I think of happiness as a feeling of contentment in the moment. Happiness looks different on each of us, but happiness is just a transient feeling and not a constant state of being. I recently watched a TED talk in which a philosopher offered a different perspective on what really makes us happy, and you might be surprised.
Philosopher Emily Esfahani Smith made the point that while we genuinely desire happiness, constantly seeking it may cause more harm than good. Our culture is obsessed with happiness, yet seeking meaning is truly the path to leading a more fulfilled life. Smith suggested that her Four Pillars of a Meaningful Life can get us there. Belonging, being in relationships where you are valued for who you are on the inside; Purpose, using your strengths to serve others; Transcendence, stepping beyond yourself and being connected to a higher reality; and Storytelling, the narrative you create and edit about your life.
So let’s talk about these four ideas. Belonging. In some respects, I feel like the digital world is slowly re configuring our sense of belonging. It used to be that we “belonged” to a community, a neighborhood, a club, a team, and although those still exist, I think it’s easier for people to have a digital belonging, or a virtual belonging… a Facebook group, a chat room, a twitter feed. We don’t have to have a face to face relationship to feel that sense of belonging anymore. I’m not sure if it’s bad or good. I do know that personally, my heart can’t feel as full and as content as it is when I spend real, face to face time with my friends and family. My hope is that I can pass that down to my kids, but times they-are-a-changin’.
Purpose. I read an article once where the author advised his readers to all take the chance to be a teacher at some point in their lives. I thought that was an interesting thought, as a former educator, because there are several people I’ve met in my life who have no business trying to teach people, especially kids, anything. In fact, I think I may have worked with a few of those people… (did I say that?) So I’m not sure I agree with that, but teaching is not the only way to serve others. The key is to find your personal strength. Are you a great writer? Are you a fantastic painter? Can you cook well? Are you good at organizing? I have an amazing friend who is a freaking genius at closet organization. She has found her purpose helping people reorganize their clothes, put outfits together, and now she’s one of the top stylists in Seattle, working for major brands that roll through town. Check out Kim Brooks and book her if you want to transform your life in a particularly positive way! But purpose is sometimes hard to define, particularly when you wear many hats, as we women do. We are mothers, wives, daughters, friends, co-workers, bosses, business owners, dance off winners… etc. Maybe we just need to be more aware of what gives us purpose.
Transcendence. Being connected to a higher reality, or perhaps spirituality, shouldn’t be a tough one, but I think can be complicated in the world we live in. In a recent study done by the Pew Research Center in 2014 saw a dramatic drop in Americans who believe in God, and a growing share who are identified now as “nones”; people who are religiously unaffiliated. I would have to say I’m in the “nones” group, and I attribute that to my upbringing and education. I was raised in a Christian home. I’m even baptized! But I grew up and worked in Africa, where my life was always intertwined with friends of varying faiths. I could never get anyone to prove to me that their belief system was the real one and everyone else was wrong, so I figured the rules and regulations set forth by most, didn’t speak to me. So how do we stay spiritual if we don’t like the rules, or at least if we feel many of the rules of organized religion are out of touch with the world we live in today? I don’t know what the answer is.
Storytelling. For me this is the fun one. Maybe this comes with age, but I never really understood this until my story had changed about ten times in my life. Looking back to see what defined me at twenty and seeing how different it is to how I define myself in my forties actually pisses me off (at my younger self). I lacked in confidence, probably like most young women do, but I realize it was for absolutely no reason. Still, if I hadn’t gone through some outrageously painful episodes in my life story, I wouldn’t be in the position I am today to know, “it’s all going to be okay.” We learn that we really can start over and over and over, and the plot is always changing. How we write our story is absolutely in our control. We manifest our destiny – cliché as it is, we are in control and we have all the tools.
This TED talk is so spot-on for me. Slowing down to reflect on purpose and meaning reminds me of how many roles I play. Wife, mother, daughter, friend, businessperson, and so on… How is my sense of meaning, my story, my purpose illustrated throughout the day? Am I living my story the way I want it to read? What can I do better tomorrow? I’m grateful for the chance to put it all into perspective and remember that living with purpose and meaning, on the daily, gets us that much closer to the (somewhat illusive) ideology of happiness. And that makes me smile. Oh, and so do furry coats.. I really love furry coats. And shoes. Ha!