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Although everyone wants a happy life, a good many people spend most of their time being unhappy. They’re stuck in jobs they dislike, relationships they resent, holding grudges that weigh them down, and swept up on a life course they never expected.
They become unhappier with the passage of each year.
Perhaps you can sympathize. After all, nearly all of us have had times when life was headed in the wrong direction, and happiness was about as easy to find as an honest bio on Bumble.
When stuck in this rut, many people are confused about how to make things better.
The root cause of this confusion is often due to their embracing the idea that happiness is found by satisfying one’s most immediate desires.
More money, different sex partners, approval by others, greater personal freedom, a larger home, a nicer car… the list goes on. “If only I succeed at fulfilling these longings, then I’ll be happy.”
None of these desires lead to lasting happiness when they are pursued as ends in themselves.
Something more is needed. Much more.
What is that? A meaningful life. A sense of purpose for your life. When wealth, freedom, influence, and other pleasures are divorced from a greater purpose in life, the happiness they bring is fleeting.
This has been preached by theologians for centuries, and supported by research over the past decade or more.
When the daily pleasures of life are experienced within the larger sense of a purpose-filled life, happiness becomes what we might call “sticky.”
You want sticky happiness. Let’s take a brief look at how this works so you can see why it’s important, and then look at how to make some changes in your life that will lead you in the right direction.
How You Grow Your Happiness Makes A Difference
Both pleasurable activities and meaningful activities give rise to happiness.
But happiness derived solely from pleasure has shallow roots. The frustrations and setbacks of each day easily diminish the sense of reward.
Happiness derived from living a meaningful life has deeper roots. It is not easily changed by momentary ups and downs. Moreover, research shows that happiness built from being engaged in a purpose-driven life enhances the chances of succeeding in other areas of life as well.
The ancient Greeks referred to this type of happiness as eudaimonia.
It cannot be built through efforts aimed at the acquisition of worldly objects. Instead, its foundation is built on wisely using one’s gifts and abilities to advance the good. This approach to life is one that Socrates talked about extensively in Plato’s dialogues.
The opposite of eudaimonic happiness is hedonistic happiness. There are many forms of hedonism, but no matter the specific form, hedonism attempts to build a happy life by maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain.
These are polar opposites: seeking a meaningful purpose-driven life versus the tenacious search to maximize pleasure.
One brings delayed rewards, the other immediate pleasures. One is difficult to pursue, the other very straightforward. The first brings deep happiness, the second brings momentary enjoyment.
One barrier to pursuing sticky happiness is the push from our modern culture to follow the hedonistic path. This is a ubiquitous message that can be found in media, sports, and entertainment.
Another barrier to pursuing sticky happiness is the difficulty many have in discerning what the higher “purpose” of their life might be. Those who belong to a community of faith generally find this much easier to identify as compared to their secular counterparts.
But even within communities of faith, many struggle with this question. Very often this is because they have not yet learned how to use their unique talents and interests in ways that advance the good (the Socratic approach).
What’s more, fully using one’s abilities very often involves significant pain and a sense of privation, at least in the short term. This is a challenge.
Even those born with a wellspring of musical talent, for example, will still need to devote thousands of hours of practice to master their craft.
These hours of practice will require discipline, time away from family, friends, and pleasurable activities. The road to excellence is built on the altar upon which immediate pleasures have been sacrificed.
Tenacity and grit are put to the test. But eventually, these efforts result in the full expression of the musician’s innate abilities and the creation of sublime music. In turn, this leads to a sense of deeply rooted happiness.
Persistent effort directed at achieving a meaningful goal (usually involving the forestalling of immediate pleasures) leads to deeper and longer-lasting happiness than pleasure-directed behavior focused on immediate gratification.
How to Use These Insights to Build a Deeply Rooted Happy Life
Traveling toward a specific destination requires understanding what path you should follow. The journey to a deeply happy life is no different. Below I discuss two simple steps that will get you started.
The first step is to become clear about what deeply matters to you. Not what makes you happy in the moment, but what brings you satisfaction or joy over the long run.
These memories will, obviously, be different for each person. For some they may be camping trips wherein you taught children how to fish or pitch a tent. For others they may be days in college when you met with fellow students and excitedly discussed new ideas. A church-sponsored mission trip to build homes in a third-world country. A summer spent backpacking through Europe. An art class where your creativity was experienced more fully than ever before.
Whatever the memory, it is likely to reflect an important part of what makes you feel deeply happy (eudaimonic happiness). That’s why it can still evoke these feelings years later.
Then ask if you have other memories of a similar kind. If the answer is “yes,” then it’s very likely you’ve found a path towards deeper happiness.
The second step is to consider how you can regularly introduce similar activities into your current life.
The person with memories of building homes in Third World countries might sign up for another mission trip. But if the memory was meaningful primarily for having helped others (rather than being engaged in building something) they may also decide to volunteer at the local soup kitchen.
The person whose memories focused on teaching children how to fish and pitch a tent might do well to put a similar effort into teaching his (or her) grandchildren these skills. No grandchildren yet? Then offering free classes for the local Parks and Recreation might be the answer.
No matter what memories you discover linked to purpose-driven happiness, the approach is the same. How can you take the elements that make that memory so meaningful (altruism, teaching the next generation, sharing your gift of creativity, etc.) and employ them in your life now?
To become deeply happy you must focus your efforts on living a meaningful purpose-driven life. This is often difficult. It requires sustained effort and sacrifice. But the longer you apply yourself to the task the more it becomes a part of the fabric of life, and with it, a profound sense of well-being.