Sense of meaning vs. feeling happy

Apparently I keep coming back to the same topic again and again. I have written two posts already about meaning and purpose of life. When I received a newsletter from Stanford University that mentioned research about the millennial generation I did not expect it to cover this topic as well. The researchers published an opinion in the New York Times and go into the difference between feeling happy and having a sense of meaning. “Many researchers believe that millennials are focusing more on happiness than prior generations […] But a closer look at the data paints a slightly different picture. Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning than by what some would call happiness.”.

I have to quote a couple of paragraphs from the article as I find them very interesting:
“Social psychologists define meaning as a cognitive and emotional assessment of the degree to which we feel our lives have purpose, value and impact. […] Although meaning is subjective — signifying different things to different people — a defining feature is connection to something bigger than the self. People who lead meaningful lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself. There is no one meaning of life, but rather, many sources of meaning that we all experience day to day, moment to moment, in the form of these connections. It’s also important to understand what meaning is not. Having a sense of meaning is not the same as feeling happy”.

Then the researchers mention the results of their study.
“It turns out that people can reliably assess the extent to which their lives have meaning, much in the same way that people can assess their degree of life satisfaction or happiness. Although a meaningful life and a happy life overlap in certain ways, they are ultimately quite different. Those who reported having a meaningful life saw themselves as more other-oriented — by being, more specifically, a ‘giver.’ People who said that doing things for others was important to them reported having more meaning in their lives.

This was in stark contrast to those who reported having a happy life. Happiness was associated with being more self-oriented — by being a ‘taker.’ People felt happy, in a superficial sense, when they got what they wanted, and not necessarily when they put others first, which can be stressful and requires sacrificing what you want for what others want. Having children, for instance, is associated with high meaning but lower happiness.

When individuals adopt what we call a meaning mind-set — that is, they seek connections, give to others, and orient themselves to a larger purpose — clear benefits can result, including improved psychological well-being, more creativity, and enhanced work performance. Workers who find their jobs meaningful are more engaged and less likely to leave their current positions.”

Fascinating, isn’t it? The article concludes with the reference back to the introduction that talked about Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. “Millennials have been forced to reconsider what a successful life constitutes. By focusing on making a positive difference in the lives of others, rather than on more materialistic markers of success, they are setting themselves up for the meaningful life they yearn to have — the very thing that Frankl realized makes life worth living.”

After having read this article a news release from UBC arrives in my inbox. This one is about how gift giving at Christmas can lead to happiness. Sounds like a contrast to me. The other research associated happiness with self-orientation and meaning with other-orientation. Dr. Dunn says: “My research shows that people are happier when they spend money on others than when they spend money on themselves.”. It probably comes down to how each researcher defines happiness exactly.

To me it just raised the question what Christmas is about? And I don’t mean this in the traditional sense and the origins of Christmas, but rather pragmatically what Christmas stands for today. Is it about happiness or is it about meaning or none of the two? It is definitely a time of the year that bereaved parents struggle with. Obviously, it is a big family event which means all family members spend time together. Bereaved parents will very drastically have to face the phyiscal absence of their child when everyone else prepares for family time together. But more importantly society has adopted this idea of being merry at Christmas. Yes, we do say “Merry Christmas”, but what about the many people that will have absolutely no reason to be merry? To me it feels like prescribed happiness that I do not share. Everywhere I go I get bombarded with Christmas music and decorations. On top of it all the whole event got so commercialized that I just want to cry.

Westjet pulls this publicity stunt and labels it Christmas Miracle. As of today the video has been watched almost 27 million times. Seriously? They certainly have been giving gifts and made some people happy, but what message does this really send? That a big screen TV and a tablet are important in life? Thumbs down Westjet. I would have rather seen you do something else. As a marketing person myself I realize that the video will be considered a great success. It just really makes me sad that people comment about this video that it moved them and made them cry.

What both research teams did not mention in the articles is whether it makes a difference if the receiver is in need and deserving of a gift or not. Dr. Dunn says that “we get a bigger emotional boost when we focus our gift giving on people we deeply care about and when we see the impact of our generosity”. I would like to think that we get a bigger emotional boost if we can recognize that our activity has made a really big difference to someone in need. Sure, I can give a tablet to a child and every child would be happy about that. However, doing something together with a child to make a difference for someone else (who we might now know at all) could be more rewarding. To this day I am amazed about the care and support we received from strangers during a time when we were extremely vulnerable. That is something that moves me to tears, not that some random dude has been lucky to receive a 50 inch television from an airline. Were any of the Westjet customers really in need? Maybe some were, maybe some weren’t. However, there are definitely people in bigger need, such as the people in the Philippines. Maybe Christmas should be more about meaning than happiness!

The newspaper 24 had an inlay in the Saturday edition which was really great. It was about Plan Canada and their gifts of hope. They featured a family that had recognized that there is more to Christmas than gifts for family members. The parents and their children decided to help others and give a gift of hope, such as chickens to a family in a developing country. According to the article the children loved it. And I can see why: because it is meaningful and something that a family has done together for Christmas. That is something that deserves hundred million views.

Help break the silence!