Is happiness a component that leads to fulfilment or is it a product of being fulfilled? Before I get lost in translation, let me simplify: “should we strive for happiness in our lives or will happiness inevitably manifest when we become fulfilled?”
What got me thinking about this was an article I read recently called “Meaning is healthier than happiness”. Let me explain. The premise of the article was based on an old saying “healthy body, healthy mind”. However, new studies indicate that just being happy may actually be detrimental to the physical body if it is not accompanied by meaning (which ultimately provides a person with fulfilment).
If we pursue the concept of fulfilment and contentment down the proverbial rabbit hole, we are obligied to examine the concept of happiness and the role it plays.
According to Barbara Fredrickson, a psychological researcher who specializes in positive emotions at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Steve Cole, a genetics and psychiatric researcher at UCLA, the human body has a ‘forward planning’ immune system. It’s hard coded to our genetics that certain emotions will prompt the body to prepare itself for specific and predicted threats.
Put simply, loneliness and adversity puts the body into a state where it is primed to fight bacterial infections. Why? Well they surmise that our ancestors would often spend long days and nights alone whilst hunting and this often resulted in serious infections because of deep scratches and wounds from predators and the actual act of stalking and hunting. The flip side of this is when we are doing well and engaged in healthy social interactions, the body shifts and prepares us for viral threats, which is an element of being around other humans.
Like me, I bet you’re wondering what the *bleep* this has to do with happiness or meaning for that matter? Well, like neuroscientists who use MRI scanning to determine how regions in the brain respond to different stimuli, Cole and Fredrickson wanted to see how the body, at a genetic level, responds to feelings of happiness and meaning.
Here are their findings, which I will paraphrase: if you are happy but without meaning in your life, your body goes into the genetic expression akin to that of the loneliness and chronic adversity mode (the body goes into an inflammatory state producing an excess of what it needs in preparation for the stress it anticipates)!
Simply put: just being happy places the body under the same negative stressors that being unhappy does! SO – are they saying we shouldn’t be happy?! No, not at all! It’s a complicated study but very interesting to read and has certainly shifted some of my preconceived notions of what it really means to be happy and fulfilled.
In a world dominated by books on happiness and personal wellness, I thought this was an excellent opportunity to highlight the importance of having meaning in your life as opposed to simply seeking ‘happiness’.
Their study further reveals that the inflammatory state is offset by having ‘meaning’ or purpose. In other words, people who derive happiness from their purpose or meaning gain a sense of fulfilment and do not create those inflammatory stressors in their bodies. This is in stark opposition to happiness derived from purely hedonistic pursuits.
What is happiness? The obvious answer, given to me by my four year old niece was simply – “it’s a good feeling”. Ah, the genius of a young mind, never a truer word spoken, don’t you think? It strikes me as almost philosophical.
However, ‘a good feeling’ devoid of meaning can be defined as: “an empty positive emotion” and is similar in nature to a manufactured high from narcotics. This is but a chemical illusion that fools the body and mind and quite frankly can be as devastating to your well-being as chronic depression and adversity. So, yes it is a good feeling, but the body cannot sustain it constantly, unless ‘the good feeling’ is born from fulfilment. In other words happiness obtained through being fulfilled is actually healthier for the body. Could fulfilment be the mind-body connector?
Meaning, incidentally, is described as finding a connection to something greater than the self or in a word to be ‘selfless’.
Okay – so enough with the crazy science speak, let us revisit my initial question and a draw conclusion: “should we strive for happiness in our lives or will happiness inevitably manifest when we are fulfilled?”
In my humble opinion: Meaning will provide fulfilment and fulfilment provides a healthier happiness.
If we live a life without meaning, our life simply becomes a patchwork quilt of moments in time matted together, and I can almost guarantee that upon reflection, you will find that it will lack purpose and by association it will be void of fulfilment too. Thus by proxy your happiness will not be as satisfying as it could be.
The human spirit is hard coded to survive – but our survival has always been dependant on meaning and purpose. Finding purpose is part of who we are as a species. It drives progress and evolution, and it is this that is ultimately what separates us from animals as we are able to function beyond base instinct.
If you want to see a real change in your life, give it meaning. Find a meaning rather than a logical reason and you will naturally be driven to success. The application of meaning to any part of our lives will result in a change. How great and successful is dependent on your meaning. If you struggle to find real meaning, start by becoming more purposeful. Set goals and targets to achieve. This will lend direction to your life and with direction comes meaning.
Try it now. Evaluate your life by asking one simple question: am I fulfilled? If the answer is no, check out my program – The 5 Steps to Clarity and lets get you on the right path.