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Happiness versus Meaning in Life

If art truly imitates life, then the struggle for happiness has been chronicled for about as long as humans have had the capacity to record their thoughts. Charles Drouet steals money from his employer in order to run away with a beautiful woman and try and find happiness with her in Sister Carrie. The titular hero of Tarzan teaches himself to read and write, and eventually finds his way to America in order to be with the woman that he loves and who makes him happy.

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Outside of the realm of fiction, literature on happiness is a bankable commodity. A cursory investigation of amazon.com shows titles such as Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill; The Happiness Project; Secrets of True Happiness; The Happiness Advantage; and The Happiness Hypothesis. While it may be easy to understand why people would want to chase happiness, it is harder to understand why happiness is so difficult to maintain. Some people may have mental illnesses that prevent them from achieving happiness for long periods of time, and may need the help of a psychologist and prescription drugs. What about the rest of humanity though? What is our excuse for finding happiness to be so fleeting? How do we go about enjoying life more without buying self-help books or speaking to mental health professionals? There are many experts who suggest that part of our inability to remain happy is a product of the way our brain is wired for survival. Our chronic unhappiness may also be due to a misunderstanding of what is truly important-being happy, or having a meaningful life.

"...nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so"

Dr. Rick Hanson, a member of U.C. Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center's advisory board, has written a book himself titled Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, a self-help tome that uses science and research to discuss the problem of our issue with pervasive unhappiness. The human tendency to focus on the negative that happens in our lives instead of the positive happens because, as Hanson said during an interview with Julie Beck for The Atlantic, "repeated patterns of mental activity build neural structure," and "the brain is very good at building brain structure from negative experiences." This is not because we want to remain depressed, angry, or miserable. We focus on the negative because our ancestors learned more from those experiences than they did from positive ones. Learning from the negative experience of having to avoid a large animal stalking you for prey became much more important than learning from the positive experience bringing down that animal for food. If one of our ancestors missed a day of food, he/she would have the chance to hunt again. If they happened to be caught by a predator, they would not have a good chance of surviving that encounter. Negative experiences became the teachable moments our ancestors learned from and passed down to posterity.

According to Hanson, most of the techniques that self-help books espouse, such as positive thinking, do nothing to curb the negative feelings that build up in people and cause us to chase positive emotion. With positive thinking, people are encouraged to ignore or push away negative feelings, and just pretend that everything is alright in an effort to trick their minds. It does not have any real impact on changing the way our brains are wired for survival, which is what is really needed to make our feelings of happiness last. If the wiring of our brain is what needs to be changed, how do we go about that? Two researchers may have found that providing our lives with meaning is more beneficial than searching for happiness, and may also be healthier as well.

The meaning of a meaningful life

While there have been many studies that link happiness to a healthy life, this relationship may not be the full truth of the situation.The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study by Barbara Frederickson, a psychological researcher at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Steve Cole, a genetics and psychiatric researcher at UCLA. This study differentiated between a happy life and a meaningful life and discovered that pursuing meaning led to more positive outcomes that chasing happiness. Frederickson, Cole, and other researchers who helped with the study noticed that the feeling of happiness was associated with actions and behaviors that were selfish, and people who felt they had a meaningful life exhibited more selfless qualities and behavior. This is important to note because searching for happiness in life may actually have a negative impact on us and our health.

In work he has done previously, Cole has found that continuous exposure to adversity can be linked to a certain pattern of gene expression in our bodies. This pattern forces us into threat mode, which is evident when we are in danger from outside sources such as predators, or from internal sources such as bacterial infections. Through their research Frederickson and Cole were able to study the gene expression patterns of people who felt they were happy, and those who said they had a meaningful life. People who claimed happiness but little meaning to their lives had the same gene pattern as people who were dealing with chronic adversity. Having our bodies exist in a perpetual state of stress can lead to depression, heart disease, sleep problems, weight gain, and memory problems, according to the Mayo clinic.

This is not to say that people should not search for happiness. Frederickson has written in the past about the beneficial qualities of positive emotions, but has realized that both happiness and meaning need to be in balance. It is when people focus on just being happy, Frederickson said, "[that] this [gene] pattern that's akin to adversity [emerges]."

Socializing our sadness

It is important to understand how chasing happiness alone can be detrimental to our health, especially with the pervasive quality of social networks. There are many people who deal with clinical depression, but adolescents and young adults are taking to social media and venting about being depressed without any sort of professional evaluation. According to Dr. Stan Kutcher, an adolescent psychiatry expert, some of the people who use social media to talk about their depression aren't actually depressed. They may be upset, demoralized, or distressed, but they are not actually depressed. They are self-diagnosing because they feel bad about an experience in life, but this bad experience sometimes has little to do with actual depression.

Social media communities are creating places where these "distressed" youth can go and find others who are dealing with stress in life and have kindred spirits acknowledge their pain. This can be a problem as it just reinforces the negative feelings these individuals have. Dr. Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, spoke about the insular quality of these communities, and how dangerous they can be. Because young adults are finding people who feel the same, it validates the sadness they feel. Reinecke's worry is about whether these communities will "lead [people] to get better," and if they "give [people] a different perspective on the world, or different things that [people] could try and improve things."

Having people who can listen is very important for people who may feel alone in their suffering, but the listening has to be tempered with a challenge to find ways to combat the sadness, the loneliness, and the suffering. Tumblr, a popular social media site, is pepper with pictures of young adults suffering, and tagged with quotes such as "Can I just disappear," "I want to die a lovely death," and "People who die by suicide don't want to end their lives, they want to end their pain." These may not be the best images and messages for people who feel they are depressed and have no other outlet but social media to voice their pain.

Meaning over happiness

Science is beginning to point to the fact that finding meaning in life and using that to develop happiness may be a better approach than just scrambling to fill our lives with the desire to just be happy.Since our minds are hardwired to focus more on negative experiences than positive ones, and since chasing happiness may lead to disappointment and disillusionment, a balance should be struck so that having meaning in life is what brings about most of our happiness. As Frederickson pointed out "[i]t's not the amount of hedonic happiness that's a problem, it's that it's not matched by eudaimonic well-being." In other words, people are too worried about selfish desires without balancing that against selfless acts that provide meaning and lead towards a deeper connection with others. Moderation may be key to a healthy life, or at least one that is not filled with so much unhappiness and suffering.

Sources:

"Chronic stress puts your health at risk," Mayo Clinic, July 11, 2013

http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/stress/SR00001

"How to Build a Happier Brain," Julie Beck, The Atlantic, October 23, 2013

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/how-to-build-a-happier-brain/280752/

"Meaning Is Healthier Than Happiness," Emily Estahani Smith, The Atlantic, August 1, 2013

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/08/meaning-is-healthier-than-happiness/278250/

"Social Media Is Redefining 'Depression,'" Anne-Sophia Bine, The Atlantic, October 28, 2013

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/10/social-media-is-redefining-depression/280818/

"A functional genomic perspective on human well-being," Barbara L. Fredricksona, Karen M. Grewenb, Kimberly A. Coffeya, Sara B. Algoea, Ann M. Firestinea, Jesusa M. G. Arevaloc, Jeffrey Mac, and Steven W. Cole, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 2, 2013

http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/07/25/1305419110.full.pdf+html

About the Author:

Jamar Ramos has been writing poetry and fiction for many years, and earned his bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. For the last three years, Mr. Ramos switched to producing blog posts for CBSSports.com and writing professionally as an independent contributor for a number of Internet sites. His creative works have been featured in The Bohemian and The San Matean. He now contributes articles for OnlineDegrees.com, OnlineColleges.com, and AlliedHealthWorld.com.