A survey just got published last week showing that the biggest regret expressed by an overwhelming majority of people on their deathbeds is that they didn’t live what they considered a life of purpose and meaning.
Since I’m speaking at the World Happiness Summit today I thought I’d look at what a life of meaning actually means and what about it makes for true happiness.
The watermark for happiness
After the political scientist Robert Putnam of Harvard University wrote his ground-breaking book, Bowling Alone, which woke Americans up to the fraying of the social fabric across the US, researchers at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard decided to explore exactly what makes for what they refer to as ‘social capital’ – happiness, close-knit communities and satisfied residents – by carrying out a survey of 30,000 members of diverse communities across America.
What they found was revelatory. Unless you were poor, money just didn’t do it for people. Once you achieved an annual income above $75,000, your emotional happiness had very little to do with your bank balance.
People below that income were miserable because they were struggling just to pay the bills, but once they’d achieved that level of income, making any more money didn’t offer any greater joy.
That division – between being able to pay your bills and not being able to – was the only watermark connecting money in any way with life satisfaction.
But the one factor that did make the greatest sense of satisfaction and happiness was lending a helping hand. Those willing to give their time or money were 42 percent more likely to be happy than those who weren’t.
What is true pleasure?
But perhaps the most compelling research was carried out by psychologists at the University of North Carolina, who wanted to examine the difference in likely future health between healthy people who live a fulfilling life of pleasure – what we’d normally define as the good life – compared to those who live a life of purpose or meaning.
The researchers examined the gene expressions and psychological states of eighty healthy volunteers in both groups. Although the members of the two groups all claimed to be highly content and not depressed, their gene expression profile couldn’t have been more divergent.
Among the pleasure seekers the psychologists were amazed to discover high levels of inflammation, considered a marker for degenerative illnesses, and lower levels of gene expression involved in antibody synthesis, the body’s response to outside attack.
If you hadn’t known their histories, you would have concluded that these were the gene profiles of people exposed to a great deal of adversity or in the midst of difficult life crises – extreme financial difficulty, life-threatening disease, a recent bereavement.
These people were all perfect candidates for a heart attack, Alzheimer’s disease, even cancer. In a few years, they would be dropping like flies.
Those whose lives were not as affluent or stress-free but were purposeful and filled with meaning, on the other hand, had low inflammatory markers and a down-regulation of stress-related gene expression, both indicative of rude good health.
This all sounds counter-intuitive to us in the West, with our emphasis on material success at any cost, but it has to do with what exactly constitute ‘meaning’ in our lives.
Scientists from Boston College discovered this when trying to figure out why patients suffering from chronic pain and depression markedly improved once they began helping others in the same boat.
As they repeatedly noted to the researchers, it was all about “making a connection” and being provided with “a sense of purpose.”
Our need to help other people is perhaps the one element that gives our life the greatest meaning. And that’s the best definition I can think of to describe true happiness.
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