Every one seems to be chasing happiness, but it is a fleeting moment, not an ongoing state. Think about a wedding day - the euphoria seldom lasts to the end of the night. Usually fatigue sets in somewhere during the evening and the next day the happy couple find themselves facing all of life’s usual stressors. One of the reasons that weddings bring happiness to the couple and their friends and family, is due to the meaning attributed to the act. Weddings symbolise love and commitment and the joining of families.
There is a lot of research on happiness and living a meaningful life and it seems that while the two overlap, they are not synonymous. Many people think that if they had no financial worries, never had to work and could just do whatever they liked, they would be happy. Indeed there are some celebrities that seem to be able to live like this for a while and they will often describe themselves as happy and “blessed”. If you follow their lives for a year or two though, you will often see them crash and burn. The celebrities that truly glow and radiate contentment seem to be those who have dedicated themselves to a greater cause. Angelina Jolie is an excellent example of someone devoting herself to helping others through her humanitarian work.
This is not to say that people who have a definite purpose in life and perceive their lives as meaningful, are happy every moment or even every day or week. They will often say they would not change their lives for anything even though their daily activities might be extremely stressful, uncomfortable or worse. Think of Nelson Mandela and the years he spent in prison on Robben Island. Lawyers and volunteers who are currently working to help reunite migrant families and their children after being separated at the U.S./ Mexico border, find their jobs exhausting, frustrating and often quite depressing. The meaning they get from what they are doing however, gives them the strength to go on, and the satisfaction of knowing they are doing something that they feel is important and worthwhile.
Now, for those of us who are not celebrities working as United Nations Ambassadors, or prisoners of conscience being persecuted for our beliefs, there are still many ways we can find purpose closer to home. I have discussed the many benefits of volunteering in a previous Health Matters column.
One suggestion is to really throw yourself into whatever you do - being fully involved in something can really take the focus off yourself and lead to a feeling of life being worthwhile. For myself, I have had more than one occasion when I have felt so down that I really needed a mental health day but my job does not allow me that luxury. Just by engaging fully with my patients, I soon forget about myself and my worries and inevitably by lunchtime, I am feeling a lot better. Just having one patient say to me that I have helped them or showed them the love and compassion that they needed, can make my day.
So find some purpose in your life, right here in your home town. It could be something as small as shovelling snow for your elderly neighbour or as big as starting your own not-for-profit organisation. Can you help in one of the many volunteer positions at the hospital? Get involved in a community garden, help with a kids’ sport team, teach English to immigrants in your town, start a coffee group in your condo building, start a campaign to reduce single use plastic… The options are limited only by your imagination!
So start making a difference in somebody’s life today and happiness will follow.