The Meaning of Happiness

The discipline of psychology has experienced a significant development over the last twenty years with the emergence of what is known as the study and practice of positive psychology. Psychology has traditionally focused on the study of the causes and cures for mental illness and much suffering has been relieved by what has been learned over the years.  But about twenty years ago, some psychologists began to wonder about the benefits might come from not just studying what makes people ill, but what makes people well. Thus began the field of positive psychology. The initial focus for this new field was on what makes people happy.  If traditional psychology focused on what makes people sad or anxious, positive psychology chose to study what makes people happy. I recently read, for example, that just a few years ago there were over 10,000 articles published on happiness. It’s probably not a coincidence that about the same time, Pharrell Williams runaway hit song, “Happy” was released.

There has been a recent shift in the field of positive psychology that I find fascinating as a psychotherapist and person of faith. The research is now showing that pursuing happiness in of itself is not always making people happy. As philosopher John Stuart Mill wrote in his autobiography from the mid-nineteenth century, “Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” It turns out that the research is now showing that the key to people experience a sense of well-being is not to focus on a life of happiness, but rather on a life of meaning. The recent publication of the book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith, a noted leader in the field of positive psychology makes this very point. (I have not read the book, but have heard good things about it.)

As a person who has long focused on the intersection of spirituality, psychology, and well-being, I love it when research confirms what the great spiritual traditions have taught for thousands of years. It turns out that a life grounded in meaning and in the service of ideals beyond one’s self is not just good for the soul, but good one’s overall happiness and well-being.

So next time you or I find ourselves wanting a little more happiness in our lives, we would be wise to remember that the surest way to find it is not by pursuing it directly, but by reconnecting in a deeper way with what truly gives us meaning and purpose in life.