This post is inspired by reading an article on happiness and meaning in The Atlantic by Emily Esfhani Smith. You can read it here. I am particularly interested in this subject, because I am passionate about helping my coaching clients and students achieve what I like to refer to as ‘deep’ happiness. I first read the term ‘deep happiness’ in Wharton professor Richard Shell’s book Springboard. He describes ‘deep happiness’ as a kind of feeling that transcends momentary happiness. Its source connects you to your soul, your purpose, to something larger than yourself. As Shell writes, “It is the path that leads to yourself and to a deeper connection with others. It is a path that is as likely to include tension, challenges and struggles as it is happiness”.
People who pursue happiness for the sake of happiness may be thwarting this kind of deeper happiness. Deep happiness is experienced when we live a more meaningful life. Meaning comes from the pursuit of more complex things than happiness. Research into happiness and meaning shows that happiness and meaning overlap, but are also distinctly different. Leading a happy life, psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker”, with a relatively shallow, self-absorbed life in which things go well, needs and desire are easily instantaneously satisfied, and difficult or taxing situations are avoided. Living a meaningful life, on the other hand, is associated with being a “giver”, with giving a part of yourself away to others, contributing to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of others. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, professor of Positive Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self”.
A meaningful life does not necessarily equate with happiness. When we get what we want, when our desires and needs are easily met, we feel happy. Happiness, however, is short-lived. It is experienced in the here and now and it ultimately fades away. Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. We derive meaning from sacrificing ourselves for others, from suffering, from challenges and hardship in life. The meaningful life connects us to others, to our humanity, to the bigger picture, to the past and future. What makes us uniquely human, is that we care deeply for other people and causes bigger than ourselves. Putting our selfish needs aside helps us realize that there is more to a good life than the pursuit of easy happiness. Deep happiness comes from using what we’ve got, our unique strengths, skills and talents, to somehow make the life better for others. Wharton professor, Stew Friedman, describes this beautifully in his book Leading the life you want, “Significant achievement in the world results from consciously compassionate action, from using one’s talent to make the world somehow better. It’s a paradox, leading the life you want want requires striving to help others.”
Reflecting on my own life, especially my time at university and my early career, I used to mainly focus on personal achievement setting exceedingly high standards for myself. Although I loved the thrill and excitement of chasing goals, once I realized a goal, it often felt empty and meaningless. I took me some time to realize that my definition of success was too externally focused, that it was lacking deeper meaning. At that time though, I didn’t have a clue about what made my life worth living. The only thing I knew is that things felt ‘off’, out of balance, and it was stressing me out. I left the corporate world and took some time off to explore what gives my life deeper meaning, to explore what fulfils me in life. I quickly realized that I wasn’t honoring my inner life. I was ignoring my personal values and what really mattered to me.
After a few detours I ended up becoming a yoga teacher and life coach. Today I am still focused on achievement, I still want to excel in what I do, but I have a much stronger focus on my inner life, on happiness and meaning. My life, work, feels deeply meaningful, because, as a coach and teacher, I get to help people make their lives a little better. When I am coaching or teaching, I feel like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing. I am doing what I love. Ever since I started doing what I love, I no longer feel the stress I used to experience when my life and career were focused mainly on external achievement. I now only experience what I call ‘good’ stress, the stress and fears related to playing big and being passionate about something, which leads you to step out of your comfort zone and courageously go after your higher goals or purpose in life. As Simon Sinek writes, “Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.”
Through self-exploration and experimentation, I have found my passion. But my biggest realization was not that I had to change my career or my work environment to find my ‘happy’. My biggest realization was discovering my unique strengths, skills and talents, and learning how to leverage them to make my own life better, and make life better for other people. It’s not enough to know your purpose in life. You need to know yourself. You need to understand who you truly are so you can use what you’ve got to take action on what you really care about.
Happiness in the traditional ‘simplistic’ sense of the word is no longer what I am after in life. Even though my work gives me purpose, joy and connection, it offers its own unique challenges and problems to overcome. The coaching process, like deep happiness, is never easy. It’s confrontational. You need get real with yourself, be honest, and ask yourself the hard questions that push you out of your comfort zone. As a coach and teacher, you are always learning, evolving, growing, expanding your awareness. Being a coach and coachee takes commitment, effort and practice. It involves tons of self-reflection and experimentation with what pushes your boundaries and scares you the most. It requires courage, compassion, persistence and vulnerability. Coaching moves you through the full range of emotions, both negative and positive. It is as likely to include tension and struggles as it is happiness. But this is exactly what I love about it. It is real. It is deeply human, and it connects to me to people in a meaningful way.
Coaching and teaching are close to my heart as they offer me the opportunity to express who I am at best and to contribute to a better world for everyone. This kind of work also aligns me with my top three values: (meaningful) connection, growth and inspiration. My definition of connection is being present and being real, with myself and others. Growth stands for continuously challenging myself and my love for learning. I do not only want to become better at what I do for my own sake, I want to have a greater impact, make a real difference in people’s lives. Growth also involves taking a stand for other people’s growth, helping others to use what they’ve got, their unique strengths, skills and talents, to create a life that is meaningful to them. My third value, inspiration, stands for being passionate about my work, feeling inspired to help others become the most fulfilled expressions of themselves. It is also includes my need to be inspired by others who excel at what they do, other coaches and teachers, people who are making a difference in the world and who, in turn, inspire me to be a better person. And it involves being an inspiration for others, by being real and investing in my own growth, setting an example for others in order to help them get real with themselves and expand their vision of who they can be in the world.
To sum up, my personal definition of deep happiness comes from knowing who you are, from being real with yourself, and living a life that connects to your purpose and your values, and contributes to making life somehow better for others. For me, coaching and teaching help me to connect to myself and others in a meaningful way, and to our collective journey of waking up to our potential. Although coaching and teaching is always about other people, it fulfils me deeply. That’s what deep happiness means to me. When I put aside my own troubles and selfish interests to give my listening fully to another person, I allow myself deeply care about others. Caring for others gives my life significance; it gives my life meaning. Or Christopher Peterson, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology, used to say “other people matter”.
What are you doing to live a more meaningful life? How are you making life better for other people?