No one is happy all the time. It would be unnatural and probably drive you clinically insane if you could pull it off. That does not mean you shouldn’t try to find happy experiences; it means that happiness as we define it today is not a reasonable or worthy pursuit as the meaning of life. Let’s consider why that’s the case and suggest some pursuits that are worth our life’s precious and finite energy.
Yes, this post will really reveal the meaning of life.
The way most of us define happiness is as a transitory state during which we feel positive. We feel happy with our lover, looking at beauty (a gorgeous sunset with its long-wave spectrum of pinks and purples, Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Mesa Landscapes), listening to our favorite song. Obviously, we cannot sustain this emotion indefinitely.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (the psychologist who pioneered the focused mental state of “flow”) after forty years of studying happiness, defined it as “the state of mind in which one does not desire to be in any other state. Being deeply involved in the moment, we do not have the opportunity to think about anything but the task at hand–hence, by default, we are happy.” Again, happiness here is not something sustainable. We must interrupt it to eat, drink, pee, drive, think about something else. We choose to be distracted by alerts on our phones; by a pet, child, or spouse who needs to eat, drink, pee; to think about something else.
Even if we could be happy literally all the time, would we even know it? No, if we believe ancient Greek logic, which asserts that we can know happiness only by the times that we are not happy. In other words, a prerequisite to recognizing happiness is to recognize when we are in a state other than happiness, such as when we are sad or frustrated (grieving over death, ill, stuck in traffic, fired from work, underperformed on an assignment, lost a friend, remembered our trauma, burned dinner, are bloated).
People more enlightened than we can allegedly be grateful to the universe or God(s) for a negative experience because it helps them better know happiness when it is experienced. This is hard to do in the moment, and we have had limited success with it. In practice, we see the attempt to turn every negative experience into a positive one as a smoothing out of the ups and downs of what is an emotional existence. Maybe that’s a worthy objective if we are a soul who can’t stomach the extremes of life, just as some investors stay away from stocks or add plenty of fixed-income investments into their portfolio because every bear market makes them want to claw their eyes out.
Some people like a rainy day. Still, a week of rainy days makes us better appreciate even one sunny day; a week of a broken water heater allows us to better appreciate a hot shower; that is, not having something makes us better appreciate when we do have it.
Given the state of our world, happiness is not only fleeting, it can also seem sort of petty. Millions upon millions of people on our planet don’t have clean water to drink, live in war zones, have no enforceable civil rights. Is it even okay for us to want happiness?
Trying to feel happy is a legitimate human need. Just as constant happiness would drive us nuts, so, too, would constant misery. So it is okay to want and to feel happiness, and still happiness will not fulfill us. And that’s not only because so many of us have a distorted notion of what will make us happy.
Too many of us believe we are supposed to feel happy all the time and so we try to create cheap replications of happiness: shopping, owning shiny goods, self-medicating (with addictions to illegal drugs, alcohol, food, sex, etc.), social media posts sanitized of any hint of our non-happy moments (i.e. the majority of our time). These activities might make us happy for a brief time, and we feel disappointed because we think the happiness should last–as though those shoes were going to keep us happy without interruption for three to six months.
We don’t consume “friend-based” social media. We’ve never been a Facebook user. We’re just not that interested in what other people cultivate as their social brand. We don’t want to cram ourselves into categories, short-form posts, and others’ expectations. Does any advertisement tell the full truth about the company? Insurance commercials are funny, and what about their credit rating (i.e. Moody’s, Fitch, Standard & Poor’s) and customer satisfaction rating (JD Power)? When they don’t pay to fix our roof after a hailstorm or don’t pay for our chiropractor after a car accident, will we be glad we insured our valuable possessions with them on the basis of funny ads?
Happiness is fleeting. Not only that, many practices intended to make us happy actually don’t (especially if we can’t afford that vacation, car, etc.). So if real happiness is at best a sweet, focused break in our otherwise complicated and often monotonous lives, what is it we are supposed to be pursuing?
If we devote our precious and finite energy to our great passions, then we have found the meaning of life. This is not simple at all. We are often confused about what our passions are. We get confused (in part due to advertising and social media, which are really the same thing) and think our passions are making money, buying stuff, taking vacations. We can enjoy the money we make. We can enjoy driving our car. We can enjoy traveling to new or our favorite places. It’s when we do these things because we think they sound cool to others or because we want others to think something particular about us that we are not following our passions.
To find our passions requires us to get deeply in touch with our inner needs. This is not something the fast pace of our society encourages. Interestingly, before the advent of public street lighting, people spent more time relaxing, reading, sleeping, thinking, writing, talking, and being intimate in the evenings and nights. Street lights allowed people to move about safely at night and, thus, to become more “productive.”
Blink, and now look at us now.
Racing to squeeze everything into the day when, in fact, we act without purpose much of the time (zoned out online and in front of the television–often simultaneously). We rush from place to place without stopping to think why we are doing this. We falsely claim we don’t have time to do that which our bodies need so that we can do that which our bodies want. Advertising and social media reinforce that everyone else is doing this, so who are we to put down our phones, spend an hour meeting with an independent insurance agent, cancel the unused gym membership, talk with people–really talk with real people–to get to know ourselves so that we can identify our real passions?
There is an entire field–an academic and professional discipline–devoted to this pursuit of meaning in our lives. It is called Positive Psychology. An easy-to-read introduction to finding purpose in our life is The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith. This book is packed with stories of people who found their passions through adversity, through life experience, through discovering who they really are.
The meaning of life is living a life with meaning.
Western culture is nearly antithetical to self-discovery. Many schools are still teaching via the banking model of education in which the teacher (the one with knowledge) deposits facts into the students’ (the ones without knowledge) brains. Whether it is in school, at home, or as an extra-curricular activity, we need to help young people start to discover their passions. Think of all the time spent on sports and skills-based competitions for young people. Exercise and teamwork have their role. And people need more exploration of what it means to be a human being on a rotating rock filled with living things (human, animal, plant, cellular) living out real lives.
With advertisements from companies and social media constantly pressuring you to consume, consume, accumulate, accumulate, obtain money, obtain money, show off, show off, we are to be forgiven if we don’t know ourselves.
Start with a book like The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith or something by the founder of positive psychology Martin Seligman. Read it. Talk about it with others. Journal about it. Think about it. Experiment with it. Don’t rush to find your passion. Finding meaning is not a power workout. Finding meaning is not fitting into your summer clothes.
Finding meaning is getting to know ourselves and discovering what it means to each of us to be human. Just as it might take us months or years before we are ready to propose or accept a proposal for marriage, it may take us equally long to get to know ourselves. It depends how many lies we have been telling us and believing from others about what really matters and what we really need to be fulfilled, to have purpose, to find meaning.
We are on this journey now. We hope you will start your journey today!