Finding true happiness with the "four pillars"

For many of us, there is one goal that drives nearly everything we do - happiness. We all strive after happiness, hoping to find happiness in our personal and professional lives, and wanting the people we most love and care for to be happy, too. But the million dollar question is - how? How can we find true happiness?

This question matters especially today. Happiness has grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry with thousands of books and articles published each year on how we can all be more cheerful. And yet, despite the onslaught of advice, we seem to be getting worse, not better, at finding happiness. Rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness have been rising for years - and social scientists have recently unearthed a sad trend: the pursuit of happiness can sometimes make people feel unhappy.

I came across some of these surprising facts as I was researching my new book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters. After reading hundreds of psychology studies, after consulting the works of some of the greatest thinkers of history - from Aristotle to the Buddha to George Eliot - and after interviewing many ordinary and extraordinary individuals about how they found peace and satisfaction, I discovered that true happiness lies in leading a meaningful life. People who focus less on happiness as the end-goal of their lives, and pursue meaningful endeavors instead, experience a deeper and more long-lasting form of well-being down the road.

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We sometimes conflate the terms "meaning" and "happiness" in everyday conversation, but these two forms of well-being are distinct. Happiness, psychologists say, is a positive mental and emotional state, while meaningfulness is defined by connecting and contributing to something beyond the self-like your work, your family, or God. While research shows that happiness is associated with activities like playing games, sleeping in, and eating sweets, meaningfulness is associated with behaviors like taking care of loved ones (especially children), forgiving a friend, and studying - effortful and sometimes challenging tasks that don’t always make us happy in the moment, but that are important and ultimately endow our lives with a feeling of significance down the road.

When I was writing my book, I wanted to learn what, exactly, the building blocks of a meaningful life are. To find out, I interviewed dozens of individuals about what makes their lives meaningful. Several themes came up again and again in those stories and in the new and growing body of social science research on meaning. They are what I call the "four pillars of meaning": belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. When people explain what makes their lives meaningful, they talk about having relationships and belonging to communities where they feel valued. They discuss having important life goals that contribute somehow to the world. They mention creating narratives that help them understand themselves. And they talk about experiences of awe, where they lose themselves and feel connected to something larger.

Read: Seven strategies for success when setting goals

Let’s take a closer look at purpose, the second pillar, because it’s the one most closely associated with meaning in our minds. Purpose sounds big - like ending world hunger big or eliminating nuclear weapons big. But it doesn’t have to be. You can also find purpose in being a good parent to your children or creating a more cheerful environment at your office. According to William Damon, a developmental psychologist at Stanford University in the United States, purpose has two important dimensions. First, purpose is a "stable and far-reaching" goal. Most of our goals are mundane and immediate, like getting to work on time, going to the gym, or doing the dishes. Purpose, by contrast, is a goal toward which we are always working. It is the forward-pointing arrow that motivates our behavior and serves as the organizing principle of our lives.

Second, purpose involves a contribution to the world. It is, Damon writes with his colleagues, "a part of one’s personal search for meaning, but it also has an external component, the desire to make a difference in the world, to contribute to matters larger than the self." That could mean advancing human rights or working to close the achievement gap in education, but it works on a smaller level, too. Researchers find that teens who help their families with tasks like cleaning, cooking, and caring for siblings, for example, also feel a greater sense of purpose.

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Along these lines, one of my favorite examples of purposeful living is Ashley Richmond, a woman I interviewed for my book. Ashley, who graduated from college in 2006, is a zookeeper caring for giraffes, kangaroos, and wallabies at the Detroit Zoo in the United States. Zookeepers like Ashley spend the majority of their time shovelling poop out of stalls to keep the animal yards clean. The work is physically gruelling and the hours are as bad as the pay. And yet, Ashley describes this as her dream job.

According to social scientists Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery Thompson, Ashley is not alone: These researchers have found that zookeepers have an unusually strong sense of purpose. They often describe their work as a calling - as something they were destined to do from a very young age because of a preternatural ability to connect with, understand, and care for animals. Zookeepers, the researchers found, are willing to sacrifice pay, time, comfort, and status because they believe they have a duty to use their gifts to help vulnerable creatures in captivity lead better lives. And they derive an enormous sense of meaning from living out that purpose.

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So it is with Ashley. She understands her purpose as caring for the animals and helping them lead the best lives possible. Even so-called "dirty work" like shovelling animal waste are meaningful to her because they lie in the service of that cause. Though she may not feel cheerful while she’s straining her body to do this work, she is very satisfied with the life she is leading. She loves her work and can’t imagine doing anything else with their time.

Like Ashley, people leading meaningful lives care a lot about giving something back to the world - making an impact. Happiness may not be their immediate goal, but they do end up feeling good about their lives anyway.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill would not have been surprised. "Those only are happy," he wrote, "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."

You can read more about Happiness in our upcoming series on the subject, check back to virgin.com soon to explore. Alternatively, you can buy a copy of Emily's new book right here or take the "What’s the Your Pillar" quiz on Emily’s website.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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