A while ago on social media, I shared an article called Why You Should Never Have Gotten Kids (if You Want to be Happy, that is). In it, the author points out that while parents think having children will make them happier, research repeatedly shows that children actually cause a reduction in happiness.
As you read on, however, he makes a distinction between enjoying life and feeling fulfilled.
The time, resource, and personal sacrifices that come with having children might mean less daily joy, sure, but an invaluable benefit is the sense of meaning you’ll find in having a family of your own. And, as most will agree, that’s probably worth it.
This is the choice we find ourselves making throughout our lives, whether we realize it or not. Meaning or joy?
Studies show that those who engage in so-called “giving roles” such as volunteering or parenting have a higher sense of meaning, but also higher levels of stress and anxiety – they experience less joy.
It appears that living with purpose comes at a price.
Similarly, a life in pursuit of pleasure without meaning leaves us feeling without depth.
So does that mean we can’t have both meaning and joy?
On the contrary, I’d like to suggest that it’s wise to consider happiness in its many forms so that we can be considered in cultivating a life that’s happy in all senses of the word.
Feeling fulfilled means making a contribution. If we seek meaning, we need to ask ourselves, “What difference do I want to make?” or “How can make the world better in some way?” Performing acts of kindness can feel meaningful, as can being true to your values, or giving back in some way, be it to people, animals or the environment.
In essence, meaning is tapping into your “why”. Pursuing meaning means searching your soul to find the reason why you do whatever you do. I’d like to stress that this is something you can decide: your why is not outside of you.
You can make the choice whether the reason you work is to provide, to create, or to help, for example. All those reasons are sources of meaning and can make for a fulfilling life.
Then, Use Joy Enhance Your Life
Being content means prioritizing meaning – making it more important than joy. It means saying no to certain desires in the present moment and instead having the courage to choose the goals and values that mean the most to us long term.
It means the big decisions are made according to your why, your values, rather than choosing what is fun or easy.
But within that framework of a life designed around meaning, we can use joy to enhance our lives, and I really believe it’s important that we do.
Making time for frivolous fun makes us feel “happy” in the present, in the sense that we feel light-hearted currently. Joy keeps us in this moment right now; it’s what we check in with when people ask if we feel happy.
It’s also positive emotion that makes us resilient to the inevitable stress that comes with meaning, with research showing that positive emotions build in “upward spirals”, causing exciting brain changes the more positivity we experience. When we feel happier in the moment, our brain pathways open up so that we’re able to think more clearly, make better decisions, and have better self-control.
The paradox is that often one type of happiness or the other motivates us so strongly that it’s difficult to maintain a balance.
When we navigate only by pleasure, we avoid discomfort and miss out on meaning. When we navigate only by meaning, we can fall into the trap of only allowing ourselves to do things that feel “important”.
If you want to have it all, choose meaning first - but don’t forget about joy. We need to make meaning to feel content with our lives overall, and we need joy to make us feel satisfied with the present moment.