A primary goal of people who’ve found meaning,” Smith says, “is to make life better for others. Their objective is to do good in the world, add value, and adopt a service mindset.”
Nodding to the work of Wharton professor Adam Grant, Smith says that a meaningful life requires being a “giver”.
When we reframe our day-to-day tasks as opportunities to contribute to the advancement of others, our own lives feel more significant.
In his own book, Give and Take, Grant makes the very same point: “People who consistently rank their jobs as being meaningful have something in common. They see their jobs as a way to help others.”
Work has become a major source of meaning
“With traditional forms of meaning like community, religion, family, and tradition no longer in many people’s lives, they’ve come to look at work as much more than a place to secure a paycheck,” says Smith.
Indeed, there’s no shortage of research claiming that “purpose” is at a premium these days, with many employers failing to deliver it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise.
After all, humans have a fundamental need to grow, contribute to a compelling mission, feel valued, and to know that their work matters.
Gallup’s long-running “engagement” research is in many ways an ongoing reiteration of one essential point: These deep needs for meaning need to be met somehow, and people feel great distress when they aren’t.
One way to satisfy such cravings in the workplace, Smith points out, is through team affiliations.
Smith cites the work of University of Michigan researcher Jane Dutton, who believes that this need for community grows more acute the less time we spend with friends and family – and the more time we spend with our devices.
“Our connections with colleagues have a significant effect on our experience at work,” Dutton says, “but also in our lives as a whole. If we don’t feel a sense of belonging on the job, both our jobs and our lives will feel meaningless.”
Pondering death makes us evaluate our lives
When Indian-American neurosurgeon Paul Sudhir Arul Kalanithi learnt that he had stage-four lung cancer, he could have enjoyed his final days in Hawaii with his wife.
Instead, Kalanithi chose to maintain a brutal work schedule, father a child, and document his last year of life in what later became the best-selling book, When Breath Becomes Air.
Fully knowing that he would soon die, Kalanithi wanted to be of service, to leave behind a legacy – and to know that his brief life truly had meaning.
And that’s the final lesson worth taking to heart right now.
Dr William Breitbart, chairman of Psychiatry at Sloan Kettering’s Cancer Center, says in Smith’s book, “No matter how far off death may be in our lives, thinking about death forces us to re-evaluate our choices and consider what we would change to make them more meaningful.”
Reflecting on our lives so far, we can ask:
- ‘Am I satisfied?’
- ‘Did I live a good and fulfilling life?’
- ‘Is there anything I’d do differently?’
The answers to those questions may not be things that make you happy.
But when all is said and done, it might not matter as long as it makes life meaningful.
Mark spent over 25 years as a senior executive in financial services, and now is a leadership speaker and consultant. His book, Lead From The Heart, is now being taught at four American universities. To engage with him, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To engage Leaderonomics for your organisational needs, please drop us an email at email@example.com.