Looking for happiness? Try purpose instead
We’re programmed to chase happiness. When we catch up with friends and family, they ask, “How’s it going? Are you happy?” When asked what we want for our kids, we say, “I just want them to be happy.” When we’re not expressing happiness, people worriedly probe, “Is everything OK?” and sometimes direct us to smile or “cheer up!” We’re bombarded with headlines, classes, and apps that promise to make us happier. Happiness becomes an obligation.
Americans’ compulsive pursuit of happiness is a bit like trying, day after day, to nail Jell-O to a tree. The kind of happiness we often pursue — moments of pleasure, delight, bliss, gratification — is slippery, flimsy, and, like Jell-O, devoid of nutritional value. In our culture, it’s both overprized and overvalued, and our pursuit of it can come at the expense of finding deeper and more sustaining versions of psychological and physical well-being.
I’m not arguing that moments of pleasure are harmful, or that it’s somehow misguided to desire them. I savor the shot of hedonic bliss I feel when I’m listening to one of my favorite bands play live, hiking through a field of wildflowers in Colorado, or watching the Red Sox win the World Series.
But hedonic happiness is a state, and states are transient. None of us can feel happy all the time. And expecting that we can creates a stark discrepancy from reality — one that ironically leads us to feel less happy. Inherently self-focused, the pursuit of happiness can isolate us from the close social connections critical to nourishing us, as addressed in Ruth Whippman’s book “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks.” Happiness hangovers can even leave us feeling empty and untethered, hungry and lost.
Even Aristotle, one of the first to nominate happiness as the ultimate life goal, conceived of it not as hedonic well-being; it wasn’t about pleasure. Rather, he believed that happiness was about eudemonic well-being — the expression of one’s true nature through “doing what is worth doing.” A reason to get up in the morning. A belief that your life has meaning.
Recent research is putting this idea back on the map, showing that sense of purpose is the key to a whole host of health outcomes. I’ll just start with the ultima thule of health and well-being outcomes — longevity. People with a greater sense of purpose live longer. A Lancet study that followed 9,000 people over age 65 showed that those higher on eudemonic well-being (i.e., with a higher sense of purpose and belief that life has meaning and is worthwhile) were less likely to die in the next eight-and-a-half years. Among the people who had scored in the lowest quartile on eudemonic well-being, 29 percent died over the same time period. Compare that to those who’d scored in the highest quartile on eudemonic well-being — only 9 percent died in the follow-up eight-and-a-half years. And those correlations held even when the researchers controlled for age, sex, other demographic factors, and baseline mental and physical health.
A study of more than 73,000 Japanese people revealed a clear link between ikigai — a strong psychological connection with one’s sense of purpose — and decreased mortality. And a US study that followed 6,000 people from a wider age range found the same pattern: People with a greater sense of purpose, as measured in a survey 14 years earlier, outlived their peers. According to the study, “having a purpose in life appears to widely buffer against mortality risk across the adult years.”
Not only do people with a greater sense of purpose live longer, they also live better.
They perform better on cognitive tests, including episodic memory and speed of processing, and show fewer depressive symptoms and functional disabilities. People with purpose score higher on tests of memory and executive functioning, according to a study of more than 3,000 adults in Canada and the United States. Studies of more than 2,000 US military veterans and more than 6,000 teachers in China both showed that people with a greater sense of purpose were also more resilient to stress. Purpose isn’t just for adults — adolescents with a greater sense of purpose held more positive self-images and greater overall well-being. The list goes on: Sense of purpose is associated with greater productivity at work, financial success, and even enjoyment of sex for middle-aged women.
To be clear, these studies are correlational. As such, they cannot definitively determine causality among these variables. It’s most likely the case that the relationship between sense of purpose and the “outcome” variables is bidirectional — they are mutually reinforcing. But collectively, across hundreds of thousands of participants from widely varied cultures, in studies that have systematically controlled for other contributing factors, the evidence is compelling: Finding purpose and living a meaningful life certainly seem to contribute to the quality of our mental and physical health.
All of this is not to say that we should quash our desire to feel pleasure; joy ought to be savored. But research shows that we should slightly relegate happiness as the transcendent goal and prioritize finding, feeling, and acting on our sense of purpose. In a time when so many of us are living with a chronic feeling of dread and uncertainty, purpose may be the very thing that gets us up and gets us going every day. Purpose gives us hope, and without hope, we cannot expect happiness for ourselves or for our children.
What is your sense of purpose? What makes you feel that life has meaning? That is deeply subjective and idiosyncratic to each of us. For many people, it’s family or friendships. Many of us find great meaning in caring for others or serving our communities. For some, it is art or music, meeting new people and experiencing other cultures, or spending time in nature. Many of our hobbies are not “just” our hobbies; reflecting on what we love about them gives us some insight into what we find meaningful and worth doing. And sometimes we figure out what is meaningful to us through our own challenges — illness, loss of a loved one, or losing a job. What matters is that you discover what is meaningful to you, and then you fill your life with more of the things that allow you to pursue that kind of meaning.
There is no permanent happiness haven, no destination any of us can reach where nothing and no one can hurt us. But there’s a sense of purpose in all of us — and if we take the time to find it and express it, to make our lives more meaningful, the journey will go a whole lot better.
Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist, author of “Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges,” a lecturer in executive education at Harvard Business School, and cofounder of Citizen Confidence.