Searching for Happiness? Look for Meaning, Not Money

Happiness is about social ties, say experts, like hiking in the woods with friends. (Loren Kerns/Flickr)
Happiness is about social ties and experiences, say experts, like hiking in the woods with friends. (Loren Kerns/Flickr)

By Lynne Shallcross

Do a quick search for “happiness” in Amazon books, and you’ll find more than 40,000 results. That’s a lot of people writing about happiness — and, presumably, a lot of people looking to find it.

If you're one of those people looking, you should know that finding happiness doesn’t mean you have to be cheerful and upbeat all the time. There’s more than one way to get there. Experts say even pessimists can be happy.

“There are a lot of things that we think will make us happy and don’t,” says Christine Carter, a sociologist at U.C. Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and author of the book “Raising Happiness.”

“In fact,” Carter says, "we are, as human beings, particularly bad at predicting what will make us happy. We think that we’re going to be much happier if we’re living in a bigger house or driving a different type of car or those really cute new shoes are going to make us happy.”


More square footage and that pair of Jimmy Choo’s may provide a little “pleasure bump,” but Carter says that we tend to overestimate both the intensity of that feeling of happiness and how long it will last.

“It’s typically not things or stuff,” Carter says, “but rather experiences and relationships and the less tangible things in life. A person’s happiness is best predicted by their social ties — the strengths of their ties to other people.”

That’s where we get to Carter’s primary piece of advice: that it’s more important to pursue meaning than happiness. Meaning will lead us to happiness, Carter argues.

“When we pursue happiness, a lot of times what we’re pursuing is pleasure and gratification, and the problem is that those things, a lot of the time, aren’t under our control,” Carter says. “Life can be really difficult. When our life is full of meaning, we have an easier time getting through the difficult bits.”

Carter views happiness as a skill, not an in-born personality trait. She compares it to learning a new language. Although it might take more work for some people than others, Carter says that happiness is something we’re all able to achieve.

The goal is to establish “happiness habits,” she says, so that the effort and results become more automatic. Those are things like having dinner with your family, reaching out to loved ones and practicing gratitude. And physical things like exercising and getting enough sleep. Those habits can not only lead to greater happiness over time, Carter says, but each effort can also provide a happiness boost right now.

But none of us, she cautions, should add “be happy” to our to-do list. “It’s really important not to get caught up in the sense that we should be happy and then feel like we’re falling short in the happiness department. That’s not going to help anybody.”

Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, agrees with that. “If you have set happiness as a main goal for yourself, every time you don’t feel happy, you risk feeling like you’ve failed, like something is seriously wrong, and that might be an overreaction to just being in a down mood on a particular day or being justifiably angry at somebody.”

Using ‘Defensive Pessimism’ as a Strategy

For you pessimists out there, Norem argues for using something called “defensive pessimism” to achieve happiness. Norem is the author of the book “The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.”

In the research Norem has done on the topic, she’s found that 30 to 35 percent of people score as optimists, while 25 to 30 percent of people score as defensive pessimists.

Defensive pessimism, Norem says, is a strategy that people can use to manage anxiety. Defensive pessimists set low expectations about a particular outcome. For example, someone feeling anxious about giving a presentation at work might think through in vivid detail all the ways the presentation could go horribly wrong -- and then plan for how to fix them. That’s not always a bad thing, Norem says.

“From the outside, it looks very negative and very unhelpful, but for the person who’s doing it, it actually helps them direct their attention toward very specific, concrete things” they can do to fix a problem in pursuit of a goal, Norem says.

Norem says that strategy leads to happiness. In her research, she's found that people who practice defensive pessimism not only perform better on everything from math tests to their college GPAs, but they also feel happier. “I think it’s an important reminder that the same sort of approaches in life aren’t going to work equally well for everybody.”

Back in Berkeley, Carter agrees. “One size doesn’t fit all. We all find our happiest life in different ways.”

The problem for defensive pessimists, Norem says, is that they often get pressure from family, friends and coworkers to present themselves in a more positive way. “What makes them unhappy, sort of paradoxically, is other people insisting that they change how they do things and be happy the same way those other people are happy.” Let defensive pessimists be, Norem says, and they’ll be fine — and happier.