A great article by Emily Esfahani Smith, published last month in The Atlantic, has provoked widespread interest – and very different responses.
In summary, the article, called ‘There’s more to life than being happy’, relies heavily on the writings of Viktor Frankl, the Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist, who spent three years in a Nazi prison camp. The gist of the article is that what matters is having meaning and purpose in life, and that the mere pursuit of happiness is self-defeating. As Frankl so succinctly puts it: “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”
The author also paraphrases Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University: “What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans.”
In my role as a change strategist, I am seeing a massive shift in the way people view careers, roles, jobs, and even life across all generations. A great reference point for this shift is the book by Reid Hoffman (the co-founder and now chair of LinkedIn, the business networking site) and Ben Casnocha called The Start-up of You (or look at this article if you are time-poor and prefer pictures!)
This shift is really all about finding meaning and purpose in your life, and about doing what you are passionate about, and want to do, as opposed to have to do. Yes, there is a pragmatic element to this, depending on your life stage and situation, but fundamentally, understanding what you are passionate about, and what brings meaning and purpose to your life, is ultimately what leads to being happy.
So, much of my work is helping clients unearth meaning and purpose in their lives, helping them discover and verbalise what it is that they are passionate about, what that looks like in a practical sense, and then helping them develop a pragmatic approach to moving in that direction. Do they arrive? No, not always, but I find they tend to enjoy the journey more, and not be so focused on the destination.
But does doing what you are passionate about lead to happiness? Does passion equate to meaning and purpose? As a person deeply involved in people’s lives, and having my own life as a benchmark, I would venture that there is a clear link between doing work that has meaning and purpose, that you are passionate about, and happiness.
It seems to me that a focus on happiness is likely to lead to selfishness and, exactly as Frankl suggests, take you further away from happiness. Whereas a focus on meaning, purpose and passion leads to deeper fulfilment and so some level of happiness.
So, what do you think? Is there more to life than happiness?