For thousands of years, humans have been questioning themselves what the purpose of life and happiness is. People are wired to pursue happiness, not only to enjoy it, but to want more and more of it. Instead of ever feeling fulfilled, most of the people reach their goals only to realize they are still not happy, or that they are always thirsty for achieving more and more.
However, even though happiness has this huge importance, and everyone is seeking it, the anxiety and depression rates are increasing, and data showed that constantly pursuing happiness can make people unhappy.
Let’s define what happiness is – Happiness is a pseudo-emotional state of being that has no common definition. It means different things to each one of us. Even though throughout the year people made it a life purpose to reach happiness, several studies showed that pursuing happiness might not be the key to ever feel satisfied and contempt with our lives.
There are various beliefs connected to this. For example, Hebrews, the scripture says people should rejoice in festivals, they should be really happy. People should take pleasure in all the things, the spiritual things, the familial relationships, material things, and enjoy the life.
For Catholics, happiness differs from enjoyment. They believe perfect happiness can only be achieved after death, however ethical behavior during life can bring happiness and lead to salvation.
Islam and Buddhism, as well, see the path of happiness as an ethical path, where happiness and well-being mixes with enlightenment and enrichment of the soul. Actually, one of the most quoted scholars in Islam is “True enrichment does not come through possessing a lot of wealth, but true enrichment is the enrichment of the soul.” For Buddhists, on the other side, happiness is an inner feeling, a mental state and it can be achieved in earthly life by following ethical behavior that includes knowledge, respect for others and nature, as well as compassion.
In the run after happiness, after reaching their goals, people usually stop asking: Is this all there is?
Most of the time people get to this point due to a lack of meaning in life.
Viennese psychiatrist and neurologist, Viktor Frankl, stated that even though it’s natural to prefer happiness to suffering, a sense of purpose and meaning comes from overcoming struggles and challenges, and suffering can have a redemptive value. Having in mind that there can be some good that comes out of our most experiences and struggles can be the central factor in the process of transforming suffering into purpose, and finding a meaning to life.
The philosopher John Stuart Mill was stating “Those only are happy, who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”
That’s why researcher Emily Esfahani Smith started looking for the answer to the questions – there any other goal we should have rather than being happy? What she found are 4 pillars that seemed to lead people to living a happier, more fulfilled life.
First of all, she found happiness is a temporary feeling that means feeling good in the moment. On the other side, meaning comes from a bigger purpose. Seeking meaning implies being more resilient, living a more fulfilled and happier life. While our culture is obsessed with being happy, Emily Esfahani Smith actually came to see that seeking meaning is the more fulfilling path.
Belonging is the first important pillar, meaning being part of relationships where you are valued for who you are. Belonging means acceptance as a member or part. Feeling that you belong is most important in seeing value in life and in coping with intensely painful emotions. Some find belonging in a church, some with friends, some with family, and some on Twitter or other social media. Some see themselves as connected only to one or two people. Others believe and feel a connection to all people the world over, to humanity. Some struggle to find a sense of belonging and their loneliness is physically painful for them.
Purpose is less about what you want than about what you give. The key to purpose is using your strengths to serve others. Without something worthy to do, people flounder. Purpose gives you something to live for, some “why”.
A 2006 University of Missouri study found that the life purpose of believing in God and participating in spiritual practice helped African-American women to better confront and overcome a breast cancer diagnosis. Also, it was found that spirituality leads to better information-gathering on the part of patients.
Transcendence are the moments when you’re disconnected by the stress of daily life, and you feel connected to a higher reality. For some people, this means singing, writing or having a hobby to get lost in.
Storytelling is the story you tell yourself and others about yourself. Creating a meaning from the events of your life brings clarity and it can shape the course of your life. You get to edit, interpret and retell your story. Using a redemptive story, where the bad is redeemed by the good, you give yourself the chance to change the path of your life. For example, a person who has been to a highly traumatic event and created a positive meaning to that event (for example someone who has been cheated on who learned to let go and become more tolerant).
I would add a fifth pillar to this, and that is gratitude. Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done much of the research on gratitude. In one study, they asked all participants to write a few sentences each week, focusing on particular topics. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them. After 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.
In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions and recognizing the good in their lives, which leads to overall satisfaction.
In the end, focusing in getting a sense of meaning by practicing the five pillars will lead to a greater sense of satisfaction than searching for a temporary feeling in goals like career, love life or obtaining material things.