Last year (2020) was not a year that made most of us happy. We may wade into this new year with the hope that it will be better and that we will find a bit (or a lot) more happiness. But the danger in wanting to be happier is that we become focused on happiness as an end result, when happiness is actually a by-product. But a by-product of what?
“If one wants to improve the quality of everyday life, happiness may be the wrong place to start. Other feelings are much more influenced by what one does, who one is with, of the place one happens to be. These moods are more amenable to direct change, and because they are also connected to how happy we feel, in the long run they might lift our average level of happiness. For instance, how active, strong, and alert we feel depends a lot on what we do–these feelings become more intense when we are involved with a difficult task, and they get more attenuated when we fail at what we do, or when we don’t try to do anything. The quality of life does not depend on happiness alone, but also on what one does to be happy. If one fails to develop goals that give meaning to one’s existence, if one does not use the mind to its fullest, the good feelings fulfill just a fraction of the potential we possess. True happiness involves the pursuit of worthy goals. Without dreams, without risks, only a trivial semblance of living can be achieved.”
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (author of FLOW)
Each January I teach an online course called, “Living on Purpose.” It offers an alternative focus that involves a shift, from attention-to-happiness to attention-to-meaning. We work toward building our year around things which are and will be meaningful to us. Generally, it’s a lot easier to answer the question, “What will make you happy?” than, “What will give your life meaning?” So it’s worth taking some time to reflect on this question and a good place to start is the past 20 years.
Here’s the exercise I offer the participants in my course:
Reflection on What Really Mattered
A lot has happened in your life in the past twenty years. What have you done in the past twenty years that gave your life meaning? Reflect on your life and make a list of the things you’ve done that really mattered? What did you do or accomplish that was truly meaningful? What gave you a sense of fulfillment? Ask this question and just see what comes up. Some examples:
- Phil wrote a book on coping with stress
- Steve and Lisa adopted a child
- Lori volunteered for her local hospice
- Karen and Don built their own house
- Stephanie organized a local community art project
- Ryan coached a little league baseball team
- David adopted an abandoned dog through the humane society
- Melanie cared for her dying father at home
- Warren was a member of a peace delegation to the Middle East
- Barbara worked full time for three months on a campaign to change the laws about drunk driving
Some people end up with a long list and others a very short one. But the list you come up with is a clue to the types of goals, projects and activities that you might want to focus on this year. You want to consider devoting yourself to something that you will put on a list ten years from now when you do the same reflection.
“Many people have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”
– Helen Keller
Does this focus on meaning mean you have to give up being happy? Not at all. Happiness is a side effect. When we take medication, sometimes it has side effects, which are almost always negative. But happiness is a positive side-effect. It often accompanies accomplishments and activities that are truly meaningful. And the happiness that is associated with meaningful activity stays with you in a way that isn’t the case with “new car” and “fun party” happiness.
So don’t give up on happiness, just take the scenic route instead. In this case, the scenic route actually gets you there faster. You may forget where you’re going and then, suddenly . . . you’re there!
Tags: happiness mental health Purpose Thirty Thousand Days