How Pursuing Happiness Can Lead to Misery

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By Tyra Seldon

What does it really mean to be happy? At first glance, this may seem like a rhetorical question: How can one define what seems to be such a nebulous concept? Moreover, isn’t happiness in the eyes of the beholders?

For many of us, happiness is something that we hope to obtain, but we don’t always know when we have it within our reach. Some people define happiness as a new spouse, the birth of a child, a new degree, a nicer car, quality time with our families, supportive friends, a bigger home and/or a much-needed vacation. Yet, for some people who have all of these things and more, they still find themselves unhappy.

This is not surprising to a group of researchers who conclude that happiness is not what we should seek. According to their work, meaning in life, as opposed to happiness, should be the ultimate goal.

The study found that happiness tends to be a fleeting emotion that is often tied to very specific, self-centered goals and objectives. “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided,” the authors of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) study concluded.

Conversely, researchers defined meaning in life as a profound belief in a force greater than one’s self. Meaning isn’t defined so much in religious or spiritual terms, but more along the lines of having a clear purpose in life that leads to meaningful relationships and attachments.  Whereas happiness tends to be more self-centered, meaning tends to be more other-centered.

The study also found that having meaning in life could lead to physiological responses that lead to health benefits, including an ability to overcome certain, acute inflammatory illnesses.

Of course, happiness and meaningfulness are not mutually exclusive. Instead, the study reminds us that the more we define our purpose then the more we will be able to enjoy the things and people who enrich our lives.

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