What makes life worth living has been debated since the beginning of time, and will continue to be debated for eternity. What is changing is that there is a lot more research on positive psychology, which offers insights into this age-old question, although some of the conclusions are contradictory. The study of what makes people happy is relevant to how we recognize and reward employees, and where we should focus our energy at work.
Roy Baumeister, a Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, and researchers at the University of Minnesota and Stanford performed a study where they surveyed 397 adults, looking for correlations in their levels of happiness, meaning, behaviors, moods, stress levels, work lives and more. They found that happiness and meaningfulness are not interchangeable.
As we might expect, a happy life is associated with having money, being healthy and a general sense of easiness. Who doesn’t want these things? However, while they’re all good things, they were not associated with having meaning in life.
People seeking happiness focus on the present. People seeing meaningfulness focus on the relationship between the past, present and future. Seems like it’s about having balance. Happiness was seen as fleeting. Meaningfulness lasted longer.
Happiness is what you receive. Meaningfulness if what you give.
Stress and challenges are part of what makes life meaningful. So while you shouldn't shy away from challenges, you can ease the stress of them by drawing on the strength of your team and ensuring you make progress each day in some way.
Creativity and considering oneself to be wise are associated with meaningfulness.
Iris Mauss, a social psychologist at U.C. Berkeley, performed research that found that people who place a great value on being happy actually have more mental health problems and depression. The idea is that the happiness-seekers have great expectations, and then when life falls short, they're very disappointed. In a follow-up study by Mauss, they found that people who place more value on happiness are lonelier during stressful events. So perhaps the search for happiness is a lonely endeavor, which is totally counterintuitive, right?
Pursuing happiness can't be all bad. After all, it's got to be better than pursuing unhappiness. A final thought: Happiness and meaning are so intertwined it's impossible to separate them. For instance, having a child is meaningful, but can be stressful and lead to unhappy nights of worry and frustration. There are so many tasks and efforts we take on in life that are tough going, but we know will be worth it in the end. So keep going.
In the end, I believe the learning from all of this is that you don’t want to seek happiness to be happy. Rather, seek meaning and happiness will find you.