by Robert Wheeler
We all want to be happy, to feel good, to have enjoyment. And, most of us spend much effort in achieving those things. But how successful are these efforts? Do you really feel better when you finish watching that show? After the diversion, are your problems still causing a nagging stress? Our comforts, and time devoted to entertainments and pleasure are at an historic high, yet depression, anxiety, and suicide are also at historic highs. Maybe there is something more that will make the temporary good feeling more lasting.
New research indicates that those people reporting high level of happiness do not pursue happiness directly, but experience it as a by-product of things they do that have a focus outside of themselves. These are things like doing well at work, teaching a child to read, or participating in a civic organization or charity. This idea is not new. It was in the fifth century BCE when the term eudaimonia was used to describe a happy purposeful philosophy of life.
The philosophy of hedonia also originated in fifth second century Greece by Aristippus who emphasized that the purpose in life is to experience personal pleasure. Epicurus broadened this philosophy to justify self-centered lifestyle. Aristotle, on the other hand, proposed eudaimonia as the philosophy that there is more to life than pursing personal pleasure and immediate gratification. The purpose in life is to use one’s talents effectively and focus on something outside of oneself. The famous philosopher Owen Flanagan described this as flourishing: living the good life.
Two things have brought flourishing to the feature page. One is the realization that despite the advances in comfort, health, and technology; depression, anxiety, and suicide seem to be increasing, while happiness is not likewise increasing. Second is a reorientation of psychology research started by Martin Seligman in 1998. This was a shift from emphasis on causes and treatment of mental problems to causes and avenues for good mental health—that is, development of resilience, fortitude, energy, and happiness.
Emily Smith in her book The Power of Meaning (2017) summarizes this positive trend in psychology research and points out that the efforts have focused on studies of happiness. She also lays a foundation for increased emphasis on a neglected factor in these happiness studies. This is sense of meaning in one’s activities and life that can be broadened to include a sense of long-range purpose.
This, too, is not a new idea. Just after World War II the famous Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, popularized the concept of purpose-in-life. He showed that a major cause of depression and anxiety was a person’s feeling of a lack of purpose in activities and life. Since such feeling drains happiness from one’s life, developing a sense of purpose should provide meaning and happiness to his psychiatric patients and he instigated a remedy called logotherapy. This has been broadened as a mental health topic useful not only for patients, but also for average people to alleviate anomie, sadness, lethargy, and burnout. Psychologist Robert Emmons adds a particular goal of searching for the whys and wherefores of existence (what he calls ultimate concerns) as being related to health, well-being, and performance. The book, Climbing Higher (Wheeler, 2019) summarizes research indicating that for one’s sense of purpose to produce sufficient meaning to influence lasting happiness, it needs to have goals of increasing understanding of the cause and nature of existence (whys and wherefores) and improving human civilization (contribution). These goals are so long range that they are never completely met and provide meaning and sense of purpose on a continuing basis. The purpose here is something beyond meeting immediate needs or pursuing short-range goals. These goals and the ways of pursuing them may not be clear but searching for them may be a beneficial goal in itself.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister who has spent many years studying meaning-in-life stated that pursuit of happiness that ignores meaning is likely to fail. In his 2011 book, Flourish, psychologist Martin Seligman pointed out that direct pursuit of happiness may be successful, but the result is fleeting and many times counterproductive. It can be concluded that authentic lasting happiness is a by-product of doing things on a continuing basis that fit in with a long-range idealistic purpose outside of oneself focused on ultimate concerns and human advancement. Much of the current problems of today would be alleviated if our media, politicians, and educators would emphasize the role of this sense of purpose and stimulate investigation of its nature rather than emphasizing more immediately available personal pleasures, entertainment, gratification, and power. People would be more aware of how to achieve lasting happiness.