Happiness and Life Meaning: Both Important to Well-Being

Linda Graham, MFT looks at the power of life meaning, perhaps even over happiness.  She offers an exercise in which to invite both to foster resilience and well-being. 

Research was recently published in the Journal of Positive Psychology that discovered significant differences between happiness and meaning in one’s life:

  • Happiness depends on feeling good and having one’s needs met; meaning does not.
  • Happy people seem to dwell in the present moment; meaning seems to involve linking past, present, and future.
  • Meaning derives from being a “giver” – from helping others; happiness seems to derive more from being a “taker.
  • People who score higher on measures of meaning than of happiness seem to have stronger immune systems, implying better health.

Believing that a whole and authentic life could include both meaning and happiness, I interpret these findings in the following way:

Research studies show definitively that positive emotions – kindness, compassion, gratitude, delight, awe, love, etc. lead to resilience.  Happiness helps antidote the brain’s innate negativity bias and helps the brain become more open to experience, open to cooperating and collaborating with other people, open to more creativity and optimism, all supporting more resilience and fulfillment.

When we experience our own capacities for resilience, we are more able to move our attention and concerns beyond the personal self, finding meaning in being of service to others.  It’s essential to “take in the good” of positive experiences in our lives to strengthen our resilience; it’s as essential to “give” to others to find deep fulfillment and contentment in life.

“In every community there is work to be done.

In every nation, there are wounds to heal.

In every heart, there is the power to do it.”

– Marianne Williamson

Exercise:  Cultivating Meaning; Discovering Happiness

Take five minutes to identify an opportunity for your resilience to move beyond your personal self in an act of generosity or altruism: participating in an environmental cleanup day at a local park; becoming a counselor at a summer camp for children with life-threatening illnesses; tutoring in an adult literacy program.

Notice any changes in your experience of yourself as you decide which action to take, prepare to do it, and implement your plan.  Notice any deepening sense of meaning, and any deepening happiness, as you take in the feeling of your own generosity, simply knowing that you have acted out of compassionate caring, whether or not you learn of the outcome of your efforts.  Notice how you feel if you learn of the ripple effects of your action from someone’s comment in person, in an e-mail, on a card.

Let your expressions of your resilience deepen both your sense of meaning in your life, and your happiness.