Finding Happiness Isn’t the Answer, Finding Meaning Is

Finding Happiness Isn’t the Answer, Finding Meaning IsYou may think that you “just want to be happy.”  But, it turns out, that’s not enough.

It is not surprising that you  would think you would just want to be happy because “happiness is like the holy grail” according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at UC Riverside and author of The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want.   “People around the world want it.  If you ask people what they want for their children, they’ll say for them to be happy.  It’s in our Declaration of Independence.  It matters to and affects everyone.”

Finding Happiness Isn’t the Answer, Finding Meaning IsThe New York Times reported that Martin Seligman, the founder of the positive psychology movement and professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has observed that there seems to be more going on than simply a search for happiness in our lives.  While the “new science of happiness” has clearly been a worthy pursuit–people that are happier live longer, are more successful, and have healthier lives– maybe it is not the whole picture.

Seligman wondered: If we only wanted happiness, why would couples go on having children even though the data clearly shows that parents are less happy than childless couples?  And why do billionaires desperately seek more money, when research about lottery winners demonstrates that more money does not equal more life satisfaction?

Seligman, an avid bridge player, observed how some people keep joylessly playing bridge.  “They never smiled, not even when they won.  They didn’t play to make money or make friends.  They didn’t savor that feeling of total engagement in a task that psychologists call flow. They didn’t take aesthetic satisfaction in playing a hand cleverly and ‘winning pretty.’  They were quite willing to win ugly, sometimes even when that meant cheating.

“They wanted to win for its own sake, even if it brought no positive emotion. … They were like hedge fund managers who just want to accumulate money and toys for their own sake. Watching them play, seeing them cheat, it kept hitting me that accomplishment is a human desiderata in itself.”

In his 2008 book, Gross National Happiness, the economist Arthur Brooks argues that “what’s crucial to well-being is not how cheerful you feel, not how much money you make, but rather the meaning you find in life and your sense of ‘earned success’ — the belief that you have created value in your life or others’ lives.

“People find meaning in providing unconditional love for children. Paradoxically, your happiness is raised by the very fact that you are willing to have your happiness lowered through years of dirty diapers, tantrums and backtalk.  Willingness to accept unhappiness from children is a source of happiness.”

Selligman concludes that the job of positive psychology is to describe rather than prescribe.

He doesn’t want to change what people value but, whatever it is, to help them get better at it.  That’s also my approach.

What works for you, or for your organization?  What gives you meaning in your life?  What gives you the sense that you have created value in your life and in the lives of others?   I’ve found that, at some level, you know what it is.  Always.

Together we can discover what it is.  You may be surprised by the discovery.

Recently one of my coaching clients was at a crossroads in his career.  He was considering whether he should apply for the CEO position in his organization or instead leave the organization for some other job.  Staying in his current position was not a consideration.

To answer this question about his future, we engaged in a process of discovery using Appreciative Inquiry that involved understanding what his strengths were and collecting feedback from others about what it was that he did best.  We learned what he did well, and what he valued in his life and his job.  By analyzing that information, suddenly, what gave him meaning and purpose became crystal clear.

Guess what he realized as a result?  That the job he was doing right now was a job where he contributed meaning in life in ways that he valued.  And, he also realized that what he did in his job was appreciated deeply by others.  His impulse to ambitiously pursue another job was not what he wanted after all.  He had what he wanted right in front of him.

Resolving the nagging feeling that he should be more ambitious was a tremendous relief.   Now he could go on to developing his current job in ways that were consistent with what he did well and would give him a renewed sense of “earned success.”

If you feel that you are not fully achieving what you value in your life to have a meaningful and happy life, please call me for a free complimentary session at 805.448.7681 or schedule a session using my on-line calendar.



p.s. I always am interested in what you think about these discussions. Please post your thoughts on the blog…your constructive criticism and support is appreciated!
Dr. Lynn K. Jones, Certified Personal and Executive Coach

Your MOJO Maven

Dr. Lynn K. Jones is a Certified Personal and Executive Coach based in Santa Barbara, California and a sought after coach and consultant for organizations and individuals across the US.   Her doctoral work completed at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University concerned organizational culture; she coaches, consults and trains organizations on what they need to do to create organizational cultures that are aligned with their vision and values using a process of Appreciative Inquiry.  She coaches individuals on achieving their reflected best selves.  An MSW@USC faculty member, Dr. Lynn K. Jones, MSW, DSW, CSWM, teaches Human Behavior and Social Environment.

New York Times report on Martin Seligman


  1. Neha on October 3, 2011 at 1:56 am

    That’s an interesting way to look at happiness and how we perceive it. I usually say I will be happy if I am able to pay my bills, have shelter over my head and enough food to survive. I am sure everyone wants that. I am usually easily satisfied with small steps in life. For example, I am really happy at this moment with the way I have redirected my goals and pursuing it. Some people might not be satisfied until they achieve this goal. That’s future. I haven’t found a job that I am very satisfied with but by doing and giving extraordinarily to my current job or past ones, I make sure that I enjoy every bit of it. Thats’ happiness and self-satisfaction for me. Never during my small steps do I forget my long term goals!!!!


    • Executive Coach on October 20, 2011 at 10:45 pm

      I am sure you remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Paying your bills, having shelter and food to survive are basic needs. Indeed, we certainly need those, but we need more to be happy. Seligman helps us to understand that we need meaning in our lives in additional to the material things that we think makes up happy. Taking small steps in the direction of what gives you meaning is a fabulous way to have a sense of “earned success” in what is important.
      Thanks for commenting on my blog!

  2. anon on October 3, 2011 at 3:58 am

    The term “earned success” makes an interesting distinction. The well-rewarded success that comes from luck doesn’t pay off emotionally. What we all seek is earned success.

    • Executive Coach on October 20, 2011 at 10:48 pm

      You are so right. Seligman helps us to understand from his optimism work that people who believe that when good things happen to them it is because of look are not optimistic. Optimistic people believe that good things happen to them because of something that they did!

  3. Madeleine Vite on October 2, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    This definetly makes one take a moment and look at weather one is happy or fulfilled with ones life…. I myself can never get enough of both.
    Thank you for changeling me.

    • Executive Coach on October 20, 2011 at 10:41 pm

      I love your typo/freudian slip Madeleine! You said “Thank you for changeling (sic) me.” I assume you meant to say challenging me, but it is so true that being challenged creates change, so thank you for that! 🙂

  4. Steve Loraine on October 5, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    The IT? For me, it’s a set of dimensions that are constantly in play: in my family and friend relationships, my sporting activities, my work assignments and so on. My sense of position on each of these dimensions varies. I do try to understand my position and look for balance over time, either intuitively or more consciously. It’s not always easy but this mindfulness seems to pay dividends for my overall well-being – which means more to me than the notion of ‘happiness’.

    Doing and being
    Acting and thinking
    Starting and finishing
    Asking and answering
    Listening and hearing
    Status-quo and changing
    Certainty and ambiguity
    Opportunity and stability
    And so on

    • Executive Coach on October 20, 2011 at 10:52 pm

      Those are provocative dimensions, Steve. Mindfulness, according to Langer, is very much about small variations that we pay attention to them. It seems to me that you are calling those out. Thanks for sharing!

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