"Only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness."- Boris Pasternak, Russian Poet and Novelist
In the pursuit of happiness, we can lose sight of what actually makes us happy. We have the freedom to make our own life choices, but we’re not always good at it. The problem is the pursuit itself – when we go chasing after happiness, we often miss it.
Professor of Psychology at the Centre for Meaning and Purpose at Colorado State University, Michael Steger says the most effective way to sustain happiness is to find or create a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Not only does a meaningful life determine how happy we are - it positively influences almost all aspects of our lives, from emotions to physical health.
In other words, happiness and meaning are not interchangeable – we can engage in behaviour that makes us happy, but that’s not particularly meaningful. Likewise, we can engage in meaningful acts that don’t bring us a lot of happiness, like when we sacrifice pleasure for work, or forgo current leisure time to save for a future holiday. In the pursuit of happiness, we should focus on those things that are meaningful, as opposed to things that are simply pleasurable.
By finding meaning, we not only create happiness or happy moments, we sustain happiness over the course of a lifetime.
Interestingly, research shows a meaningful life protects us from bad health (from perceived health to actual biological functioning and immune response), improves well-being, and makes us more resilient. As one might expect, connections to other people are imperative both for meaning and happiness, and those who experience loneliness or a lack of connection in their lives experience more ill health.
Social Neuroscientist, John Cacioppo studies social genomics to understand how psychology and the social world affects our genome. He followed hundreds of inherently lonely people, looking at their blood samples and comparing them to people with strong social networks. He found deep loneliness and social isolation increases gene activity related to chronic disease. The feeling of being alone, experienced over an extended period, encourages a fight or flight response, which in turn affects genome expression. Some cells, such as those that fight infection, showed decreased activity in lonely people, whilst cells involved in inflammation and immune response had increased activity levels.
Contrarily, those with a sense of purpose experienced better blood pressure, heart health, lower levels of inflammatory markers and significantly higher life expectancy.
What makes life meaningful depends on the individual and their goals, and most people find meaning through work, friends, family, love or creativity. But ultimately, it’s about people. Irrespective of what one finds meaningful, meaning is difficult to sustain without others. Even when working or being creative, it’s about the connections we make – whether it’s helping others or working together to achieve a common goal. We feel like we matter, like we have an aim, and we can share that with others.
So how does one find or create more meaning in their life? There is no quick fix, and it can take effort to sustain meaning.
One way to live a more purposeful life is by using savouring activities. Life is a series of moments and savouring activities remind us to appreciate a moment or experience, to be attune to our surroundings and stimuli, and practice mindfulness. It encourages us to focus on every aspect of a situation – sights, smells, sounds - and relay the positive emotions felt during an event.
It’s important to appreciate and find significance or meaning in the small things. It doesn’t have to be a major event or change – it can often be found in the most every day events.
But first and foremost, meaning must be shared. Meaning is external to ourselves, and is meaningless unless shared with others. ABC radio presenter and former politician, Amanda Vanstone says expressing gratitude and showing others how much they mean to us, particularly face to face, makes us happier, and research supports this. Data shows those who spend their time helping others or sharing ideas report high levels of meaning in life, but relationships must be satisfying and healing both ways.
A good life is determined by the connections we make, and the satisfaction we receive from our professional and personal lives. The hope of being able to find meaning in our work, and to share this with other people, is what makes life meaningful and worthwhile. In the famous last words of American hiker and traveler, Christopher McCandless - “happiness is only real when shared.”