“You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of. You will never live if you are looking for the meaning of life.” – Albert Camus
In most cases, we are the happiest when our needs, wants, and desires are all being adequately met. Of course, in a completely consumer-driven society, it is becoming more and more difficult for us to satisfy our perceived needs. In order for us to feel happy (even if we do not recognize that this is the case) we feel a certain pressure to fit in with current trends. Our happiness is centered around taking and obtaining. It is also imperative to recognize that happiness, like all emotions, is ephemeral – feelings of pleasure are fleeting. Happiness lives in the present, and it revolves around contemporary hedonistic fulfillment.
Meaning, on the other hand, is steadfast.
When we find meaning in our lives, we are able to successfully to connect the past to the present, and the present to the future. Interesting new findings reveal that while negative events and experiences may decrease general feelings of happiness, they tend to increase and enhance the meaning of life. We may feel short-changed by past trauma – we may feel as if our unfavorable emotional experiences left us ill-equipped to deal with life, and robbed us of a true shot at contentment. In reality, traumatic experiences teach us difficult lessons that not only help to build character, but help us to better understand and relate to others – and help us to build more meaningful relationships with ourselves. This same study, which was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, indicated that individuals who had developed a sense of purpose contingent on helping others experienced a higher level of overall satisfaction in life. Even in times of personal difficulty, those who had developed a strong sense of meaning seemed to obtain a sturdier sense of gratification and fulfillment.
And this makes sense, and of course it does. Relying on external factors for happiness will inevitably lead to an overwhelming sense of loss, emptiness, and purposelessness – considering nothing external is lasting. We may feel as if obtaining the cliché cornerstones of the so-called American Dream will lead us to enduring gratification. The house, the spouse, the family, the car, the lucrative career… these are the things that should make us happy, right? Society tells us so, and in fact, they might – but as C.S. Lewis once said, “Don’t let your happiness depend on something you may lose.” And we do, all too often. We invest our lives in our careers or our marriages, and we are let go or blind-sided by divorce papers, and the lives that we have worked so hard to build crumble at our feet. And then what? And then we are left with ourselves and an overwhelming sense of grief and meaninglessness.
Happiness and Finding Meaning
It is relatively common knowledge that a big part of obtaining happiness lies in learning to live in the present moment. Happiness is not generally found when we dwell in the past or contemplate the future. Living moment-to-moment and actively pursuing hedonistic pleasures will lead to a sense of interim enjoyment. If you string together enough fleeting moments of bliss, you can surely be described as a happy person… right? They key is to stay in the present and chase whatever novel experience will gratify you most… right? Well, no, not necessarily. Dwelling on past harms; living in a victimized place of bygone cruelties and emotional pitfalls will undeniably lead to a sense of resentment and despair. But those who look back on the past fondly – who choose to acknowledge and remember the good old days – will surely find some happiness in revisiting years gone by. Frantically worrying about future events; spending a disproportionate amount of time planning and prepping and assuming will leave one trapped in a place of futile anxiety. But those who are future-oriented – who spend a logical amount of time preparing for their futures in a healthy and realistic way – will reap the rewards in the long-term.
So how do we find balance? That is what it seems to be about, after all. Seeking happiness as well as undergoing and adequately processing meaningful experiences will lead to a unparalleled level of personal contentment. But how do we get there?
Trauma and The Meaning of Life
First, we must stop dwelling on the harms of the past. Successfully working through past grief, loss, failure, and tribulation does not usually lead to regret and resignation, but instead to post-traumatic growth, resilience, and a higher degree of personal resolve. Therapeutic healing is a great way to achieve this goal, and (fortunately) there are innumerable modalities in place to help one work through early trauma – many of which are explored in our upcoming Release Workshop. Some of these modalities include somatic experiencing, inner child work, yoga, meditation, breath work, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Perhaps you find that you spend too much time preparing for and worrying about the future – so much so that you are not allowing yourself any time to explore hedonistic pleasures, practice self-care, or give your time to someone else. As we mentioned before, those who volunteer their time to helping others have been found to lead the most personally fulfilling lives.
No matter what your hang-up, finding balance, meaning, and happiness in life is completely accessible to you. Live in the moment, look back at the past with fondness, and learn to be excited for what unknown adventures stand ahead of you!