The onset of summer break signals hot days, movie marathons, travelling and of course, endless nights of crippling self-doubt and existentialism. Some people decide to travel and visit other places staying in good obx rentals and knowing new places.
While the combination may seem far off, I find that in fact, summer and existentialist crises go hand in hand. The break from a high-pressure routine such as school or university means there is nothing tangible to worry about at night – no tests, quizzes or assignments. It’s 2:00 AM and your mind isn’t used to the freedom. Unable to relax, it grasps for the nearest thought to focus on. A haunting, perhaps age-old question reveals itself – what is your purpose in life?
The floodgates are open now…
Are you on the right path? Should you be doing something else? What are your palpable goals and how do you reach them? What is the endgame? Where is this strange pattern of never-ending day and night trying to take us? At what point do you feel satisfied with yourself?
“I know what I want,” you say, “It’s easy. I just want to have a happy, meaningful life.”
Actually…it’s not that simple. Everyone’s goal in life, it seems, is ‘to be happy’. However, the question of purpose still arises. Is it possible to live a happy life yet still find meaning from it? Can you be both content with yourself and have a positive effect on society?
The short answer is no, not really.
The subcategory of positive psychology has expanded on the purpose of life thoroughly, breaking away from the cycle of mental disease and hardship that the science is famous for. In a research study by Roy Baumeister, it was found that almost all long-term goals people hold – finding a good job, getting married, becoming rich – come under the subcategories of ‘happy’ or ‘meaningful’. Overlap exists but the differences are more perceptible. Happiness and meaningfulness are therefore two roads that begin at the same path but have clearly divergent directions.
Happiness is the simpler concept. It is a natural emotion, something every human around the world wants to achieve and it transcends species; animals can be happy too. You see this when dogs wag their tails or cats purr. When our basic needs are met, we are happy. When we eat good food, sleep more than 8 hours, find love or companionship, we are happy. Therefore, at the most basic level, happiness can be directly related to our evolutionary needs. Baumeister’s research paper further defines happiness as fleeting and focused on the present. If someone has had a handful of memorable moments and experiences but are miserable right now, they would not define their lives as happy – the emotions of the present cloud their judgement. Lastly, the most important differentiation, those with a happy life were shown to have a relatively easy life and were takers rather than givers. Simple, self-oriented lives are the happiest, according to Baumeister.
Then there is a meaningful life, a far more complex idea. While happiness is innate, meaningfulness is dependent on the society around you. It is culturally significant and grounded in values built by generations. We find meaning in different things and it varies from person to person, country to country. Another key difference is that meaning is found by thinking not just of the present, but of the past and future. The time continuum plays a bigger role here than in defining happiness. When deriving meaning from an act, we are usually concerned about the long term effect and work towards a future goal. The impact of a meaningful action also lasts longer then momentary happiness. Additionally, those who strive to live meaningful lives are naturally givers. Baumeister reports that they have to deal with higher levels of stress, worry and challenges in order to meet their goals. They are also reported as being significantly less happy than others and have gone through difficult experiences. This is clear when you think about political activists, parents with children or volunteers. These are all people who are doing something they believe is meaningful and sacrificing peace of mind to add value to society.
To quote Baumeister, “Humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human, and uniquely so”.
Of course, in the real world, it is difficult to separate happiness and purpose with such a clear line. Nobody is going to live only a happy life or only a purposeful life, but we do lean towards one or the other. The decisions we make and the goals we prioritize are clear indicators of what is more important to us. There is no right answer.
After all, we are all as clueless as each other in this strange game of life and although some might act like it, nobody has figured out the cheat codes to ‘win’ a successful, happy, meaningful life – whichever you prefer.
(Read the journal here: http://faculty-gsb.stanford.edu/aaker/pages/documents/SomeKeyDifferencesHappyLifeMeaningfulLife_2012.pdf)