Thinking About – Happiness and Meaning

Thinking About – Happiness and Meaning

For a number of years in the early 2000s I read hundreds of self-help books. Literally hundreds. I trained as a Stress Consultant, and qualified as an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) practitioner. I even considered training to be a therapist and councillor. But in truth, looking back now, I was completely missing, or unconsciously ignoring, what I needed to do, and that was to go and see a therapist myself. In the end I did and our year together was a gift that helped me to clear the fugue my mind had entered into. My therapist was trained in Transactional Analysis (TA) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), both amazing ways to help an air head like me to understand what might be going on in this lump of meat in my head. It’s amazing the little tricks our minds can play on us, self-talk suggesting how just sitting down and talking to a stranger could possibly help the way I’m feeling, but that self-sabotage can be paralysing, and make a step towards real change take some time. Even when we plant our backsides on the couch and begin to talk there can be some resistance – I felt that too – but I knew something was not right and, over time, I began to feel the difference. It still amazes me, that the simple act of expressing our feelings out loud, in words, can make such a difference. But it does.

One of the things I noticed in those self-help books was the idea that happiness is the ultimate quest of life. Nearly two decades later and I’m really not sure that’s the case. It seems to me that the human world, and life in general, is a roller coaster ride of emotion, and that maybe having happiness as the bench mark of how our lives are progressing is actually damaging. Just as looking at Instagram feed photos suggest that everything in the lives of those we follow are simply peachy is a huge distortion of the reality of life (including theirs), so the endless search for continued happiness can be exhausting.

Maybe happiness isn’t the aim of life at all. In fact making it the benchmark of the perfect life can make things much worse.

Maybe life is about finding meaning.

Finding meaning can be much more sustainable than the endless search for happiness. Many of us can find meaning in simple things such as watching the sunrise on a new day, or the flight of a gull, the sound of birdsong right now outside my window announcing the arrival of Spring. The smell of decaying leaves in the Autumn, the way that a song or piece of music makes us feel. The company of friends and the connection with our family. So many things can add meaning to our lives. Obviously another is a spiritual practice like meditation or walking the land on pilgrimage. Making the decision to look after your body by making better choices of food and drink. The list is endless. And guess what – a life lived with meaning can open the doors to that illusive happiness so many seek. Not that happiness should necessarily be the goal of finding meaning. If that happens we can find ourselves back at square one once more, feeling unfulfilled and down.

Don’t get me wrong, happiness is great. I love a good laugh, and the feeling that everything is just right, and all is good. The thing I’ve found is that it just doesn’t last. As the great sages say, Shit Happens. Things bring us down, sometimes with a big heavy bump. I’ve heard some people say things like life gets in the way. And this may be another problem. If all of the things that get in the way are seen as life, then all of the things that make us feel good, well, what are they? Isn’t it all just life?

So here’s a thought to end with. What are the things that bring meaning into your life? Let’s talk meaning and purpose and see if those things ultimately bring us more balance, perspective, and in the end, happiness.

15 responses to “Thinking About – Happiness and Meaning”

  1. But most of the things you list as having meaning (and I agree, they do) make me happy! I love hearing the birds, pausing to literally smell my coffee before that first sip, walking through the damp leaves in autumn and savouring their scent, … all little moments of happiness. Happiness comes and goes, and usually even the darkest day has a ray or two. I’ve lived with true clinical depression, a weight that didn’t lift for years, and it is hard. But even then there were little bits of happiness, and finding and noticing them were the only antidote I had. Now thankfully the reverse is true, most days are pleasant and the depression comes and goes less and less. I am still waiting for the things I want most in life, and I devoutly pray they will materialize (preferably soon!) but in the mean time happiness is still here if you want to see it. Or meaning, … the rose by any other name does smell as sweet.

  2. My animals, the trees that listen to my problems and give me strength to keep going, the stream where the hazel tree hangs, my breath, my sight hearing, touch, smell, taste, my family, the sea, plants and flowers, these are all my meaning of life and when the shit hits the fan, these are the things I turn to and give thanks for.
    You’re so right, blessings to you for this x

  3. Thank you Sir.

    I think youre spot on.

    I find happiness amongst the trees and in solitude. But sometimes it cannot compensate for the hits and fears i am confronted with.
    Sometimes “life gets in the way” big time – and when i say that it means in those moments:

    i forget about the happiness… i panic. (i.e. when i cant make ends meet, and fear to lose my home in the forest)

    .. in those moments after a barrage of curveballs – i am fed up with it all, i had it until here…. i would have suicidal thoughs and question the sense of it all…. a frequent though is – “once my daughter is old enough to stand on her own feet, my job is done – and i can finally leave the world behind”.

    Now before you feel compelled to spring into therapy mode – right now all is fine and dandy, i enjoy the forrest… i enjoy reading your blog philosophy.. and i listening the druidcast with a moderator that has the most soothing way of calm and talk – magic in itself 🙂

    My point is, while i think all you said is spot on – i can kind of understand where such fatalist sentiments come from, and it is sometimes hard to find happyness when the “impacts are coming closer” (old german saying translated)

    I live in the forest of finland, and it was my (unfortunately now ex) wife who joined obod and sparked
    my interest into this form of spirituality.

    Many things make sense to me now, and that helps too with overcoming
    the difficulties … making it through the valleys.. the winter.. whaterver phrase first best.

    I hope to talk to you in person one day, until then stay who you are.

    cheers and greetings from the North.

  4. All of the things that give meaning to you are the same for me. Watching with awe the changing seasons,and (for me) opening my compost bin after having a bad year with my husband’s health last year and neglecting the garden and veg and finding loads of lovely dark sweet compost!!….each to their own…But for special meaning in life….laughter,the love of friends and random acts of kindness…

  5. Hey Dave, meaning leads me to think of stamping myself on the timeline of the earth, is the meaning meaning to you personally or meaning onto others? Personally I feel its about spiritual growth (sometimes quite the opposite of happiness) Its easy to forget and drag your self like a robot around but you will feel under those conditions an emptiness threatening your being. And the answer I have found is in regarding everything with greater presence. “Be yourself” – many of the self help books say – I too have a small library of them. Being yourself all the time is hard and I don’t do it alot, its easier to let go and be a pawn of society. But I believe society *needs* us to be ourselves and not mindless drones. And haha, being yourself leads to a greater happiness.

  6. Thank you for your generosity in sharing personal aspects of your journey.
    The fact that you are considered by many to be in an enviable position – as a very successful artist and in demand socially and through your work in the OBOD – it is wonderful to hear you share that you too are human and this is a journey shared by all.

    Too often as you point out the distorted image we create of other people’s lives from looking at social media can be very detrimental.

    Your willingness to share your not always perfect experience with your own journey goes a long way to reminding us to focus on what is important ( the meaning of life) rather than chasing after illusions.

  7. Life is much too complex, it’s no ones fault we all just get carried along like a fairground ride, I got off that ride nearly two years ago when my husband fied, and I like quiet times, in fact, I crave quiet times now. Happiness is the simple things as you’ve all mentioned previously, happiness for me is seeing my new grandson smile

  8. Well, a lot of synchronicity in the comments. Happiness can mean many thing’s to many people, it is interesting that nature and trees come into this list of comments. I suppose I could say that levels of happiness, depends on what you are looking for, what you discover, and when in your life. Who you may love and why, intent comes into it, inherited tendencies, impressions, methods of rearing within the family group. If you have religious/spiritual tendencies. Happiness, one could put in a university degree on the subject. What I thought made me happy decades ago, I would not touch with a barge pole now, as the saying goes. I think I can cover what makes me happy now, is communication. That covers my Creator, and the awareness I sense throughout any one day of the Love from that energy; which goes on not only directly but via encounters with others, family, friends and strangers as well. Plus the added joy of walking consciously within Nature’s garden. Smile, be thankful, accept yourself, and that acceptance will automatically include everything and everyone else. As always, Love and Blessings.Margaret.

  9. I’ve run into people who grasp for an entire happy lifetime or nothing, or who refuse to acknowledge happy moments because their self-concept is one of misery, but in my own experience once a person starts to notice small happy moments within in a day, those moments begin to multiply. For me personally, your list of items with meaning is my list of items which bring great happiness, one moment at a time. And once I decided to focus my attention on all the small happinesses of my day, it didn’t matter anymore whether I had everything I wanted or even everything I needed; I felt I could still legitimately say I was living a happy life. Even in the midst of disability and financial misery, I claim that happy life–one moment at a time.

  10. Very well said. The small things are actually what makes us happiest. If we always concentrated on the bad stuff we will never notice the good. Yes this world has gotten so bad it’s hard not to see nothing but the bad in it. But we have to remember to take the time to notice the good or make something good even something small every day. Me personally I like interacting with the animals I talk to them and I recently taught a cat to stick his tongue out at you it may sound weird but hearing the laughter of people seeing that just made my day. Remember it’s the little small things that make us happiest. Blessed be.

  11. It feels very syncronistic me reading this in this moment. Thank you. Under the hapiness, the sadness, the undulating ebs and flows of emotions, a gentleness sits. Love them all as they show you that you can feel. Find meaning behind the feelings, all of them. They make us human, and I agree, the persuit of just happiness is a falsome endevour..

  12. When I was 17, that age when we are sure we know everything, [insert that I’m 63 now], we had a school assignment to describe what made us happy. I was not happy at the time. (What 17-year old angst-filled teen is?) I wrote that happiness is overrated. At best, I hoped to strive for contentment. I haven’t changed my opinion since. The things that make me feel content: Nature, Family, Friends, and Everything Else, are also what gives my live meaning, purpose, and often, too, make me happy. In the end, it’s all about finding Balance. /|\

  13. All things relating to being in nature- in the woods, watching the birds in my garden, sitting by the sea- give me a sense of peace, which I suppose can also be seen as happiness. For me, a sense of meaning involves helping to protect and nurture those things that bring me joy- so that I feel as though my time here is not being wasted. Even something as simple as picking up the rubbish in my local woodlands can make me feel more positive, even on dark days when the depression has been especially bad.

    I can’t do a lot of the things I’d like to due to disabilities, but I think sometimes even a simple prayer in front of my altar for the well-being of the earth, the healing of our oceans, or even just for the safety of the vixen who visits our garden- does it make a difference? I hope so, because if my tiny, mundane petitions are being heard by the Deities I believe in, then perhaps I have made a difference to the good… and that provides me with a sense of connection, which I think in our often fragmented society is an important source of ‘meaning’ to those of us who are otherwise isolated.

  14. So grateful to read this article and all the insightful comments! Thank you all! I totally agree that the so-called small things in life are what give it flavour and meeing. And they aren’t really small if we really pay attention to them and allow ourselves to enjoy them to the fullest (just as the very delicious cup of tea I am drinking at the moment. 😉 )

    Recently, I learned a great lesson about meaning and trust: Having been booked for a gig in a small cultural club, I was informed that advanced sales hadn’t gone well at all (no wonder, because clearly on-one in that area could have known me!). However, my first gut reaction was: “What I do doesn’t mean anything. It is pointless. I want to touch people with my music, but they aren’t interested. Perhaps I’m not good enough … ” etc. etc., it was a whole cascade of self-depreciation – I am sure you can imagine it.

    But then my percussionist and I decided to not cancel the gig but go ahead and play nevertheless, even if only for the person who is running the club, who is a very lovely person. Lo and behold, a small but very attentive and appreciative audience turned up! And I received the feedback that my music did exactly what I had intended it to do: it reminded people that life is worth living, that love is what counts, and that we CAN move things in this world, if only we stick together and practise kindness.

    Had I given in to my negative first reaction, all of this would not have happened. I would have betrayed what, deep down, I perceive as fundamentally meaningful: expressing myself in song. And I would have denied my audience the experience of “gaining new courage for facing the world”, as one of them so kindly put it.

    This was a very humbling and encouraging experience, and I hope that it will inspire others who sometimes suffer from fear, insecurity or plain old impostor syndrome. Go and show yourselves. Do what you feel drawn to do; you have nothing to lose and will very likely find meaning and even happiness on top. Fear is never a good advisor. Listen instead to the small voice in your heart that speaks words of encouragement …

  15. A very short comment if that is OK. Great blog. What brings meaning (rather than happiness) into our lives is a powerful and wonderful question to ask ourselves. Thank you.

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