Meaning vs. Happiness – Which is More Important?

It seems that we Americans are driven to achieve happiness above all else.  If you’re not happy, then life’s not good.  If you are, then it is.

But is happiness really what you or I should be focused on?

I think not. But what’s your experience?

Do you find the pursuit of happiness to be like chasing shadows?  For example, is your happiness conditional on specific criteria?  Having that new car?  A four-bedroom home in the right neighborhood?  A certain income level, etc?

As you’ve probably discovered, circumstances can change.  You can lose your health, watch your Porsche get plowed into by a truck, or see that high-paying job evaporate in a corporate shake-up.  These are all conditional circumstances.  You might even find that once you DO achieve that criteria, it shifts on you. Soon you’ll be wanting a five bedroom home, or a 20% income increase.

Tying happiness to achieving a certain comfort level is a fool’s game.

Instead, I think meaning and purpose are a far higher calling and more fulfilling.

My own experience with this comes from almost going blind and the resultant multi-year depression I dropped into. Prior to this, I’d been leading a relatively happy life doing work I liked, living and traveling where I wanted, etc.  But that all changed when I was diagnosed with glaucoma.

The test results were brutal: I’d lost 90% of the vision in my right eye and 50% in my left.  And it was possible I might lose all of it.  My life had always been a “visual one”.  I’d worked as a photographer, am mostly a visual learner, and enjoyed nothing more than to be on adventures taking in the great outdoors.

All of a sudden something I’d taken for granted was disappearing fast.  And there is no way of reversing glaucoma; the vision I’d lost was gone … forever.

At the bottom of my depression spiral, I contemplated suicide. I’d made my plans, written by goodbye emails, and found a comfort and peace in dying.  Resistance was gone. Happiness wasn’t even on my radar; it was something from a previous life I’d lived. Had it not been for an act of grace – literally a voice inside that said “Do your bucket list” – I likely wouldn’t be writing this.

It was while doing the first item on that list that I got lucky.  A friend saw the state of darkness and made a suggestion that led to an experience that changed my life. It was like going through “the eye of the needle”.

On the other side of that experience I felt an interior spaciousness I’d never known.  It was like my inner world expanded and encompassed much more possibility – like stepping out of a closet and out into nature.  From within that space I was able to start exploring what I still could do in my life.

It took awhile, but from there I was able to explore and create new meaning in my life.  In fact, I’ve found more purpose in my life than ever before; with that comes fulfillment.

And with that comes something much deeper than happiness – a sense of alignment, being on purpose, doing what I’m supposed to be doing in the world. Sometimes there’s even a sense of joy.

This article in The Atlantic called There’s More to Life than Being Happy is profound.  It’s about the work of Vicktor Frankl.  He was a psychiatrist who studied suicide and depression, and who also personally survived over 3 years in the Nazi death camps. His seminal work is called Man’s Search for Meaning.

Highly recommended reading.

So what’s your relationship with happiness vs. meaning?

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