I never thought about this, until a friend of mine sent an article written by researchers in Positive Psychology. It opened new perspectives in me and made me ponder for days on the conclusions that emerge from their work.
Positive psychology is focused mainly on the healthy individual, on abilities and resources, rather than on sickness and pathology. The human being is seen from a different view, different from the one of those who grew the DSM even bigger lately. To a psychiatrist, positive psy seems peculiar, as we’re used to diagnose people, that is, finding the evil inside.
Who studies disease? An awful lot of psychiatrists, who take pride in discovering new diseases. Who studies happiness? Well, these guys.
While studying happiness, they discovered that things aren’t so simple. In fact, there are 2 notions: happiness itself and meaningfulness. They overlap, they might be perceived together, but they are in fact quite different.
Basically, happiness is satisfying one’s needs and wants. That’s Maslow’s pyramid of needs plus own desires. Being satisfied is, however, largely irrelevant to meaningfulness.
Happiness is present-oriented, whereas meaningfulness involves integrating past, present and future.
Happiness is linked to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaningfulness is the opposite. To reframe it, when you give something to someone (love is often referred to as something that you give), you’re experiencing meaningfulness; when you take something from someone (or should I say… when you feed on somebody, when you’re possessive, when somebody gives you pleasure), you’re experiencing happiness.
Worry, stress, high anxiety levels are linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness. Same for concerns with personal identity and expressing of self. In conclusion, a meaningful life is a vivid life, but not necessarily a pleasant one.
However, meaningfulness and happiness do have things in common: feeling connected to others, feeling productive, not being alone or bored. But interestingly, the researchers noticed that the 2 states of being happy and meaningful are interrelated. For instance, helping others increase happiness because it increases meaningfulness, which in turn contributes to happiness. But when they removed the effect on meaning, they were surprised to see that the pure effect of helping others generated a reduced level of happiness. In other words, helping others generate happiness only when helping is seen as meaningful to self. Given the fact that happiness is natural and meaningfulness is cultural, one might question altruism; it seams that the Freudians were right and we’re essentially selfish…
The research outlined 2 profiles of people: the Happy but relatively Meaningless and the Meaningful but Unhappy.
The Unhappy but Meaningful is seriously involved in difficult undertakings, experiences worry, stress, argument and anxiety, spends much time learning from the past struggles and challenges, spends time also on imagining the future, is doing a lot of deep thinking, is more a giver than a taker. He/she perceives himself/herself as having more unpleasant experiences than others, is relatively unhappy, but can make more positive contributions to society.
The Happy but relatively Meaningless seems rather carefree, lacking in worries and anxieties. He/she might argue, but they don’t feel that arguing reflects them, are predominantly takers, give little thought to past and future, are relatively superficial, self-absorbed and selfish. In other words, they have their needs and desires easily satisfied and difficult situations are carefully avoided.
Now… the article clearly helps me understanding myself in a new light, and also understanding the others. Most of what I do or I don’t, now makes sense, and the reason for my attraction towards highly meaningful people becomes obvious. I wouldn’t say that living a meaningful or happy life is good or bad; it’s a choice, or maybe it’s a given characteristic, something you can’t escape.
In the past, I used to hate excessively happy people. I still dislike shallowness, carelessness and unauthenticity. But in a way, I can now understand the differences between me and them, and this opens the door for tolerance.
~ Thanks Maria Nistor.