There’s More to Life than Being Happy

The title of this blog is also the title of a great article by Emily Esfahani Smith, published in The Atlantic in January 2013.  It has provoked great conversations between people with very differing views.

The article spotlights the writings of Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist who spent 3 years in a Nazi prison camp. Frankl’s belief and the premise of the article is this:  what matters most in life is having meaning and purpose, and the mere pursuit of happiness is self-defeating.  As Frankl so succinctly puts it, “it is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” 

The article also quotes Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University.  Baumeister states, “What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.”

In my role as an individual Change Strategist, I see a massive shift across all generations in the way people view their careers, roles, jobs, and life! A great reference point for this shift is the book called The Start-up of You by Reid Hoffman, the co-founder and now Chairman of LinkedIn, and Ben Casnocha, an entrepreneur and author.

The focus of the shift is finding meaning and purpose in your life, and doing what you are passionate about and want to do, as opposed to what you have to do.  There is a pragmatic element to this, depending on your life stage and situation (servicing the mortgage, school fees, etc.). But fundamentally, understanding what you are passionate about and what brings meaning and purpose to your life is ultimately what leads to being happy. I believe one can BE happy but it’s hard to BECOME happy.

Much of my work is helping clients unearth meaning and purpose in their lives by discovering and verbalizing what it is that they are passionate about, what that looks like in a practical sense, and then developing a pragmatic approach to move in that direction.

Do they arrive?  Not always.  But I find that they enjoy the journey more and become less focused on a particular “destination.”

The question becomes...does doing what you are passionate about lead to happiness? Does passion equate to meaning and purpose? Are employees who are passionate about their work more engaged?

As a person deeply involved in people’s lives, and using my own life as a benchmark, I believe that there is a clear link between doing work that has meaning and purpose, and that you are passionate about, and happiness. Focusing on meaning, purpose, and passion leads to deeper fulfilment, engagement, and happiness.

So, what do you think? Is there more to life than being happy?

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  1. Russ Knight's avatar
    Russ Knight
    | Permalink
    Good post, Brian. Thank you.

    To recap your points, you can choose to BE happy, but it's harder to PURSUE happiness. For me, "happy" comes from having clearly identified my purpose then pursuing that on a daily basis, which you spoke about related to your work at Donnington.

    I see that daily where people get a clearer picture on what their purpose is and then find a way to pursue that. Some of the saddest people I know are those who don't know or can't determine what they were designed for.
  2. Brian Gardner's avatar
    Brian Gardner
    | Permalink
    Thanks for comment Russ - absolutely right!

    And it's been a real privilege to help people figure out what they are designed for.

    One aspect that has been surprising for myself, and in working with others, is the fact that 'things change' - both simply and profoundly - such that often the moment people think they have it all together, it doesn't work any more!

    I guess what I'm trying to express is that, people who are adaptable and change resilient, enjoy the 'journey' more.

    Hmm, maybe the topic for another blog!

    Best wishes
  3. Alan Allard's avatar
    Alan Allard
    | Permalink
    Brian, thanks for bringing the topic up and for your insights. As much as I love Frankl's work, I disagree with his statement: “it is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness."

    "Pursuing happiness isn't the problem, but the way we go about pursuing it often leads to anything but happiness. often is.

    I'm a former psychotherapist, now coaching clients and consulting with companies, and I wrote "Seven Secrets to Enlightened Happiness" because so many of us aren't as happy as we'd like to be or can be.

    When it comes to creating meaning and purpose in life, that's vitally important. But why do we pursue meaning and purpose? Because it makes us what we call "happy." It's what I call part of the "enlightened happiness" journey.
  4. Brian Gardner's avatar
    Brian Gardner
    | Permalink
    Thanks for your comments Alan!

    Maybe it has to do with our general lack of contentment?

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