Stop Chasing Happiness. What You Really Want Is Meaning, and You Can Have It Now.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy visited NASA headquarters for the first time. While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor carrying a broom.
When Kennedy asked him what he did there at NASA, the janitor offered a simple yet extraordinary reply:
“Mr. President, I'm helping put a man on the moon.'"
Something as mundane as cleaning a building accrues much more meaning when taken into its full context. No matter how small we feel our role is, what we do matters. We aren’t necessarily happy while sweeping a floor, or dealing with difficult customers, or caught up in the busywork of managing a growing business. But we're still doing our part. The janitor at NASA knew his efforts were helping make history, and that made all the difference.
Stop chasing happiness at work
“Given that the average person spends 90,000 hours at work in a lifetime,” writes Susan Peppercorn in a story for Harvard Business Review, “it’s important to figure out how to feel better about the time you spend earning a living.”
Like anything else in life — whether building your own venture, climbing in your career, parenting, or even tending to your garden, you can’t expect every moment to be blissful. We have bills to pay, groceries to buy, screaming kids who need to be fed.
“If you set happiness as your primary goal, you can end up feeling the opposite,” writes Peppercorn. “This is because happiness (like all emotions) is a fleeting state, not a permanent one. An alternative solution is to make meaning your vocational goal.”
The dopamine hit that comes from a “reward” like a successful business presentation or the prestige of a new position will quickly fade and we’ll bd left with the question, now what?
Research by Emily Esfahani Smith and others has found that rather than chasing happiness, we should focus on understanding the WHY behind what we do.
When I first launched my company, it was easy to believe that the initial wave of happiness brought on by starting something new would last.
But that’s not what happened. Instead, we experienced challenges like all startups do. We messed up and learned from our mishaps. Had I quit when things got rocky, my business wouldn’t have lasted through its first year.
I had to focus on my WHY. Creating the best product I could to help make people’s lives easier. Collaborating with a great team in a supportive environment. Providing for my family.
What I’ve discovered over the past 13 years as a CEO is that purpose — in both our personal and professional lives — is the key to an enduring sense of well-being.
Upon becoming the youngest president in the nation’s history, Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
Maybe you’ll discover that where you work doesn’t align with your values, and you’ll need to seek something new that reflects your bigger-picture and longer-term vision. That’s okay, and necessary.
But when it comes to the day-to-day grind, the smaller monotonous tasks we have to perform on a regular basis — like becoming more conscious about the services we are providing — Esfahani notes, is what ultimately helps us find meaning.
How meaning differs from happiness
Think of it this way: Happiness is like a sugary donut you scarf down in the morning. It's sweet, delicious, and immediately lifts your mood with a rush of endorphins. But by the middle of the day, your stomach is empty and your brain hazy.
On the other hand, meaning is the full nutritious meal your mind needs to thrive.
Or as Peppercorn eloquently puts it:
“Living with meaning and purpose may not make you happy — at least in the short term. It requires self-reflection, effort, and wrestling with issues that initially can be frustrating. But when you approach work situations mindfully, with an eye toward contributing to others while honoring your personal identity, you’ll find opportunities to practice the skills that help you find the intrinsic value in your work.”
So how can you build more meaning into your work? Here are 3 steps:
1. Identify fulfilling projects
When we ask ourselves what our life’s purpose is, personal development author Mark Manson says what we’re really asking is, “What can I do with my time that is important?” As entrepreneurs, we’re constantly juggling projects that all seem to require our immediate attention, but feeling fulfilled means regularly asking ourselves whether the struggle is worth the cost. What are we willing to tolerate? And what are the professional experiences that make us feel most alive? Rediscovering how much we love writing or building something can guide us back to our intrinsic, natural motivation.
2. Pay it forward by helping others find meaning
Contributing to others’ well-being is strongly tied to feeling fulfilled. As Peppercorn highlights in her article, we should share “best-self” narratives with coworkers so that they too, can identify their own authentic self-expression. Create an environment that signals a sense of purpose in your organization by sharing anecdotes of when you’ve seen your peers at their best, and asking them to do the same.
3. Live in a larger story
“There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” ―Anais Nin
The real lesson behind the story of the janitor who helped land a man on the moon is this: All of our unique gifts, talents and experiences help shape the world around us — whether we’re aware of it or not. Our friends, family, clients, colleagues, and the larger network we belong to are all directly impacted by our attitude and daily efforts. In other words, if we only allow ourselves to see it, we'll observe a much larger story unfolding around us.