“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
We’ve all heard it and we’ve all said it. “I just want to be happy.” Or “All I want for my children is happiness.” Or “Why can’t you just be happy?”
I know that I’ve said these things myself a million times, but when I really think about it, I don’t think that this is what I want at all.
I do not want a happy life.
To be clear, I do not live an unhappy life either. I do not wish to be a martyr or to walk around with an Eeyore-like cloud of woe-is-me pessimism. But I don’t want a happy life. Because, quite frankly, happiness — and the quest to feel happy — tends to be a bit overrated and inadequate, and I want more.
If the media and the number of bestselling books on the market are any indication, however, I am in the minority on this one though. Happiness, we are told, is the secret key that will unlock a hidden door, the Holy Grail of our human existence.
Many of us are heeding the advice and answering the call. In fact, a recent Gallup study shows that Americans are happier than we’ve been in years. Truthfully, if asked, I would count myself among these “happy” Americans. I am, for the most part, content and satisfied, blessed and lucky to have many loving people and positive relationships in my life, all of which bring me a great deal of joy.
Yet, despite our increasing happiness, it seems that we are still a little restless, searching for that missing piece of the puzzle. According to the Atlantic, even though nearly 60 percent of Americans report feeling happy, only 40 percent say that they have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. This discrepancy between happiness and meaning seems to indicate several key shortcomings with a “happy” life.
First, happiness tends to be a fleeting, temporary emotion that is oftentimes highly dependent on external factors. Like HuffPost blogger Devon Corneal writes, “happiness is easy to attain in short bursts, but hard to maintain over time.” Happiness is a mood, an emotion and a tenuous one at best. I have noticed that many times when I am experiencing feelings of considerable happiness, the feeling is often overshadowed by a fear that the happiness will fade, that around the next corner lurks a masked thief waiting to rob me of my bliss. A self-fulfilling prophecy? Perhaps. But a typical — and common — human response nonetheless.
What’s more, research has shown that the quest for happiness can actually leave people feeling less happy, creating one more “standard” to which we are measuring ourselves and feeling as if we are falling short. We live in a society that thrives on comparisons as a measure of success, and happiness is no exception. Are we as happy as this person or that person? Are we as happy as we could be, as we should be? The constant treadmill race to achieve a certain predetermined level of appropriate happiness — enough, but not too much — can leave us feeling drained and reeling from yet one more standard of measure.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, some of the most rewarding and purposeful things in life — things like parenting and forgiveness and tending to the needs of others — don’t always make us feel happy. I treasure my children, but I can assure you that when I am in the trenches of a five alarm tantrum, I am not feeling happy. When I’m in the midst of time-outs or explaining to my disgruntled son why he needs to eat his broccoli, I am feeling anything but happy. Similarly, forgiveness — true forgiveness — does not necessarily make me feel warm and fuzzy; rather, it can be somewhat painful and gut-wrenching, yet the act of forgiving is liberating and satisfying and purposeful. Consoling a loved one who experienced heartbreak or caring for an ill family member are not times of happiness, but they are, without a doubt, Grace-filled manifestations of the Divine.
According to the authors of a recent study published in Journal of Positive Psychology, “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.” Conversely, a meaningful life transcends the self — and the present moment — to provide a more enduring and substantial fulfillment. Research suggests that having purpose and meaning in life increases one’s sense of well-being and satisfaction, improves an individual’s mental and physical health, and enhances resiliency and self-esteem.
Not surprisingly, though, a meaningful life often comes with a downside. Individuals who report having a meaningful life often worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety. Since their actions are connected to something bigger than themselves and their own happiness, they tend to feel the weight of being responsible for the happiness of others more acutely.
So, while happiness can be somewhat fleeting, I don’t think that a life committed to sacrifice and always putting one’s own needs on the backburner is the answer either. Quite simply, life is much too precious not to be enjoyed, savored and treasured, completely and fully. I don’t believe that a life of martyrdom serves our divine purpose either since it fails to acknowledge God’s gift to us of our own body, mind, heart and soul.
So, what is the answer? Which is better, a happy life or a meaningful life?
Well, I would suggest that neither is better. There has to be a middle ground. There has to be a way to live a meaningful life, while enjoying life. There has to be a way to feel content while living with purpose. There has to be a way to live a meaningful life, filled with joy and purpose — a joyposeful life.
By deriving joy from the happiness of others, instead of our own, we can create a cycle of perpetual giving and receiving of God’s great gifts. By acknowledging that, as part of the cosmic whole, we have an obligation to contribute to society and the greater good, we can live a life that honors our sacred meaning and significance. By appreciating the spectacular goodness and inherent brevity of this human existence, we can live a life of sustainable happiness and contented joy. By knowing the pleasure that comes when we look outside ourselves and prioritize the needs of others, we can live a life with dedicated intention that is in alignment with our divine purpose.
Happiness, I have found, is like a fruity, sweet mimosa- – soft, pleasant and fun, but somewhat flimsy. A joyposeful life, on the other hand, is like a heady, thick cabernet or smooth, aged bourbon — impactful, multidimensional, complex and substantial. When I drink a glass of cabernet or sip at a tumbler of bourbon, it is impossible not to notice that I am drinking something worthwhile. As much as I like a cheery mimosa every now and then, I much prefer a rich and heavy, crimson cabernet, with its continual depth and fortitude.
I do not want a happy life. I want more. I want a JOYPOSEFUL life. A life of compassion, kindness and service. A life of simple pleasures, contentment and peace. A life of significance, resiliency and courage.
Certainly, a joyposeful life takes work — hard work. And it takes awareness, intuition, tough choices and the willingness to get hurt every now and then. It takes an intentional respect for the miracle of divine inter-connectedness. But most importantly, I think, it takes the confidence to know that a life of joy and purpose, happiness and meaning is possible. It takes the belief that we deserve — and are called — to live a life that is nothing short of joyposeful.
What do you think is more important: a happy life or meaningful life? Or both? How do you create a joyposeful life? Does one bring greater spiritual or personal fulfillment?
A version of this post originally appeared on the author’s website at www.christineorgan.com.