One fast track to a happy life is meaning.
Research repeatedly shows that individuals with a sense of meaning in their lives are happier than everybody else.
A sense of meaning or purpose gives us a feeling that we are part of something larger than ourselves. This, in turn, fuels self-worth, a sense of identity, and a feeling of community and belonging.
All of these are traits that boost happiness, so you can see how meaning can be a super booster.
So all we need to do is figure out the meaning of life.
I’m not actually going to pretend that I’ve got the one key to the meaning of life. I’ll save that for a future thousand-page philosophical tome.
Instead, I want to look at where other people find meaning in their lives.
One obvious answer is religion.
Religions take the most direct route: Here is the meaning of life in a neat little book.
On top of defining a meaning of life, religion provides an identity, a community, and a role in something larger than ourselves.
And it works. Religious people are regularly happier than non-religious people in studies. Plus, people who attend services more often are happier than those who attend less often.
This is not to suggest that the actual act of attending service makes one happier. More likely it suggests that because more religious people are happier, and one way to find the more religious people is to figure out who goes more often.
The specific religion doesn’t matter as far as happiness goes. People with strong religious beliefs in any religion are happier than less religious people of any other religion. And those people, as a whole, are happier than people with no religious involvement.
One key to this is that religion provides an answer to the meaning of life.
(I want to note that I am looking specifically at the issue of subjective meaning. There are obviously a lot of other factors involved in religion and the goal is not necessarily individual happiness. I recognize that this is a deep issue that I am examining in a shallow way.)
Another source of meaning can be your work.
There are a number of studies surrounding whether you see your work as a job, a career, or a calling.
Those who view their work as a calling, derive meaning from that work. They believe that their work is the purpose that they are here to serve. They feel that their work makes them a part of something larger than themselves.
The classic example of this is janitors at a hospital. If a janitor at a hospital views his work as a job, he probably sees that he comes to work, cleans, performs his duties, and clocks out. A janitor who sees his work as a calling focuses on being a part of the workforce that keeps the hospital functioning. He is doing his part to save and improve lives.
Studies show that the second janitor is happier. He has purpose and meaning. He has an identity and is part of something larger than himself.
I thought of these examples while researching my last article on why video games make people happy.
One of the reasons that researchers believe video games make people happy is that video games provide meaning and a sense of being part of something larger than themselves.
One of the studies that I read singled out World of Warcraft and Halo 3 as examples.
In World of Warcraft, players join together in guilds. They become a part of a larger entity and work together to achieve joint goals.
Halo 3 has far less interaction between players. Instead, it develops meaning through engrossing and engaging story and gameplay. The player is tasked with saving the world from alien invasion. While playing, players feel a sense of purpose and a belief that they are fighting for something bigger than themselves. Namely, the human race.
What Does It Mean?
From everything that I’ve seen, it appears that the happiness boost that an individual gets from having a sense of meaning in his or her life is the same regardless of where that meaning comes from.
A deeply religious person preaching love and generosity gets the same happiness boost as a deeply religious person spreading hate and discrimination. A person who sees their work in a non-profit helping the poor as a calling gets the same happiness as a person with the same view of their job working as a private prison lobbyist.
I could go on and on down the list, but the point is that a subjective meaning to your life makes you happy regardless of the actual meaning.
And with that set up, I want to ask you all what you think.
Does this feel right or does it make you uncomfortable? Should we care where others find meaning? Is there a difference between the virtual world and the real world? Between religious and non-religious? Between moral and immoral? Should we encourage people to search for meaning in some places over others? And if so, how would we go about doing that? I’m very interested in hearing what you all think. Please join us in the comments below!