January 22, 2013

Happiness vs. Meaning

Do you describe your work to others as "meaningful"? I don't mean the paper-pushing, clock-watching, cat-video-watching part of the day, but the actual work you produce and your goals for the future.

My guess is that very few people in the present-day working class would answer "yes" to that question, even if he or she happens to enjoy the job itself.  Thanks to the economy, competition, unequal pay for unequal work and the managerial pyramid, it's hard to find deeper meaning in the work day, especially when the basic struggle to find sanity with a side of paycheck is so great. (Remember TPS reports?) Anecdotally, we know that identifying personal passions and happiness is a huge part of achieving a successful career path, but I have yet to find an example in my life of passion paying the electric bill.

However, a new study soon to be released in The Journal of Positive Psychology challenges the assumption that happiness and meaning are one in the same or, for that matter, even directly related.  Its authors explain that happiness is "largely present-oriented" and highly associated with things being easy or taking the best away from a situation.  Meaning, on the other hand, goes much deeper, "integrating past, present and future" assessments of one's purpose and contributing or giving back to society.  Taking versus giving.

The research concludes that finding happiness at work does not automatically guarantee a sense of meaning.  In fact, the opposite may be true: withstanding a difficult situation may not bring you happiness, but it is very likely to leave you with a sense of meaning, resiliency and adaptability to the ever-changing world around us.  More on this later this week...

The Atlantic recently highlighted the life of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish concentration camp survivor and prominent psychiatrist, and his work on this subject.  Frankl wrote, "It is the very pursuit of happiness, that thwarts happiness."  

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