How Chasing Happiness Drives Away Meaning

Everyone is looking for happiness, when, I believe, they are searching for meaning. Call it love. Call it a fulfilling job. It’s meaning. Because of a lack of meaning, we do things we think will make us happy but instead, drives meaning and happiness away.

When someone says they want a job that they feel more passionate about, or work that is fulfilling, they are looking for meaning.

When a person says they want someone to love and care for, and to be loved and cared for, they are looking for meaning.

Through coaching hundreds of people, I see a pattern of wanting to do good things that will actually make them feel worse. This article begins a bit philosophical, but moves to practical tools.

Chasing Happiness, Driving Away Meaning

In the pursuit of happiness we want to do pleasurable, happy things and avoid disagreeable things such as conflict, stress, and difficulty. Pursuing happiness is naturally self-focused, and that preoccupation with self ultimately adds to our unhappiness. Victor Frankl in his book, Man’s Search For Meaning wrote, “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

Sometimes we distract ourselves with busyness, climbing the ladder at work, hobbies, sports (watching or doing), television, social media, and the list goes on and on. We believe that these things might provide the satisfaction and happiness we seek, and at the same time they keep us occupied so that we can’t think too much about how we really feel. As Frederick Buechner observed, “We are none of us very good at silence. It says too much.”

When distraction doesn’t work, we can turn to numbing ourselves with less healthy choices such as consumerism, overeating, drugs, or alcohol.

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There’s nothing new about any of this, as the ancient Hebrew poet reminds us:

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” Ecclesiastes‬ ‭2:10-11‬ ‭NIV‬‬

These very distractions drive meaning further away. To say it another way, the pursuit of happiness drives away happiness.

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Meaning In Life

Meaning in life is found by focusing outside of yourself. It’s not what you get but what you give. (Unless you’re giving in order to get.) Calling and destiny are usually spoken of as contributing to the world, the people around us. Our contributions are not only actions, but also how we are, our being, our internal self with our values, character, and motivations. It’s answering the age-old question of why God put you on the Earth.

Recent research by psychologists Login George and Crystal Park point to 3 aspects of a sense of meaning in life. They are helpful in breaking down meaning into parts so we can later use them to coach:

  1. Comprehension. You feel your life makes sense, things fit together, and you can see the whole. Low comprehension is to feel incoherent, fragmented, and unclear.
  2. Purpose. You are motivated by and have a clear sense of direction toward your life goals. Low purpose is to feel aimless with nothing in the future worth striving toward.
  3. Mattering. You feel that your life has significance, importance,
    and makes a difference in the world.

Meaning will look different for each person. Frankl wrote that life expects something of us. It’s that future expectation that we are to fulfill. For some, it’s a child to care for. For another, it’s an unfinished book, painting, or piece of music that needs to get out of you and be given to the world.

There’s a future orientation to meaning. “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future... ,” Frankl wrote.

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Questions to Find Meaning

Meaning comes from understanding your purpose. Something outside yourself. Giving, not getting. Future-focused. Here are some questions to explore meaning.

Beginning with the big picture…

Some people are able to tackle a discussion of life purpose head on. These questions explore purpose and meaning beginning with the big picture.

  • If you could do one thing with your life what would it be?
  • What do you feel most passionate about?
  • What problems concern you most?
  • What do you want to go BIG on?
  • What is life asking of you?

Working from the details to the big picture

Another way to explore purpose and meaning is to explore from the specific. No one’s work role is 100% meaningful or meaningless. Explore current and past roles and activities to find meaning.

  • What drew you to this position, company, and work in the first place?
  • What did you hope to achieve?
  • What activities in your current job are most fulfilling?
  • In what ways, even small ones, do you live out your calling in your current role?
  • If you were to design your ideal role, what would it look like?

And in relationships…

Meaning isn’t just about the tasks we do, but relationships. Here are some questions to explore purpose and meaning in relationships.

  • What makes a relationship meaningful for you?
  • Think of two meaningful friendships you’ve had. What made those friendships significant for you?
  • Currently, with whom do you find the most meaning? What is it about the relationship that is meaningful to you?
  • How do you need to be different in order to create more meaningful relationships?

Everyone has a purpose, meaning for their life. It can, however, be difficult to identify. But watch out for pursuing happiness, or distractions, or numbing activities. They drive away meaning.

Instead, stay reflective and keep asking until you find meaning.

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    Keith is President of Creative Results Management. He helps busy leaders multiply their impact. Keith is the author of several books including The COACH Model for Christian Leaders.

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