Issue #20 ‘Elephant’ has arrived, you can buy a copy from our online store or subscribe now. Available April 29…
By Dr Christian Jarrett.
Suppose there were a device you could buy that zapped your brain whenever your mood dipped.
Using it meant you were always ‘happy’ and there were no unpleasant side-effects. When, years later, you looked back on your life, it would be fair to say you’d spent most of it in a happy state. Does this sound like a life worth living?
Of course it is lovely to experience joy and bliss from time to time, but psychologists and philosophers have long recognised the equal or greater importance of having meaning and purpose in life, and of flourishing – aspirations captured by the Greek word eudaimonia. The trouble with that brain-zapping device is that it would undermine eudaimonia. In a permanent state of happiness, you’d feel no yearning and no passion. If you were cheerful about every event that passed, you’d never learn because you’d have no desire to do things differently next time.
For now at least, the brain zapper is a fiction. But you can see it as a metaphor for a hedonistic life, one spent focused only on short-term pleasure. What does a deeper, more meaningful life look like? Clues come from a recent psychological survey of more than 500 people, conducted several times over a three-month period, about their feelings of happiness, how meaningful their lives felt, and what their lives were like in other ways.
The research showed that happier people tended to have more meaningful lives and vice versa, but the two were not perfectly correlated. More importantly, happiness tended to go hand-in-hand with measures that were not linked to meaningfulness, such as being healthy, having no money worries or other stresses, feeling that life was easy, and being more short-term oriented. By contrast, a more meaningful life was associated with thinking more about the past and future; with more stress and worry, experiencing more negative events; deep thinking; and engaging in activities that were true to oneself.
Consistent with this, a study published this year in the MIT Sloan Management Review involved asking over a hundred people in various occupations to describe times that they’d found their work meaningful or meaningless. What was particularly noticeable was that many of the most meaningful situations were often the most challenging and poignant – such as the nurse who told of how she’d supported a dying patient in her last hours – rather than happy and joyful.
These findings suggest a life of greater consequence often involves taking the bumpier path – an idea consistent with what has been termed the second wave of positive psychology. While positive psychology was established to counterbalance the discipline’s usual focus on misery and suffering, the second wave argues that there is also value in our negative emotions, and that to flourish and live a life of meaning requires embracing the darkness, not exclusively seeking out the light. To take a simple example, it is not possible to experience the joy of loving someone with- out simultaneously living with the anxiety of one day losing them.
All this suggests that if you want to lead a more meaningful life, part of the attitude you need is to learn to tolerate your negative emotions and to see their value rather than always seeking to avoid them. For instance, in the right context, controlled anger can be empowering, while sadness can be poignant and can bring people together. Someone who spends her life dodging emotions like disappointment and self-doubt will never take on new challenges, depriving herself of the chance to grow and develop as a person.
Intriguingly, research published in Germany last year found that people who see value in their negative emotions are less adversely affected by them, in terms of mental and physical health. By contrast, people who see negative emotions as entirely unwanted and harmful tend to suffer a greater toll, the more negative emotions that they experience.
Embracing your more uncomfortable emotions is not about being a ‘tough woman’. In fact, when you experience bumps in the road it is healthy to treat yourself with the same kindness as you would a close friend. Research has shown that people who habitually practise ‘self-compassion’ tend to respond to disappointments and short-term failures in a way that is more consistent with flourishing, by seeing the setback as a chance to learn. For example, if you receive a disappointing grade in an exam, the happier approach might be to drop out of the course (that way, you’ll never get a disappointing grade again), but the more meaningful approach is to see the grade as a sign that you need to get extra help.
A related concept in psychology is the contrast between performance goals and mastery goals – people who take the former approach are more interested in end results and with how their performance compares to that of other people. By contrast, a mastery-oriented approach is more focused on the process itself, and with opportunities to learn and improve. To flourish in life is to take a mastery approach. Revel in the process, however challenging and difficult it may be, and you are more likely to make it to the finishing line.
So a meaningful life is not necessarily always filled with happiness, and flourishing means giving yourself the chance to fail. Another important message from the field of positive psychology is less self-orientated and has to do with altruism.
That MIT study on meaningful work showed that the most important moments in people’s careers often benefited other people. This tallies with other studies that have found signs of better mental and physical health among people who engage in more altruistic activities, such as volunteering. Another study published this year found that people who work for non-profit organisations, such as charities or social enterprises, are happier with their lives in general and find their work more satisfying. In fact, the researchers estimated that the wellbeing boost from doing meaningful work in the non-profit sector was worth an equivalent USD$35,000 extra income per year (based on what we know about the usual relationship between salary and wellbeing).
A final thought – have you ever felt the tug of a particular ambition or calling in life, one that you’ve always ignored? Perhaps you felt you would love to be a teacher, but that it would mean sacrificing your higher salary in business. Or maybe you’ve always wanted to study at university, but there just never seems to have been enough time. If you want to look back on your life with a sense of meaning and fulfilment, perhaps it’s worth rethinking your priorities and checking again if there’s any way to answer that calling. A study published earlier this year found that people with an unanswered calling in life felt less fulfilled and experienced more psychological and physical stress even than those who reported having no calling at all.
Of course, the challenges and short-term gratifications of daily life frequently create hurdles on the path to following our passions. Overcoming these won’t be easy. Living a more meaningful life won’t be easy. But it will be worth it.