By Tom Rath
The pursuit of meaning — not happiness — is what makes life worthwhile. Despite Thomas Jefferson including it in the Declaration of Independence, the “pursuit of happiness” is a shortsighted aim. Putting your own well-being before well-doing pulls you in the wrong direction. People who spend life seeking happiness are unlikely to find it. Much like chasing fame or wealth, seeking happiness alone is misguided and can lead to poor decisions.
Abandon the Pursuit of Happiness
Clearly, happiness is a positive condition. Being around people who have higher levels of well-being is more enjoyable than being around people who don’t. It is the constant pursuit of your own happiness that leads you astray. Pursuing happiness for loved ones or for your community is a worthwhile goal. But trying to create happiness for yourself can have the opposite effect, according to recent studies.
Scientists are still uncovering the reasons why the pursuit of happiness backfires. Part of the explanation lies in its self-focused nature. Research suggests that the more value you place on your own happiness, the more likely you are to feel lonely on a daily basis. When participants in experiments were deliberately induced to value happiness more by reading a bogus article extolling the benefits of happiness, they reported feeling lonely. And samples of their saliva indicated corresponding decreases in progesterone levels — a hormonal response associated with loneliness.
Create Meaning for Others
It turns out, happiness and meaningfulness are two distinct human conditions. While there is some overlap, the differences have clear implications for how people spend their time. Those who pursue happiness, for example, are what psychologists calls “takers.” As Roy Baumeister and his team noted after studying this topic extensively, “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life.” In contrast, co-author Kathleen Vohs explained, “People leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others.”
Baumeister points out that it is not the pursuit of happiness but the pursuit of meaning that sets humans apart from animals. In some cases, creating meaning involves putting another person’s needs before your own, which could lead to short-term decreases in your happiness. However, when you do, you make a contribution that improves the environment around you.
Happiness and meaningfulness also appear to have distinct influences on physiological health. When participants in a study led by the University of North Carolina’s Barbara Fredrickson were happy but lacked meaning in their lives (defined as pursuing a purpose bigger than self), they exhibited a stress-related gene pattern that is known to activate an inflammatory response. They had the same gene expression pattern as people dealing with constant adversity have. Over time, this pattern leads to chronic inflammation, which is related to a host of illnesses, like heart disease and cancer. Fredrickson noted, “Empty positive emotions . . . are about as good for you as adversity.”
Unfortunately, 75 percent of participants in Fredrickson’s study fell into this category; their happiness levels outpaced their levels of meaningfulness. In contrast, participants who had meaning in their lives, whether or not they characterized themselves as happy, showed a deactivation in this stress-related gene pattern. In other words, their bodies did not act as if they were under constant duress and threat.
Participating in meaningful activities elevates your thinking above yourself and your own momentary needs. Every minute you can set aside your own happiness for the sake of others will eventually lead to stronger families, organizations, and communities. In the end, the pursuit of happiness and “success” will pass. What endures is creating meaning in your own life and in the lives of others.