How do you find happiness?
Someone I once thought I was close with told me that if they were rich, their problems would be solved. If they had enough money to fulfill all of their financial obligations, and enough money to go on vacations and live an exceedingly comfortable life, they would be free of worry, free of burden. In essence, excessive money would be the end of stress and difficulty. It was so simple: happiness and would come when they had the means to secure all of the comforts of life. While I know now that I was never truly close to this person, it is obvious to me that they had made the mistake of buying into a devastating delusion about how to live a happy life.
When I use the phrase, “how to live a happy life”, what I actually mean is “how to live a meaningful life that brings a sense of personal satisfaction”. Happiness is an emotion, a fleeting feeling, entirely dependent upon outside circumstances. A person can have moments of happiness, but it is impossible to feel happy all the time. I feel happy when I eat cookies, and when I spend time with friends, and when I get enough sleep, but what about all the moments in between feeling happy? Throughout the day I feel dozens of different things, and the majority of emotions I experience are not happiness. My day is a roller coaster, and I dare to say that this true for everyone. Most days I feel irritated, inspired, motivated, peaceful, stressed and unsure, all before ten o’clock in the morning. If I chose to base my level of satisfaction with my life on the amount of time I spend actually feeling the happiness emotion, I would be perpetually disappointed. So, the question is, even though I don’t feel happy all the time, am I still satisfied with my life?
I spend my time raising my daughter, a job that any parent will tell you is one of the most demanding jobs that exists. I teach children, which is way more difficult than one would imagine. I have to be careful with money so I don’t run out by the end of the month. I have 99 problems, and then some.
But the answer to the question is yes, I am satisfied with the way I am living my life. The rewards of raising a child are intangible, yet profound. Teaching dance does not pay much, but I have the opportunity to teach eager young minds and bodies something I am deeply passionate about. I appreciate money more because I have less, and I know how to live simply. My life is hard at times, even tragic, but it is rich and full of meaning.
While feeling happy depends on outside circumstances, having a meaningful life comes from finding within yourself a purpose to live. Parenting is so unglamorous, despite what moms on Pinterest would have us believe, but knowing that I am responsible for shaping a tiny young human into adulthood brings me a deep, overarching sense joy and meaning. It also brings me worry, because the world is so dangerous, and stress, because you might screw them up, and heartbreak, because as soon as they are born they start the process of growing up and leaving you. Nonetheless, I would rather live a difficult life with a purpose than chase the vague and elusive dream of happiness.
I have intuitively known this for most of my life (thanks mom, for raising us right), but it was not until recently that I was able to articulate what I knew to be true about living a life of meaning versus living a life based on the pursuit of happiness. I happened upon a few articles about a recent Stanford research project that studied the difference between the two. Researchers found that happiness was related to taking, but that meaningfulness was more related to giving. Happiness is about fulfilling desires, while meaningfulness is about finding value in yourself and developing connection to other people.
I knew it all along! Now I have a legitimate study to back me up when people ask me what I was thinking when I decided to study Humanities and chose dance as my profession. (Aside: A teacher once told me that dancers are always tired, sore, and poor. It’s true.) I can proudly say, I chose those things because they add meaning to my life- they help me define my own identity and connect with other people.
I love this quote from neurologist, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl.
“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” -Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
Viktor Frankl wrote a book, Man’s Search for Meaning, after surviving three years in a Nazi concentration camp. To be honest, I have not read the book, I have only read about it, but someday I hope to read it for myself. Even so, his story is remarkable. In the concentration camp, he acted as a psychiatrist, helping his fellow inmates bear their pain and suffering by finding a reason and a purpose to live. After he was liberated from the camps, he helped survivors heal from the horrors of the camps by helping them find meaning in their suffering.
If a man who was starved and dehumanized in a Nazi concentration camp can find meaning in his suffering, than I should hope that I can bear my own less horrendous life trials with a sense of purpose and resilience.
I return to my original question. How do you find happiness?
The answer is simple: you don’t. You cannot find happiness, but you must try to find meaning in your unhappiness.
Thoughts? I would love to hear them! Tell me what you’re thinking in the comments, by email, and on Facebook.