The pursuit of happiness is a right given to us by the U.S. Constitution. Is there any sane human being who does not yearn to be happy? But be careful. Not all roads to happiness are functional. There is evidence that seeking pleasure as a way to be happy could actually be the wrong focus in life.
A new book by Emily Esfahani Smith presents the research that inspired this post. It is called The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, and it will be published by Crown Publishing in January 2017.
Seeking and living a life of pleasure might make you happy in the short run, but without deeper meaning it could make you miserable over time. Like sugar, it is sweet and gratifying while consumed but has undesirable side effects in the long run.
Drugs, sex without love, and rich food all provide short-term gratification, they might make you happy for a while only to be followed by a feeling of emptiness over time.
People who pursue happiness are takers. They take from life as much as possible, in any way that will gratify them, and as soon as possible. When a person who is dependent on instant gratification, when he or she is not given the pleasure they insist on having, they feel like a baby who is pulled away from their mother’s breast. They cry with or without tears. Depending on the age.
So, what does make people happy in the long run?
A meaningful life, the author says.
People who have a meaningful life are givers and not takers. At times they may be miserable. Giving and sacrificing are hard work, but in the long run it fulfills. Take parenting as an example. It does not make you happy to have a rebellious teenager, but over time there will be moments of absolute happiness, like when grandchildren arrive. You know the joke: Grandchildren are the reward you get for not killing your children.
So, pursuing happiness by seeking immediate rewards is instantly gratifying, but can make you miserable in the long run.
Pursuing a meaningful life can be difficult and full of sacrifice at times, but can be extremely gratifying in the long run.
This insight helps explain to me why people who had an active and productive work life often die soon after retiring. They feel useless. Meanwhile, people who continue to contribute to society have a sense of purpose and something to live for. Have you noticed older retired people volunteering to be receptionists at hospitals or to direct people to the right elevator? There appears to be a need to be needed.
The longer you feel needed the longer you live.
People who have a purpose in life, beyond their immediate happiness, behave as if possessed. And they are, by the purpose of their life. They do not get annoyed by little things that can drive those seeking instant gratification up the wall.
They have deeper meaning to their life, they have a sense of purpose. Their eyes are focused on the horizon and not on the pebbles at their feet.
To live a meaningful life, do not ask yourself why you exist. You won’t find the answer. Ask yourself what for you exist. There must be a purpose. What will you dedicate your life to?
Be a giver. Give as a parent, a worker, a lover, or as a son or a daughter. Give to the community. Give to the weak and needy. Give to art. Give to anything that inspires you. Fill your life with a purpose beyond your own needs.
Have gratitude that life enables you to make others happy. In the happiness of others you can find your own.
Ichak Kalderon Adizes