THE BLOG
05/02/2013 12:49 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2013

Why Seeking Meaning Instead of Pleasure Makes You Happier

Would you like a very simple tool for dramatically increasing your levels of happiness in life? Instead of thinking about how you can make your life more pleasant, think about how you can better serve the people around you.

This insight, perhaps the most important thing I've ever learned, was a result of my greatest failure in life, which I'd like to briefly share with you.

In January of 2001, while serving as an officer in the Marine Corps, I attempted a shortcut to success and arranged the unauthorized delivery of nearly $3 million of U.S. government funds. This made me guilty of fraud, so I was arrested and taken to the base brig at Camp Pendleton.

During the six months while I awaited my court martial, I spent an average of 22 hours per day alone in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell. As you could imagine, this was the worst experience of my life. I went through about every negative emotion possible. At one point, I actually had thoughts of suicide flashing through my mind.

Ironically, though, my greatest failure ended up becoming the best thing that ever happened to me. About one year into my time in the brig, I started learning about mindfulness meditation and immediately noticed an increase in happiness. Inspired by the results, I gradually transformed the brig into a monastery and lived and trained like a monk for over three years, practicing mindfulness quite intensively.

As a result of this training, I learned how to be happy with nothing, and I discovered the joy and the power of a life devoted to serving others. So, when I left confinement in the summer of 2006, all I wanted to do was find ways to help people.

I started by going to Mexico, where I volunteered at a special school for disadvantaged children. Over the summer I volunteered at a shelter for children who had been neglected, abandoned, or abused. When I returned to the states, I started a non-profit and worked with at-risk youth teaching them personal growth tools through the martial arts. That led to the work I do now with Kids Kicking Cancer, which helps youth dealing with serious illnesses to lower their pain levels and to achieve peace of mind using mindfulness-based tools common in the martial arts.

Throughout all of this, I noticed that the more focused I became on how I could serve others, the happier I was and the more success I had. The more pure my intentions have become, the more magical my life becomes.

Recently, I got some clarity on how to articulate the practice that has transformed my life. I realized that I have been filtering almost every decision I make through the question, "How will this help me to serve others?" If I can't see a direct link between what I'm about to do and how it will help me to serve others in some way, I simply don't do it. Although I'm certainly not perfect at it, this is the direction I follow.

This doesn't mean that we need to be actively serving others during every waking moment of our lives. Most of us would burn out pretty quickly if we tried to do that. It simply means that we make serving others the motivation for everything that we do. This is the essence of being a great leader, whether or not we have a title, and it's the essence of living a deeply meaningful and happy life.

The logic behind why this is so is pretty straight forward. No matter how hard we try, we can never make every moment of life pleasant. We'll always have unpleasant moments. Even if we were able to make almost every single moment of life pleasant, that doesn't mean we would be any happier. Think of all the wealthy people we hear of who have almost non-stop pleasantness but are taking medication for depression. Trying to find lasting happiness by making life more pleasant is an exercise in futility.

However, training ourselves to be less self-centered and to increase our capacity for kindness, compassion, and the spirit of service is something that we can do regardless of what happens to us in life. We could have no possessions and little to no pleasantness in our lives, but we would still be able to serve. I learned this first-hand during my time in the brig. My life there was filled with meaning despite the circumstances. I was surrounded by people who were suffering a great deal and I knew that I could help them, even if by simply offering a smile in a place where there weren't many smiles. Because people were always asking me how I could be so happy in that place, I had opportunities almost every day to help people find happiness for themselves.

Also, the happiness that results from helping others has been shown to last significantly longer than when we do things to make our life more pleasant. In fact, one study showed that the happiest state of mind we can experience is the state of compassion. That is good news because compassion is highly trainable.

This is why I'm such an advocate for the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness training helps us to become less self-centered and more open to how we can help the people around us. In fact, the practice has been shown to actually change the structure of the brain in ways that allow us to become more kind and compassionate.

To me, this is incredibly exciting! It means that living a deeply meaningful and happy life is something that is completely within our control.

You can start moving in that direction today by filtering your decisions through the question I use: How will this help me to serve others?

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

For more on meditation, click here.

For more by Matt Tenney, click here.

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