There is More to Life than Happiness – part 2

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Recently I watched a Ted talk where Emily Esfahani Smith, a writer talked about her research that spans over a number of 5 years interviewing people and discovering that finding purpose in life is much more important than just being happy. Happiness according to Smith is something that comes and goes. We have moments of happiness. But a purpose in life stays, whether we are happy or not.

She said that most people feel hopeless, alone and depressed despite increased living standards. The hopelessness is not the lack of happiness but a lack of meaning in life. According to psychologists, happiness is a state of comfort and ease. We feel comfort in the moment we are happy. However meaning is deeper. Seeking meaning is the more fulfilling path in comparison to obsessing over finding happiness.  Smith states that people who have a purpose in life live longer, they are more resilient, do better at work and school. The question then arises, how are we to  shift our gear from ‘find happiness’ to ‘find purpose’?

Esfahani Smith interviewed a 100 people over a span of 5 years, trying to figure out how can we each live a more fulfilling life. At the end of her extensive research, she came up with 4 pillars for a meaningful life: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling; the last one being the most interesting for me personally.

Smith explains that in order to lead better lives we need a meaning in life than happiness. We need to build our families, our societies on these 4 pillars in order to achieve that. Belonging means being in relationships where you value others and also get valued by others for who you are. Find a purpose in life. Smith says that once an individual has a purpose to live for, they use their strengths to fulfill that purpose. Transcendence is a little complicated but simply put; it is about having experiences that separate you from the mundane life, which makes you feel connected to a higher reality. It could come in the form of meditating, praying, doing arts or whatever that changes you in how you see yourself and others in the bigger picture. Sometimes transcendence could happen without us expecting it; some spiritual encounter, an incident that evokes feelings, a thought process that brings about a change in our philosophy etc.

Lastly, storytelling is the fourth pillar that perhaps all of us use the most but in a way that could be altered. We all tell our story all the time, all our lives to ourselves and those around us. What we don’t realize is that we are authors of our story and it is in our hands how we interpret the events in our lives. Smith shares the story of a football player who lost his legs in an accident. The story he initially told was that of remorse, he missed his old life. But then he changed his story. He started helping those around him. He found purpose in life and shared that his life now had meaning. He grew positive, he was being of use to others; his story changed. His outlook in life changed.

Living a meaningful life demands constant effort. We need to build our lives around belonging, purpose, transcendence and storytelling to develop healthier families, communities and society. Lastly Smith says that happiness comes and goes, life will be good but something will not be right; if we have purpose or meaning in life, we will have something to hold onto.

There is a famous film starring Will Smith called ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’. The difference in spelling is not just to stand out and get noticed. The film based on a true story, is about a man who goes from rags to riches. We may say that while poor, trying to make ends meet, he wasn’t happy and once he started earning, he found success, and then happiness found him. When the movie ended, happiness reigned. But would all the characters stay happy long after the script ended? The concept was that there is no ‘why’ in happiness, only “I”. It depends on an individual to carve their way. In the light of Smith’s research, we could say that happiness should have no whys and ifs and buts. Happiness is an individual’s gain, either they find it in things that make them happy or they find happiness for others by doing selfless acts. Either way, we should stop dissecting the whys and hows and ifs of ‘happiness’.  If we have a purpose in life, a meaning, for which we are living, happy or not we will be leading better lives and we will be making it better for those around.