Happiness as a product of meaning

Friday, April 29, 2022

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” -Aristotle

Upon first glance, the above statement seems completely plausible, and mainstream media greatly advocates for this. We are taught from a very young age that happiness is something to pursue — the ultimate goal of life. Once we have attained happiness, our life is complete.

But is this really true? I was never one to consciously pursue happiness and judge my sense of achievement through this. It’s always been in the back of my mind if I was truly happy or what it means and my answer would always be “I don’t know, I’ll think about it later.” That is, until very recently.

I’m barely halfway through my graduate school career but I feel that I’ve gone through a decade of life. Regardless of the science aspect, what I’ve learned about myself is ever-growing. I wish I could say it was purely through fun times…but it was mostly through hardship. However, this has led me to finally question what happiness means to me and if it’s even achievable during a Ph.D. I’m happy to say, the answer is yes.

Specifically, within the past year, so much as happened to me. I’ve experienced heartbreak, elation, depression, gratitude, and sadness. But I’ve recently realized — I’ve also experienced happiness. Through practicing mindfulness and being kinder to myself, I’ve begun to understand what happiness means to me and how I’ve achieved it.

I feel it when I’m about to dive into some hotpot and I see a huge pile of meat that’s all mine; when I walk along the sidewalk and the angle of the sun reflects of the trees in a most satisfying way; when I find a song that gives me the exact emotions I want to feel at that time; when I’m out with friends and looking around me, I am grateful of who I have in my life. When I think back, I always assumed happiness would be an incredible, significant moment that happens rarely…I don’t think that’s the case anymore. Through all these events, I’ve found that the magnitude of happiness is very dynamic but at the center of it all always lies one feeling: contentedness.

Is happiness the source of this contentedness? I don’t think so, if anything happiness is able to be felt only because of feelings of contentedness. Rather, I believe that being content results from living a meaningful life. Happiness is simply a product of this. Happiness is an acute feeling, (of course one can’t be always happy) but to be able to feel consistent feelings of happiness, you must lead a life you want to live. For me, that involves, maintaining healthy friendships, doing things I enjoy, being understanding towards myself and ultimately, growing as a person.

Of course, being a scientist-in-training, I wanted to see if what I thought made even some remote sense. I decided to look up the idea of happiness in scientific journals and found a qualitative study where hospice patients were interviewed about how they conceptualized happiness at the end of life. What they found was that participants “defined happiness most frequently and in most depth in relation to connection with others. They identified being in the present moment…they had an attitude of determination to focus on what mattered now.” Similarly, other studies found that “happiness and meaning in life are both core components of a good life and often overlap considerably.”

Of course, there are differences between leading a meaningful life and a happy life and I’ll leave it up to you to draw your own conclusions and thoughts. For now, I am satisfied, and I fully expect my own thoughts to change. I’m only 26 and as I continue to live and grow, I hope my perspectives will grow and mature along with me. After all, thinking back to where I was as a college freshman and who I’ve grown into now, I can only describe the feeling as a mixture of pride and of course, happiness.