Seek Meaning, Not Pleasure

If you ask the average person what they want most out of life they will usually say, “I just want to be happy.” And that is certainly an admirable goal. Then, if you were to ask them to describe what that happiness looks like, they might say something like, “I’m swinging in a hammock on the beach with my soul mate and sipping a fruity drink while feeling the cool ocean breeze on my face.”

Sounds great, I know.

But what they are describing is pleasure, which is one facet of happiness. Certainly, you can feel happy while doing pleasurable things. But what usually happens is that the happy feeling begins to fade as soon as the pleasure stops. Most of us can relate to this. We go on an enjoyable vacation, returning relaxed and rejuvenated. Then Monday morning comes and we return to work and, almost instantly, our feel-good vibe is wiped out and quickly becoming a distant memory. And if you’re like most people, you begin planning your next trip and longing for your next escape.

“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” —Seth Godin

What we refer to as happiness can be divided into three main categories: pleasure, satisfaction, and meaning.

Pleasure, everyone’s favorite, is a physical, in-the-moment experience. Like eating ice cream or kissing or watching a movie. It feels good while you’re doing it. That is why it never lasts. When the moment is gone, the pleasure is gone.

Satisfaction usually feels good after the fact. Like exercising or cooking a nice meal or mowing the lawn. Most of these activities are not inherently pleasurable in the moment, but we feel good about our accomplishment afterwards. But again, that satisfaction may fade over time — especially when the grass grows back a week later.

But true, lasting happiness comes from meaning, from feeling like our life and our work is making a positive impact. That somehow the world is and will be a better place because of us. That we made a difference. That we mattered. True meaning comes when we look beyond ourselves and our selfish desires.

Famed psychologist and author Viktor Frankl survived the horrors of the Nazi prison camps during World War 2. As explained in his best-selling book, Man’s Search For Meaning, he attributed his survival to being able to create meaning amidst terrible circumstances—that true happiness was a result of feeling that one’s life meant something. For Frankl, that meant staying alive in order to finish writing the book he started before he was imprisoned and seeing his long-lost wife once more. Sadly, he was never to see his wife again. She died in the prisoner camp. But giving meaning to his life and work helped Frankl to endure. And through his writings, millions have benefited from his experiences.

My advice to you is don’t just settle for a life of mindless ease and fleeting comforts. Reach beyond filling your time with mere temporary pleasures. That is just one part of the equation. Instead, cultivate true, lasting happiness through service and looking outside of yourself. Create a meaningful life based on contribution. In your work, in your relationships, in your soul.

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