There's more to life than being happy.
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Emily Esfahani Smith writes:
According to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research.
"It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness." ~Viktor Frankl
I'm very interested in happiness, and I'm very very interested in meaning in life.
See below for the difference.
About Viktor Frankl:
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished -- but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived.
In his bestselling 1946 book, Man's Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, "Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation." Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, "Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?"
As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. "Everything can be taken from a man but one thing," Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, "the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."
Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. "In both cases," Frankl writes, "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." 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. Frankl writes:This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the "why" for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any "how."
In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listed Man's Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book's ethos -- its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self -- seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. "To the European," Frankl wrote, "it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to 'be happy.' But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to 'be happy.'"
Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning is, without exaggeration, one of the most important books ever.
Beautiful, stunning and inspirational. Thank you.
You are very welcome, Marilyn!
A happy life is associated with being a taker, whereas a meaningful life is associated with being a giver:
This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables -- like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children -- over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a "taker" while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a "giver."
"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors write.
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.
Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior -- being, as mentioned, a "taker" rather than a "giver." The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire -- like hunger -- you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.
"Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others," explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need," the researchers, which include Stanford University's Jennifer Aaker and Emily Garbinsky, write.
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, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.
The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life "you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self." For instance, having more meaning in one's life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.
"Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy," Baumeister told me in an interview.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment -- which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. "Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life," the researchers write. "Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future." That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. "If there is meaning in life at all," Frankl wrote, "then there must be meaning in suffering."
The emphasis above is mine, but you get the point.
Happiness is an inherently selfish state of mind. It gives a person no empathy or compassion.
Meaning is what compels people to help others.
The mindset of "Suffering brings Meaning" goes a long way toward explaining why suffering exists.
There is more to life than happiness:
The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: "Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself -- be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself -- by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love -- the more human he is."
Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves -- by devoting our lives to "giving" rather than "taking" -- we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.
Read Emily's whole article:
For entertainment, I'll talk shit and make stuff up as good as anyone. But for humanistic progress I prefer talking objectively verifiable facts in a way that brings wooly thinking and high-faluttin' concepts back down to earth into focus on the basics. And that's what this post is about, but before I start please check out Adam Grant. His work is on point to the above comments and he also has a great recent book out called "Give and Take" http://amzn.to/14EmJlO with enough practical current research, data and insights on how to negotiate the social implications of emotional behaviorism as well as how such social interactions influence internal states.
But I prefer to start at the root--our internal states. And for all of us as individuals, there is more straightforward and direct learning experience available to us if you seek to manage your own emotional states amidst other people's bullshit. Here's promised basics with some finger points on how to get you farther down the road than you might like:
First, since we're stuck in communicating through words at this point, let's set our context by delaminating our thoughts about our internal and personal sensory experience into three layers:
1. the rhetorical narrative in our heads (i.e. our thoughts, opinions and beliefs, e.g. about purpose, meaning and happiness, whether laser-like or blather),
2. the physical feeling life we experience throughout our bodies (i.e. the tissue sensations we feel and associate with our emotions and every day well-being, e.g. butterflies in the stomach, hot warm flush in the cheeks, etc.).
3. environmental signals (i.e. ANY external experience we can sense)
Regardless what narrative we subscribe to in our heads (1), Dr. Manfred Clynes (a multi-disciplinary genius, lauded by Einstein and who discovered how we see color) conducted research in the 60s and 70s that proved ALL our emotions are universal. Yes, universally felt and expressed. No shit:
Each emotion we feel has it's own unique biological profile of experience over time. This means absolute integrity in how that emotion is expressed (regardless of medium transmitted or received, e.g. verbally, musically, physically) across all synonymous life forms. That means if I feel ANGRY and you feel it, you will FEEL angry in EXACTLY same way I do. All our emotions (2) are harmoniously communicated as physical, biological experience with total fidelity across all audiences. Dr. Clynes tested this hypothesis across all genders, ages, cultures in thousands of field and lab studies with all emotions, Happy, Sad, Joy, Anger, etc. and found that each emotion had a unique profile but EXACTLY the same profile across all respondents. If you want more details, get Dr. Clynes out of print book or just Google "Sentics".
This means we have NO variability of the QUALITY of EMOTIONAL experience (2) in life. However, we have near infinite variability of experiencing the QUANTITY depending upon how we have constructed (1) and associated each individual emotion with (3) above. For example on (1), maybe I've associated emotions of sadness with every moment that I recall my dead mom, instead of emotions of joy in remembering her legacy--it's my choice as to whatever emotion (or no emotion) I might wish to ascribe to that mental narrative. Same with environmental signals (3). It's a choice.
Dr. Clynes found great variability in how we choose to THINK about emotions and how we ascribe specific environmental signals to each emotion. This is how we argue passionately, or dispassionately, with each other about MEANING. We get influenced along the way by our own idiosyncratic choices of emotions associated with thoughts. As well, regarding culture and environmental signals most of us seek safety in the crowd and try to fit in--achieving social compliance with whatever emotions are "correct" in a given environmental context (2), e.g. cheering wildly for the matador that slaughtered a bull in Spain. Both our choices of (1) and (3) are malleable, flexible and can either unconsciously evolve or be consciously changed at any time without losing the underlying ability to experience the high fidelity of that emotion.
Question: So what emotion do you want to experience today? Answer: All of them. Cause it's better for you than a daily vitamin.
Dr. Clynes discovered in his clinical and field research prompting all diverse emotions in others that he began experience greater and more durable well-being himself. He eventually found that the reason for this well-being improvement was that he had been empathetically firing off and expressing his own entire range of emotions in harmony with all those he was testing each day. He eventually worked out that if an individual practiced a conscious emoting cycle, as little as one 28 minute cycle as a daily practice, the same results were inevitable. He called this practice "Sentic Cycles".
So bottom line--forego the gym and instead get your entire range of emotions firing for one half-hour set each day and you will not only achieve a healthy, well-balanced endocrine system, but you will also have an amazingly durable sense of well-being without being dependent upon joining a cult, subscribing to a goofy religion, consuming popular books filled with self-help drivel, listening to boring nostrums from well-meaning friends, or any other derivatives of other people's experience we might have been falsely led to believe and expect as necessary to achieve happiness. How you manage your (1) and (3) inputs in order to achieve our own enduring happiness (2) is the backward choice. Just start by exercising your own ability to feel happiness (2), if that's what you really want.
So, as a possibility, you can go out into the world and become an artist instead of a consumer. Start by uncovering and practicing all the emotional pigments in your entire biology, then achieve ever-more enduring well-being, and then go out and paint your own narrative upon environmental signals with whatever feelings you choose to feel in every moment of your life. Or not.
Enjoy the day!
Thanks Rob. Are there particular emotions to hit?
The ones that come to mind are: happiness, tenderness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, curiosity, and surprise.
Thank you Rob!
These are great posts, very thought-provoking. I was very impacted by Viktor Frankl's book myself. It definitely gave me a new perspective on suffering. In terms of meaning, life definitely takes on much more meaning when we go about each day with the "end in mind," as they say. I am reminded of the beginning lines of Steven Covey's best-seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, where he asks the reader to imagine their funeral and what people would say at it. What would they actually want their friends and family say? Figure that out and then live to make that happen. Obviously the vast majority of people would want their loved ones to talk about how they made a positive difference in their lives - love, compassion, sacrifice, hope, encouragement, faith, etc.
Clay Christensen talks about this in his book, How Will You Measure Your Life. In an interview with Fast Company, he was asked about a productive way for people to measure their lives, and he said the following:
Maybe I would say that everyone would be judged at the end. People might not believe that there's a God that will assess what we did, but certainly everybody who knows you will assess what you did. The fact that you are no longer here may just be a fleeting thought because you didn't make an impact on them for the good. Or it may be that you affected them for ill; then they could actually be quite happy that you're…you know.
Or it may be that you affected them in profound ways, so that they remember you long after you're gone, because of the impact that you had on them. And I think that everybody cares about how they will be judged.
I certainly want to be judged as someone who made a positive and enduring impact on the people around me.
Well said, Rich. You might enjoy this post, too:
Very nice. Thanks for sharing this post, Adam. I have been blessed with an amazing wife, great children, and dear friends who have helped me understand the value of each of the 5 choices from that article:
1. Pay attention to your dreams.
2. Don't work too much.
3. Say what you think.
4. Cultivate friendships.
5. Be happy.
I don't know if I would have figured them out on my own (certainly not as quickly as I did)! Recently I have experienced a significant life change that has accentuated the value of #2 and #5 even more than before. It's sort of like saying "make sure you take time to stop and smell the roses." Sometimes I can be so busy planting the roses and tending the roses that I don't actually enjoy them!
I think the right ratio of time is 33% planting, 33% tending, 33% enjoying.
Does that sound right?
That sounds like a very good split...unless it's possible to do 50% planting, 50% tending, and 100% enjoying the process?
I had not considered that. Wow. Mind blown. Yes!!!