Want a Good Life? Forget Happiness and Focus On Meaning

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Research-backed ways to find more meaning in everyday life.


I visited the beautiful country of Iceland recently.

It’s no secret that Nordic countries — with their amazing family-leave policies, low crime, great health care for all and rich economies — are consistently ranked as “the happiest places on earth”.

But, speaking to locals, this happiness has always been accompanied by a paradox:

The “happiest” countries also seem to have the highest suicide rates.

What gives?

Is it the cold weather? The darkness?

It wasn’t until I read Emily Esfahani Smith’s brilliant book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, that I finally got it:

People commit suicide because they’re unhappy, right? Wrong. They do it because they lack meaning.

From The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters:

When they crunched the numbers, they discovered a surprising trend: Happiness and unhappiness did not predict suicide. The variable that did, they found, was meaning — or, more precisely, the lack of it.

Research shows that our pursuit of happiness is actually negatively affecting our wellbeing.

Meaning, on the other hand, is proven to improve our mental and physical health, enhance resiliency and self esteem, and drastically decrease any chances of depression. Interesting, huh?

And yet, most of us don’t measure our lives in ‘meaning’.

Success. Wealth. Love. Achievement. Happiness. Yes.

But meaning?

Not really. Not ever. But it’s time we did.


Gandhi found meaning in “the service of all that lives”. Universal Studios founder, Carl Laemmle, found meaning in his children. Oprah finds meaning in connecting people. Author Adam Grant finds meaning in making other people’s lives more meaningful. The French priest, Ernest Dimnet found it in being selfless more often.

The meaning of any life lies in relation to something larger than itself. The more you connect with and contribute to that something, the more meaningful your life is.
— Durant

But you don’t have to be a philosopher or billionaire philanthropist to add more meaning to your life.

Here are some research-backed ways I’ve been adding more meaning to my everyday life. Try them. I promise you’ll be pleasantly surprised.


ENCOURAGE OTHER PEOPLE ON THE REGULAR

I have a new rule in life: if I think something nice about someone (a friend, a colleague, a stranger or otherwise), I force myself to tell them.

Examples: You handled that really well. Your makeup looks great today. You’re always so kind. You’re really good at that task.

Complimenting takes such little effort and makes someone’s day.

LISTEN. BUT ACTUALLY LISTEN.

A big part of meaning is social interaction, and that means making people feel listened to.

Listening properly means leaving your phone and laptop outside of the meeting room. It means sitting back and not waiting for your turn to speak. It means being fully present and focusing on the words, not your next meeting / what you’re having for lunch / what you’re going to wear tomorrow.

Listen. But actually listen.

CREATE A SUBCULTURE IN YOUR ORGANISATION

It’s easy to feel like your working environment is negative, sterile or both.

However, you can be the most junior person in your organisation and still create a sub-culture that’s a positive, encouraging place to work. As Simon Sinek said:

If you commit yourself to being the leader you wish you had and see your friends and colleagues love their work, it actually affects leadership, believe it or not. We’ve seen it happen; it’s kind of amazing. You can build a little subculture. We worked with a large software company, and we helped just a small group in the company build a stronger culture. And they started getting phone calls from all across this company wanting to find out if there were any jobs available in this group. Everybody wants in! Commit yourself to being a leader you wish you had, and building that subculture.
— Simon Sinek

 

FIT MEANING INTO YOUR DAILY ROUTINE

Here’s the thing: Meaning isn’t some great revelation.

It’s making the office a more cheerful place. It’s reaching out to someone who seems down. It’s helping a younger person find their path. It’s volunteering your time on a Saturday once a month. It’s sitting in awe beneath a starry night sky. It’s singing your favourite song with your friends. It’s listening attentively to someone’s story. It’s taking caring of a plant.

These may be humble acts on their own. But together, they fill our world with meaning.

Bianca Bass