Everyone defines happiness differently. In today’s society many people believe that being happy is a matter of “personal achievement”. That is, what you do or what you have acquired. The focus is on how much money a person makes or how many cars are parked in the garage. This is a rather precarious position because our assets and abilities are forever shifting. One important variable that affects our abilities is age. As people get older they can’t run as fast or work as long. And the things that once held value don’t seem so important. When the polish fades on the trophy cars and the excitement of winning the race diminishes, people must find a new source of happiness. Therefore, identifying meaning or ones life purpose may provide the most consistent form of joy. Often times, however, people do not know what their true purpose is and it may be easy to find something that brings about immediate albeit temporarily gratification.
Of course, people feel happy if they get a raise, buy a new home, or hit the lottery. However these experiences are fleeting. The things that fulfill and sustain us are much harder to achieve. Take being in a healthy long-term relationship for example. Finding real love and intimacy is at the core of who we all are, but many fail to obtain it. Why? The answer is simple. It is just plain ole hard work. We see examples in the media all the time of people who have secured fortune and fame yet love and happiness eludes them. One key ingredient of a successful relationship is identifying and fulfilling your own purpose. This reduces the likelihood that you will seek purpose in someone else, which sets any relationship up for failure.
If someone were to say, “happiness and positive psychology research is great, and I think I do all of those things (i.e., have great relationships, volunteer, exercise, enjoy life in moderation) but – – I’m still not happy or fulfilled. I would say, “What’s missing isn’t something out there. It is within. Do you know your purpose?” For example, I am a psychologist and I cherish my job. But my purpose is to teach people how to love. So when the workdays are long or progress is slow. I still have purpose. What about you?
Now let’s say you hate your job, and believe that it overpowers your mood and prevents you from enjoying other aspects of your life. Many people have unrealistic expectations for their work experience. For some, it is where they look for friendships, esteem, purpose, stability, and social support. I tell my clients that if you find these things at work, than you are the exception, not the rule. The nature of work is that it requires time, energy, and (at times) struggle. Work is not intended to be fun. If this is your expectation then you will most assuredly be disappointed and unhappy.
Dissatisfaction with personal achievement and lack of esteem creates the onset of a mid-life crisis. It is one time when we see people frantically trying to fill the void of meaninglessness. Erik Erikson spoke of the psychosocial stages of development. He writes, that between ages 40-64 the psychosocial crisis is generativity versus stagnation. During this phase,
the essential question is whether or not ones life has purpose. As we continue to age and approach death the reality of mortality may stir up more existential angst. From age 65 onwards the psychosocial question is ego integrity versus despair. As a person reflects on their life, they evaluate whether or not they have achieved their life goals. Are they satisfied with who they have become? Don’t wait until you hit your mid-life crisis to ponder happiness and purpose.
Cross-cultural studies on happiness suggest that there are some common variables associated with happiness. This includes family relationships, a since of community, personal freedom, and meaningful work. Failure to achieve these things can lead to much more than unhappiness and meaninglessness. Anxiety, depression, and addiction are problems that too often result from unrealized dreams. Your happiness is your responsibility and it is intimately connected to creating meaning. Start today!