The pursuit of happiness has hijacked our meaning of life.
(No time to read? scroll down for the TL;DR video below)
I am guessing nearly everyone reading this has had late-night chats with friends when someone poses the age-old question ‘SO what do YOU think the meaning of life is?’-- and I’m willing to bet someone in the room replied: 'To find happiness’.
That person drives me nuts.
Let me "compassionately challenge" our knee-jerk response to prioritize happiness by offering three reasons I say "F#$% Happiness, it's meaning you are really looking for".
And if you can embrace true meaning (through the good, bad and the ugly) you can actually bring a more lasting joy (instead of that fleeting happiness).
1. Meaning Originates from the Shitty times... not the happy times
Like it or not, when a situation is touching us at a deep emotional level, we have no choice but to make meaning of it.
For me, one of the most meaningful experiences of my life was also the toughest pill to swallow: watching my father on (what we thought was) his deathbed. As he said goodbye to us all, I wanted to throw up... I was beside myself. Battling a mystery illness, he held my hand and told me it was now my responsibility to keep the family together if he died. Through tears, I agreed...but prayed it wouldn't happen.
Without sounding flippant, I think we can safely agree that sure as shit was not a happy moment for me. It was such a huge responsibility to be given and the heaviness of that emotion will stay with me forever.
Nonetheless, that metaphorical passing of the baton from one generation to the next represented a deeply meaningful moment that still resonates with me today.
Now, amazingly, my father went on to make a full recovery (an anecdote I often tell my clients when we speak about miracles). Of course that was a happy moment, but it was nothing compared to the "big ask" my dad made before he turned the corner.
The truth is when we stop prioritizing happiness, we stop discounting the significant moments filled with sadness and grief and instead appreciate them for the value they bring to life’s ever-changing journey.
2. Meaning is coming from a numinous source
If you've read any of my previous blog posts you will be familiar with the concept of the vertical dimension (and if not, bear with). Don’t get me wrong, we all LOVE those small wins when we find a snickers bar at the back of the fridge or 20$ down the side of the sofa, but this simply isn’t playing big.
Momentarily satisfying a childlike affinity for dopamine hits gets us stuck in the horizontal dimension... and we are capable of so much more than that.
The horizontal dimension (our day-to-day life) keeps us thinking that only the things we can see, measure, achieve (and ultimately show off) will give us happiness.
But when you have purposely (or accidentally) experienced a glimpse of the vertical dimension suddenly you become much more aware of all that is and all you are. And suddenly that found snickers bar means very little in the grander scheme of things.
For me, these glimpses into "The universe"/ "the divine"/"God" have guided me toward meaning-making not just of what is happening in my every day -- but of life itself. Often they feel like "beckons", "summons" or "callings" from "Spirit" that cannot be ignored.
Opening up to numinous in our vertical dimension through peak experiences, reflection, prayer or even yoga invites opportunity to "play big" and make meaning of who we are, why we are here, and what we are meant to be doing. (And no one can take that meaning away from you).
As grandiose as it may sound: nearly every single Group-Quest I have created has come from this numinous source. I have found that one MY meanings of life akin to the Hero’s Journey: we must first take our own journey of Growth before we can share what we have learned. Each Group-Quest is my attempt at sharing what I have learned. (Meaning-Quest is no different).
3. Meaning allows us to transcend uncertainty
Meaning comes from the vertical dimension: which means it can transcend any temporary emotion of the horizontal dimension… including happiness! Or more likely during this pandemic: worry and anxiety over uncertainty.
Imagine instead of wallowing in self-pity, allowing yourself to engage these emotions and ask them what lesson they are trying to teach you. Feeling sad? Why, what have you lost? Feeling hopeless? Why, what future did you want?
For example, if you are feeling grief or worried about when you may ever get to see your family again, these strong emotions are trying to teach you that strong relationships with your family are vital to feeling whole. Instead of getting stuck in the emotion, it’s important to embody the lesson and prioritize family when you’re able to again.
Look no further than the current pandemic for an example of how the collective has had to negotiate a new normal in the face of unprecedented change and angst. We've been left with an unsettling period of quiet, inner-contemplation which has allowed us to reflect on what is really important to us. As we're finally emerging from the rubble, waking up and saying "Hey, maybe I don’t need all these X to get by..."
There is famous research about people having the choice between sitting patiently in a room for an indefinite amount of time or they can choose to electrocute themselves. 67% of men and 25% of women chose to electrocute themselves. When asked why they preferred an electric shock, the participants noted it was better than being “bored”.
To me, the electric shock is akin to chasing the fleeting sense of happiness. We have become addicted to the pursuit of happiness rather than the stillness of reflection and meaning-making. Perhaps now is the best time to avoid sinking into a click-hole of dopamine hits, and instead allow yourself to sit in the frickin room for an indefinite amount of time, dammit! Transcend your need for dopamine and ask yourself what this experience is trying to teach you.
Look, I want to be clear-- it’s not that I don’t think happiness is great. I want it as much as you do. But, when it is our only priority, we are missing a huge opportunity to enrich ourselves with deep meaning-- which although not always cheerful, tends to bring us more happiness than anything else. And if not... F#$% it.