Humankind's search for meaning is a story as old as time itself. According to psychologists, the search for meaning to our existence is an essential and universal human need, a vital part of evaluating the worth of our own lives.
However, there was an explosion of the search for happiness in recent years, sparked by popular movies and self-help books. Ultimately, we are searching for more joy and contentment when we search for happiness. And, more often than not, we compare our past to current happiness, usually measured through material possessions and consumerism, ironically only leading to unhappiness.
Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and a professor emeritus at Yale, recently published The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning. He emphasizes the importance of not looking for happiness and, instead, focusing on five things.
Your ''why'' can help you endure hardships
In the book, Bloom states a case for motivational pluralism, which means we want many things. And pleasure is one of the many things we seek. For example, we endure many hours of work to make money and have fun. The result of working makes all those long hours worth it—an example of how your "why" helps you endure hardships.
However, finding out your "why"—even if it's not primarily pleasure—is also a significant driving force for many people. This is best demonstrated in the book Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
Frankl, a psychiatrist in Austria, ended up in Nazi concentration camps, where he continued his work on depression and suicide. Frankl analyzed his fellow prisoners and sought to determine what distinguished those who held a positive attitude from those who lost all motivation.
Frankl deduced that the answer is meaning. Those who had the best chance of survival had a more expansive purpose, some goal or relationship, and some reason to live. This illustrates the complexity of human motivation.
A bit of suffering can enhance pleasure
Like the example above of enduring long work hours to experience pleasure, undergoing a bit of suffering can enhance it. The evidence for this can be seen in everyday life. We watch movies that make us cry or scream. Some people run marathons or subject themselves to physical pain in gyms and dojos. The reason behind this is something called benign masochism.
According to Paul Rosin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, pain can sometimes help you escape from yourself and distract you from your worries. We sometimes seek out pain to show how tough we are. Other times we seek pain because it results in mastery.
Suffering can offer meaning
As we have seen in the first point, suffering and meaning are linked. The jobs that people say are the most meaningful, such as being a medical professional, often involve dealing with others' pain. And when we are asked to describe the most meaningful experiences of our lives, we tend to think about extremes—painful and pleasurable events.
We often choose pursuits that test us—from training for a marathon to raising children. We know that these pursuits matter at a gut level because it gives meaning to our lives.
Effort sweetens life
Although we typically reduce the amount of effort to make things easy, there are times when we choose to exert more effort to make things worthwhile. This is the effort paradox, a classic psychological finding that explains why we value something into which we've poured so much effort.
Another manifestation of this point is flow—a state that offers immense amounts of pleasure and satisfaction from being immersed in an activity. Flow is often experienced by writers, musicians, artists, and athletes. You know when you're in this state when time goes by, and you don't notice it as you are immersed in a task.
However, for flow to happen, the activity has to hit a specific sweet spot—not too easy, or you'll get bored but not too difficult, or you'll get anxious. Don't try too hard to pursue happiness.
Giving our all to pursuing happiness increases the risk of derailing our chances of attaining it. What happens is that people tend to set unrealistically high expectations of themselves that they inevitably set themselves up for failure. Or maybe the self-conscious quest for happiness makes one think a lot about how happy you are, which ironically gets in the way of being happy.
Yet another issue with pursuing happiness is that we're often wrong about what makes us happy. External goals such as owning the latest thing or looking good make us feel less happy and less fulfilled. It is also linked to anxiety, depression, and mental illness.