Seek Meaning, not Happiness, to Achieve a Well-Lived Life
Wanting and valuing happiness is an important prerequisite to the pursuit of happiness. However, some studies indicate that while happiness can be a good thing, pursuing happiness might actually be bad for us. Psychologist Adam Grant suggests that some people look for happiness in all the wrong places. We strive for a bigger house, bigger car, latest electronic gimmicks and other materialistic possessions. He notes that people pursuing money, fame and image as their life goals are less happy than the ones pursuing more intrinsically valued goals such as goodness, caring and compassion towards others.
The paradox of happiness holds that pursuing happiness directly and deliberately, as classic theory states, is self-defeating for it undermines meaning and even enjoyment. Instead, we should participate in activities and relationships that we find inherently meaningful, rather than solely because of the happiness we hope to find in them.
Brett Ford and Iris B. Mauss point to three key mechanisms for the paradoxical effects of pursuing happiness. First, as people pursue happiness, they tend to set high standards for their happiness. This can cause discontent (and lowered happiness) when their current state falls short of those standards. Second, people are not always accurate about what will help them achieve happiness. They may consequently engage in activities that are ineffective for achieving happiness. Third, as people pursue happiness, they tend to monitor their attainment of this goal, and this monitoring can impair their ability to actually achieve happiness.
The authors point out that we can avoid the paradoxical effects by understanding the mechanisms by which this pursuit can go astray and gain valuable insight into more effective ways to achieve the end goal of happiness. In short, the pursuit of happiness may get in the way of actually achieving happiness.
For many people, happiness can be found on social media. According to a study by Common Sense Media, teens spend an average of nine hours a day on social media and the average person will spend more than five years of their lives on social media. Most people get their news on social media, communicate with others on social networking sites, and turn to social media for entertainment. However, it is unclear whether spending so much time on social media brings happiness.
Research from Harvard University suggests that sharing information about ourselves on social media fires up the pleasure centers of our brains and may shed light on the roots of social media addiction. Activities such as creating a personal blog, making a You Tube video, and downloading pictures on Instagram all stimulate the pleasure center of our brains and, according to the research, are positively associated with overall well-being, including life satisfaction, mental and physical heath.
Scientists believe that these feelings of wanting to do something on social media trigger dopamine in the brain and causes us to seek, desire, and search for pleasurable activities that enhance our well-being. Dopamine is stimulated by unpredictability, by small bits of information, and by reward cues—pretty much the exact conditions of social media. The pull of dopamine is so strong that studies have shown tweeting is harder for people to resist than cigarettes and alcohol. A short text or tweet (can only be 140 characters!) is ideally suited to send our dopamine system raging. I have noticed an increase in motivation when I use Twitter and feel good when I can limit what I want to say to 140 characters and still have it say what I want to.
Interestingly, a more recent Harvard study suggests that Facebook use including liking others’ posts, creating one’s own posts, and clicking on links, are negatively associated with overall well-being. One possible explanation is that individuals believe that their own life compares negatively to what they see presented by others mostly likely because people tend to display the most positive aspects of their life on social media.
The moral of this blog is to be as clear as possible about what creates happiness for you and think about the specific activities that bring meaning to your life as well. A retrospective on your past history should help here. A life well-lived can bring lasting happiness because it builds self-esteem and helps us to become self-fulfilled in life.
Blog posted on August 9, 2017 by Steve Mintz, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Steve blogs under the pseudonym, Ethics Sage. Check out my website at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/.