The unexpected route to happy
We’ve all been searching for the wrong type of happiness, says Emily Esfahani Smith. The kind that will get you through life’s ups and downs is about finding meaning, not just pleasure
Find meaning and you’ll find your happiness, says Emily Esfahani Smith
Several years ago, I met a woman named Ashley, who spends the majority of her working day shovelling poop from one place to another. Her hours are terrible, she rarely gets holidays off, and her body often aches from the physical labour of her work. And yet, she told me that this is her dream job. Ashley is a zookeeper who cares for giraffes, wallabies, and kangaroos at Detroit Zoo in the US. Even though she doesn’t always feel happy when she’s working, Ashley derives an enormous amount of meaning from what she does. Her purpose, she believes, isn’t cleaning animal waste. It’s taking care of the animals and doing everything she can to make their lives richer and happier. “Keeping the yards and stalls clean is important,” she told me, “because that helps the animals. It keeps them healthy. My goal every day is to make sure they are enjoying their environment – and a big part of that is giving them a clean place to live.”
Over the last few years, I’ve interviewed dozens of people like Ashley in my quest to understand what makes life worth living. I’ve spoken to psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, and neuroscientists; I’ve read the works of figures in literature and history such as George Eliot, Viktor Frankl, Aristotle; and I’ve listened to the stories of ordinary and extraordinary people, such as a former drug dealer, a woman with terminal cancer, and a recent college graduate – all to understand how and where they found meaning in their lives. I wanted to know what values should I live by? What projects, relationships, and activities will bring me fulfilment?
YOU MIGHT IMAGINE THE ANSWER IS TO SET ‘HAPPINESS’ AS YOUR GOAL. But as I dug into the research, I discovered something that surprised me.
It’s not happiness that truly matters, but meaning.
To understand why, it’s important to know there’s a distinction between the two. Most people today choose happiness. Since the mid-2000s, the interest in happiness, as measured by Google searches, has tripled. “The shortcut to anything you want in life,” writes author Rhonda Byrne in her book The Secret, “is to be and feel happy now!” It’s difficult to navigate to your favourite website without coming across an article about 10 steps to a happier life. And yet, there is a major problem with the happiness frenzy: it has failed to deliver on its promise. Rates of suicide, depression and loneliness have been rising in recent decades. Indeed, as the happiness industry grows, social scientists have uncovered a sad irony – chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy. The happiness frenzy diverts us from what really matters. As some psychological researchers have put it, “The more directly one aims to maximise pleasure and avoid pain, the more likely one is to produce instead a life bereft of depth, meaning, and community.”
That’s not to say happiness is a bad thing. But what we need to underpin it and give it depth and authenticity, is
Chasing HAPPINESS actually makes people unhappy. The happiness frenzy diverts us from what really MATTERS