Happiness or meaningfulness – the choice is yours
Today’s world bombards you with the message that you have the right to be happy, or worse, that you “have to be” happy. Because if you aren’t, clearly you are doing something wrong.
The advertising industry then very helpfully proceeds to tell you what exactly you need to be happy.
Want a holiday? Fly off to Fiji and relax on the beach – boom, you’re happy.
Want the latest gadget? Queue up at the (Apple) store, get your hands on the oh-so desired object – and feel the warm glow of satisfaction.
Or, if you have less consumerist aspirations, want a cold beer whilst sitting somewhere with a view? Here it is – enjoy it (responsibly)!
Now what is this elusive happiness, that we’re all chasing? One definition – the one used by our consumerist society – is that happiness is the satisfaction of our wants. And who hasn’t thought “as soon as I get this (insert as needed: holiday, house, girlfriend, gadget, break, sleep) I’ll be happy”?
So happiness seems to be all about “getting something”.
What happens though, the moment we get used to the new designer couch, boyfriend, gadget? Or when we have to come home from the holiday, go back to work after the weekend? Our happiness plummets again, and we start chasing or waiting for the next “thing”.
Happiness is a fickle mistress, always needing to be entertained with more exotic trinkets…
And the reality is that life also comes with suffering, grief, death. Happiness can’t help us deal with those. We cannot “shop away” pain. And drinking it away isn’t a solution either.
So what else is there?
In some ways, meaningfulness is the opposite of happiness. The meaningful things in our life mostly imply working our butt off, sleepless nights, heartache, suffering…
The few people I know personally who are truly living meaningful lives (and who I would think of as happy people, in the non-advertising definition of happiness) all have one thing in common:
their boundless love, their limitless giving of what they have.
It is when we give to others that we find meaning.
Here is a little list of some of the “things” that give my life meaning (in no particular order):
My work. I get rather less of the normal perks of work (like money), yet by being there for others, by listening to their stories, by holding them in their pain, my life serves a purpose.
My partner and my friends.
Looking after my father. Although I can only do that a few weeks here and there (my mother is the main carer and I am immensely grateful to her), and as hard and heart-breaking as it is, it allows me to reflect on all he has done for me, selflessly, all the love he gave me, all the time, all the wisdom he passed on. And it makes his life meaningful as well, for him to see in me the fruit of his hard work.
Some charities I support, where I can see firsthand the difference they make to people, animals or the environment (my favourite ones being the Fred Hollows Foundation, which works all around the world to restore sight to the blind, and the Hamlin Fistula Ethiopia Hospital, which operates on women maimed by childbirth, to give them back a normal life instead of one of immense suffering and shame. Both are gifts that keep on giving, the sufferer can lead a normal life, which in turn frees up his or her carer, and both can then contribute to their communities).
Meaning is about leaving the world a better place after your passage on earth. So we don’t just live and die, like a blip on the radar. It is about legacy, about being remembered, not necessarily by name, but for what we have done.
To me it is about alleviating suffering, and when that is not possible, just being with the person in their pain, so they are not alone.
I sometimes joke that my work motto is “I’m changing the world, one person at a time”; yet deep down, that is what I hope – that I will leave the world a better place, through the love and time I give to others.
This post has been inspired by this article in The Atlantic about Victor Frankl, my psychotherapist hero.