Meaning in the Modern World

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Finding Purpose in Life: The Latest Research

Finding Purpose in Life

Finding Purpose in Life : )

Contemporary culture holds that finding purpose in life is not important. The pursuit of happiness is the point of life. We should live to be happy. Except that happiness isn’t the only thing we live for. We also search for meaning in our lives.

Thought experiments suggest that authenticity is  something else people strive for. Placing a happy drug into the water supply is an option, but would a society choose to do so?

How many people would return to the Matrix, as depicted in the movie? Would you choose an unreal but comparable blissful reality?

Perhaps some people would, but not many. Being authentic seems more important than being happy. The relentless pursuit of happiness is actually leaving people less happy.

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Research

Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life is important. It decreases a person’s chance of getting depression. It improves physical and mental health. And it supports self-esteem and resilience. Relieving tension and enhancing a person’s well being and life satisfaction.

Over month-long periods, studies examined people’s self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables – like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children. The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others. Making a sacrifice on behalf of a group.

What made meaningful and happy lives overlapped, but was different. Happiness relates to feeling good. It relates to how easy people feel their lives. How healthy they feel themselves to be. Whether they are able to afford the things they want. How much stress is in their lives.

Moreover, it relates to ‘taking’ rather than ‘giving’. Its pursuit correlates with selfishness and the satisfaction of immediate needs. For example, eating to satisfy hunger results in feeling happy. A need is met.

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Drive reduction

People are happy when they get what they want. This extends to animals too. Animals have needs, and when they meet them they feel happy. The ability to lead a meaningful life is thus a key differentiator between humans and animals.

In the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, author Roy Baumeister concludes that happy people get joy from receiving benefits while those that pursue a meaningful life enjoy giving to others. 

“Happiness without meaning characterizes a shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are satisfied and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

Martin Seligman, a psychologist says life is meaningful if you use your strengths and resources to help and benefit anyone or anything beyond yourself. 

People that seek more meaning in their lives have a certain trait. They are willing to sacrifice their happiness in the pursuit of meaning in their life. Their lives tend to be more stressful as they invest in more than themselves. 

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Time

One important finding of psychological studies is the time-frame of happiness. It always exists in the present. Pleasures are fleeting. Meaning is enduring. It takes the past and the present and entwines it with the future.

Thinking beyond the present moment is a sign of a meaningful but less happy life. Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future. People that think and act in the present are happier. Whereas people find meaning in contemplating past struggles or pains. 

Happiness is one of the simplest pursuits that humans can indulge in. It is the pursuit of meaning that sets us apart from other living organisms. The ability to think of others and devote ourselves to giving instead of receiving.

In doing so we express our humanity while acknowledging that meaning is an essential part of life.

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Finding Purpose in Life, Matt, Sep 2016

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