There are a lot of sad, stressed people out there right now, pacing their homes wondering how to be happier. But is happiness the right goal to chase?
The first clue that the answer might be no comes from Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who has argued that most people don't really aim for happiness. That sounds shocking at first, but once you understand the distinction between happiness and satisfaction it makes perfect sense.
Happiness is the positive feeling you get from a walk in nature or tasty dessert. It's definitely a good thing. But satisfaction runs deeper. It's the sense of meaning and accomplishment that comes from a life well lived. At the end of the day, most people value satisfaction more. And the kind of things that bring satisfaction -- building a business, raising kids -- involve plenty of moment-by-moment unpleasantness.
For most of us, meaning trumps happiness. Experts insist that's even more true in a crisis.
Meaning will get you through a crisis
Research from Harvard Business School professor Jon Jachimowicz, for instance, shows that chasing purpose in your career is more likely to lead to resilience and success than chasing the feel-good ideal of "passion." When the going gets tough, it's a sense of meaning that helps you push through, he has found.
In a recent New York Times opinion piece, The Power of Meaning author Emily Esfahani Smith argues the same principle holds in the current crisis. Keeping your mood up with exercise, adequate sleep, and social engagement is a fine idea. But research shows the best way to muscle through tough times is by finding meaning in your struggles.
"It may seem inappropriate to call on people to seek the good in a crisis of this magnitude, but in study after study of tragedy and disaster, that's what resilient people do," Esfahani Smith reports. "In a study of over a 1,000 people, 58 percent of respondents reported finding positive meaning in the wake of the September 11 attacks, such as a greater appreciation of life and a deeper sense of spirituality." Another showed that heart attack survivors who find meaning in their ordeal end up healthier.
Yoga is good, purpose is better
In light of these findings, her advice for those searching for the mental strength to get through this crisis is to devote more time to meaning and less to happiness.
"In American culture, when people are feeling depressed or anxious, they are often advised to do what makes them happy. Much of the pandemic-related mental-health advice channels that message, encouraging people to distract themselves from bad news and difficult feelings, to limit their time on social media and to exercise," she writes. "I'm not suggesting those aren't worthy activities. But if the goal is coping, they do not penetrate into the psyche as deeply as meaning does."
So complement that online yoga class or new sourdough obsession with organizing to help vulnerable neighbors or figuring out how your business can pitch in to help. That won't make this pandemic a good thing by any measure. But chasing meaning is more likely to lift your spirits and make you tougher than any effort to cheer yourself up.