The pursuit of happiness
Emeka Nnaka was 21 when he became paralysed. He was playing football for the semi-professional team, Oklahoma Thunder, when he fell making a defensive tackle, injuring his spinal cord.
Waking up in hospital, he was unable to move anything from the waist down. He would never be able to walk again, never mind play football. He fell into depression.
But after a long time of feeling resentful of his injury, something happened. Nnaka began to reflect on what had happened and how it had impacted his life. He started to realise that there were aspects of his identity that he didn’t like, elements of his old lifestyle that he wanted to improve. He began volunteering at his church and mentoring children.
“Before my injury, my life was purposeless,” he told writer and psychology instructor, Emily Esfahani Smith. “I partied a lot and was a pretty selfish guy. But my injury made me realize I could be a better man.”
Nnaka was one of the many interviewees for Emily Esfahani Smith’s book: ‘The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters’. In it, she makes the case that our society has become obsessed with seeking happiness, when to feel truly fulfilled in life, we should be searching for meaning. Indeed, research shows that when we actively pursue happiness, we are likely to end up feeling more unhappy and lonely.
This theory was the basis of several experiments conducted by social psychologist Brock Bastian, who tested the impact of individual mood in environments where we are pressured to feel happy.
“We think we should be happy like we’re expected to be, and when we’re not, it can make us miserable,” he explains. “Feeling at times sad, disappointed, envious, lonely—that isn’t maladaptive, it’s human.”
The tumultuous year of 2020 has inevitably put pressure on the mental health of all of us. Whether we are facing grief or job losses, grappling with financial anxieties or the psychological impact of lockdown, we have all been forced to adapt to our new environments in some way. So in order to make sense of the challenges around us, are we better off reframing our search for pleasure and happiness to one of meaning?
Making our lives meaningful
It doesn’t take a lot to experience happiness. We might feel happy when we eat a delicious meal or when we buy a new pair of trainers. But if we were to spend our lives chasing happiness, our life would begin to feel like an existential vacuum; day after day of shallow and short-lived pleasure.
On the other hand, if we lead meaningful lives, we aren’t necessarily happy all the time. In fact, as Efshani Smith points out in her book – the things that give our lives meaning – like working a demanding job or having children – are often hard work. But whilst leading meaningful lives might make us feel more stressed or tired, studies show that meaning-seekers do not only report fewer negative moods overall, but they also describe feeling more “enriched,” “inspired” and “part of something greater than myself.”
Esfahani Smith makes the case that there are four pillars of a meaningful life. The first of these is belonging. For our lives to have meaning, we need to feel like we are valued for who we are and value others around us.
The second is purpose – using our skills to benefit others. As Esfshani Smith puts it, purpose is the “‘why’ that drives you forward”.
“Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfil or another human being to encounter.” writes neurologist and psychiatrist Victor Frankl. “The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -the more human he is.”
Frankl’s theory has since been backed by psychological research. Speaking to 400 Americans aged 18 to 78, psychologists found that leading a happy life was associated with being a “taker”, whilst leading a meaningful life relates to being a “giver.”
Indeed, the third pillar is transcendence – the feeling of being part of something beyond ourselves. We experience it when our sense of self fades and we are overcome by the feeling of something much greater. Whilst happiness gives the self what it wants, meaningful experiences transcends the self.
The final factor is storytelling, the ability to create a narrative from our life experiences that empowers us. Research conducted by psychologist Dan McAdams found that individuals who lead ‘meaningful’ lives tend to tell particular types of stories, ones categorised by redemption, growth, and love. He refers to this phenomena as “narrative choices”.
When we encounter something negative, we have a choice: we can let it wear us down, or we can decide to learn from the experience, to consider what it can teach us – about the world and about ourselves.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
When we experience trauma, it can feel like our whole worlds are collapsing around us. But even in the darkest of times, humans are remarkably resilient. Victor Frankl recalls his experience working with two suicidal inmates when he worked as a therapist in a concentration camp. These men had given up on life; they felt like there was nothing left to live for.
“In both cases, it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” Frankl writes. “For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish.”
Indeed, research indicates that trauma can actually lead us to develop more fulfilling lives. Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun picked up on this in the 1990s, coining the term “post-traumatic growth”.
“After a crisis, most people acquire a newfound sense of purpose, develop deeper relationships, have a greater appreciation of life and report other benefits,” Esfahani explains.
This was evident in the aftermath of 9/11. In a study of over 1,000 people, 58% of respondents reported finding an enriched sense of meaning in their lives – whether it was becoming more appreciative or developing a deeper sense of spirituality.
Remarkably, researchers have also found physical benefits of leading meaningful lives. Heart attack survivors who found meaning in the weeks after their crisis, were more likely to be alive eight years later and in better health than those who didn’t.
Learning to suffer well
This was the advice Emeka Nnaka gave when asked in an interview how others can achieve their purpose. “Look into your pain,” he said. “For anyone looking for purpose, I think it’s important for people to not overlook the pain in their lives but rather allow it to propel them into their purpose.”
Whatever challenges we are currently facing, we all have the opportunity to grow through adversity. We can use this time to think about what sort of society we want to live in, and how we will personally play a part in rebuilding it. We can learn from the experience of hardship – about ourselves and about our societies.
“Life is, as Buddhists say, 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows,” writes Esfahani Smith. “As much as we might wish, none of us can avoid suffering. That’s why it’s important to learn to suffer well.”