10 Keys to Happiness – 10. Meaning

David Pattinson shares his final reflection on the theme of Meaning

This is the tenth and final reflection on the ’10 keys to happiness” promoted by “Action for happiness”(AfH) – https://www.actionforhappiness.org. AfH have identified these as activities which promote mental health and wellbeing. In this series we are exploring how this psychologically and clinically well researched menu compares with a Biblical perspective.

In this last reflection, we are looking at Meaning – being part of something bigger. Meaning helps us answer the questions – “Who am I ?” and “Why am I here?” The Poster for this key is “The meaning of life is a life with meaning.” or as Carl Jung says “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”

We are perhaps the only species that needs to find meaning. People who have meaning and purpose in their lives are happier, feel more in control and get more out of what they do. They also experience less stress, anxiety and depression; are happier and healthier. And, the stronger our sense of meaning the greater our sense of well-being. Meaning guides us in our life choices, what we strive for.It provides a framework for the goals we set. It can help make sense of what happens to us and provide comfort and strength in tough times.

Michael Steger says that having a sense of meaning boils down to questions about 3 core elements:-

•             Significance – Do we feel our life is worthwhile? “He who has a why to live for, can bear almost any how” Nietzsche.

•             Comprehension – does our life make sense to us? Do the different parts fit together? Steger’s view is that this is about our own personal story – our past to the present and how we’d like to shape our future.

•             Purpose – Do we feel we have a purpose? Do we have overarching purposes or missions which we value? “Happiness is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”

But where do we find ‘meaning and purpose’? Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor, in his book “Man’s search for meaning” says there are 3 different ways:-

•             by creating a work or doing a deed;

•             by experiencing something or encountering someone;

•             by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering” “Everything can be taken from a man but the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”

The answer to that question “Where do we find meaning and purpose?” varies for each of us; it’s individual to us. No one can tell us what gives meaning to our lives – we have to find out for ourselves. But it’s all about being connected to something bigger than ourselves, even though this search for meaning seems to tap into something fundamental within all of us. Meaning comes from something which transcends self. As St Augustine puts it “God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”

For many, it is our relationships that provide meaning; or it could be our work, our vocation (People with a calling feel strongly drawn to pursue their work and think of it as a core part of who they are – so their work is central to their identity); or an activity we are passionate about. And it’s thought that having 5-8 sources of meaning is optimal.

But, for us, as Christians, and for those of other religious beliefs, it is our faith, our “search for the sacred”, our spiritual practices, which forge the dominant meaning. Interestingly, research suggests that people with faith tend to have higher average levels of happiness and well-being than people with no religious beliefs.

For me, it’s fascinating that this last of the 10 keys takes us to the heart of the Biblical perspective. Michael Steger talks about meaning and comprehension being about our own personal story. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan monk talks about  life being about “my story”; “our story” and “The story”. “My story” is about establishing our identity and place in the world – the search for significance: “Our story” is about group identities and loyalties that expand our sense of self. “The story” is about “the patterns that are always true—beyond anecdote and my cultural history” – you might want to call it “God’s story”. Biblical narrative is about how these 3 stories intertwine. Our narrative or story is about how these 3 stories intertwine. In a man named Jesus, God enters our story; in Jesus God offers to be in my story. For the Christian here is the meaning of life.