With anxiety and depression on the rise, I have been thinking more and more about what might be contributing to the decline of our mental and emotional health. As with any phenomenon there are multiple causes, but I would like to focus here on the difference between having meaning in one’s life and feeling the emotion of happiness.

Happiness (or joy) as an emotion is temporary, and as such, fleeting by nature. Humans need a broad range of emotion to survive and build relationships with others. Fear, in its pure sense, allows us to react in the face of danger. Anger propels us to take action when we have been wronged. Sadness moves us through loss and grief. And joy is a zest for life – the experience of pleasure.

Meaning comes from a different part of our brains – a different part of our being. Meaning is our purpose in life but it also must take us outside of ourselves. The meaning we create in our lives often involves moments of great happiness but also moments of great suffering. And because we tend to avoid suffering as a society, people are now sacrificing meaning for the pursuit of enduring happiness. Since happiness is not possible one hundred percent of the time, we seek to create it in addictive and artificial ways through drugs, food, sex, media, etc.

What if we spent less time trying to be happy and more time cultivating meaning? Meaning is deeply personal and one’s purpose (or purposes) can only be self-discovered not forced upon us. The following are some questions to start the discovery process:

  • What do your instincts tell you about your place in this world?
  • With whom and how do you like to spend your time?
  • What attitude do you take towards unavoidable suffering?
  • What does your conscience tell you about goodness, truth and beauty?

The above questions are not easy to answer. Hopefully with awareness and exploration, clarity will come and as Viktor Frankl said, “we will be directed to something, or someone, other than oneself.”