Happiness occurs when life is meaningful

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Suzy seeks pleasure in her life and avoids painful experiences as much as humanly possible. She believes that a happy life is simply a series of enjoyable encounters, and her well-to-do parents make that lifestyle possible. Suzy freely engages in a variety of romantic relationships. She loves shopping for clothes and shoes that make her feel attractive. She frequently uses alcohol and drugs with her friends to generate good feelings.

Even though Suzy usually does what she wants when she wants to, she’s unhappy most of the time. She expects her constant pursuit of pleasure to give her a sustained “high.” But she’s inevitably let down when her relationships falter. She feels inadequate when another girl wears an even cuter outfit than hers. And after partying the night away, she has to wake up the next day and deal with her disappointment that the good feelings have evaporated.

Suzy’s living a pleasurable, but meaningless life. She can create positive emotions, but that’s not all that’s necessary in order to be happy. Happiness requires caring about more than one’s own pleasure. To have an inner experience of authentic happiness, the external source of those emotions must have meaning.

Happiness is defined as “the overall experience of pleasure and meaning” by Tal Ben-Shahar in his book Happier. Dr. Ben-Shahar is a professor of positive psychology, and teaches the most popular course at Harvard University today. His research reveals that for people to be happy, they must “enjoy positive emotions while perceiving life as purposeful.”

Numerous studies have shown that happiness occurs as a result of achieving meaningful outcomes in multiple life domains, including health, work, financial security, marriage and friendships. The highest level of happiness develops when a person feels their actions are making a meaningful difference in the lives of others.

Suzy only pursues pleasure in the present and lacks a plan for how to successfully create meaningful results in the future. She needs to do more than set goals, however. She needs to establish outcomes that she finds personally significant because they’re based on her own values and strengths. Rather than relying on other people to define what’s “cool,” Suzy has to determine what outcomes she feels are most important in order to generate the passionate feelings that will point her to a calling in life.

Then Suzy will need to consider how to make full use of her talents. Everyone has strengths that are hardwired into their brains. Strengths are based on several sources: the natural abilities with which you were born, the personal qualities that you’ve cultivated that make you proud of yourself, and the skills that you’ve used to achieve success in your life. Suzy’s satisfaction with life will increase dramatically when she starts to use her strengths to engage in activities that challenge her.

“The research illustrates that the relationship between happiness and success is reciprocal,” says Dr. Ben-Shahar, “not only can success – be it at work or in love – contribute to happiness, but happiness also leads to more success.”

How can someone bring their strengths into the light so that they can see them clearly? Almost every person I ask to identify their strengths has trouble determining their special talents. To start the process of illuminating your strengths, remember a time when you experienced an event that brought you joy while you were doing it and pride once you’d accomplished it.

Think about the specific activities that you were involved in during that time that gave you good feelings. What were the circumstances that led up to that event? How did you take responsibility for producing positive results? What exactly did you do? What about the experience made you feel best about yourself? What was most meaningful to you about the experience?

If you’re serious about uncovering your strengths, take out a piece of paper and write down what it is that you learned about yourself when you answered the above questions. By completing this exercise, you’ll be able to determine where you need to be and what you need to be doing to be at your best. Then look for situations where your strengths match up well with what’s needed to create positive outcomes in your personal as well as professional life.

Using your strengths allows you to be successful at those activities that bring you satisfaction in work, love and play, all of which are essential ingredients for happiness. Using your strengths to help others will give your life the most meaning.