I’m going to let you in on a secret: Often, the happier I am, the more discontent and outright bored I become. And I’m not alone. According to a Stanford research project, it is because happiness and finding meaning in life don’t necessarily overlap. Perhaps some of my recent experiences that help define the differences and overlap between meaningfulness and happiness will sound familiar to you–and have implications for your pursuit of both as a leader, a parent, a person searching for meaning in day-to-day life.
- Stress can be meaningful: For the last three months, by choice and with great intent, I’ve been working 10-15 hours a week vs. the previous 25 years of 50-70 hours a week. I believe the impact of the work I’ve done has been meaningful, as has the time allotted to assisting with the college applications of my youngest daughter and arriving on time to all of her competitions and school activities (and not checking my e-mail or stepping out for a phone call during the event) and being available at any time that she needs me. It has been joyful to catch up uninterrupted with friends and family and contribute in a deeper way to my volunteer causes. But when I’m not doing one of those things, and I’ve exercised and meditated and taken care of household chores, I’m freaking BORED. I know, it sounds luxurious (yep) and some of you are thinking “wow, why can’t you just be a human being instead of a human doing” (point taken), or maybe even “that seems like plenty of meaning, what’s wrong with you?” (fair) but I now know the following about myself . . .
- Meaning for some (me) comes from challenge: I enjoy working on big challenges that seem intractable and unfixable–and sometimes actually fixing them–processes, systems, unmotivated teams, getting more women on corporate boards. And my brain is wired to need a lot of challenge. I recently memorized the location on the map of all of the countries in Africa and I’ve now moved to capital cities and the basis of their economies. Learning and progressing brings me fulfillment and calm. I’m not sure if the Africa study is meaningful, but it has more meaning than cleaning out the basement storage.
- Happiness and meaning can overlap: A great article in The Atlantic was published a few years ago that says that being happy is about feeling good and meaning comes from contributing to others or society in a bigger way. So, of course they can overlap. That is what being a great caregiver and building a great career is about! And I truly have found some meaning in every single day, particularly in doing things for other people.
Yet, I yearn to do more. And any dissatisfaction I experience isn’t based on my circumstances. It’s based on me. I’m wired to want to improve things, to impact things, so I will always be at least slightly dissatisfied. I’m not hoping for more stress or for unhappiness. I just learned something I didn’t expect–that happiness isn’t the same as meaning.