ACU (Australian Catholic University)

ACU Alum

Issue 4, Autumn 2013

Meaning to be happy

Happiness and meaning do not always go together writes Professor Jim Bright.

I had a happy moment at a recent birthday dinner. The conversation turned to the television show, Summer Heights High, and somebody at the dinner party who had been enjoying the hospitality a little too much chipped in with “you mean that show with Dennis Lillee!” The confusion of Dennis Lillee with Chris Lilley, the star of the show was sufficient to reduce me to hysterics – the pure joy of laughter. However I do not think that it was the most meaningful moment of my life.

Conversely, thinking about some sad events like the deaths of people very close to me, isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, but reflecting on their characters and contributions can be exceedingly meaningful for me. In a world of instant cheap thrills we are encouraged to strive for happiness at all costs. It is often presented as the ultimate goal of modern living. I was momentarily happy thinking of the absurdity of Dennis Lillee with his trademark Zapato moustache got up like an North Shore schoolgirl, but I am not sure I’d want to spend my life in such a giggly state.

We face the same dilemmas with our careers: do we pursue happiness or meaning? Can we pursue both simultaneously? Does happiness flow from working in a meaningful role? Can work only be meaningful when we are happy? The nexus between happiness and meaningful work is assumed in so many of the popular slogans that abound about careers: “follow your passion”, and “do the work you love”. Confucius is attributed with this gem “choose a job you love and you’ll never work another day in your life”. The trouble is, as we will see, following our passion risks us ending up stuck in a very shallow career cul-de-sac.

Roy Baumeister and his team of social psychologists, in a recent paper say, “Although happiness and meaning are important features of a desirable life and indeed are interrelated, they have different roots and implications.” That implies our hedonistic pursuits might leave us happy but empty, while one could have a thoroughly meaningful job and be miserable.

In career terms it might be more realistic and attainable to seek out work that is meaningful and not expect work to make us happy. The separation of meaning and happiness might be one of the reasons some of the most meaningful jobs are relatively poorly paid. Saving a person’s life as a paramedic, nurse, fire fighter or police officer surely ranks in the higher echelons of meaningfulness.  So, too, the researchers who find treatments for disease. Yet all these fine folk are paid a pittance compared with someone who owns a large hole and digs stuff up.

It would seem odd for aid workers striving to feed the starving masses to spend their days in raucous laughter content with the world. While I am sure that there is immense satisfaction in doing something meaningful, blissful happiness is unlikely to top the list of work rewards.  Depression and suicide rates are relatively high for doctors, yet arguably they are doing some of the most meaningful work available to us. Doing meaningful work, it seems, is far from a guarantee of happiness. Perhaps it could even be argued, that it has very little to do with our levels of happiness.

Nor, it seems, does money bring happiness.

Beyond a certain amount, if Gina Rinehart is anything to go by, it seems to bring lawsuits from children wanting to control their own trust funds. Throwing money at people may ease their pain and allow them to buy more happy times, but it won’t address their existential angst.
Some happy experiences can be bought. We love going to the movies, attending big sports events and visiting the theatre for instance. It is not clear that meaningful experiences can be bought in quite the same way. Pushy parents force-feeding their children on a diet of museums, galleries and historic houses, take note.

The separation between meaning and happiness might also explain the withering contempt many have if asked to take part in some awful group-bonding exercise, or other enforced jollities. We know at some level that work, is well work. No matter how much we love doing it; all work becomes work if we do it long enough. Elton John in his recent book Love is the Cure, recounts how the suffering of an AIDS victim, a boy called Ryan White, changed his perspective on life and gave it meaning hitherto missing, despite his tremendous career success. When Ryan was close to death, Elton describes leaving the boy’s bedside to perform in a show and making little effort with his appearance – at the time meaning was more important than happiness.

Maybe we need to spend more time making work meaningful and less time worrying about people’s happiness. That is not a manifesto for worker neglect. Rather, if we want to be engaged at work, if we want to engage our staff, we must look beyond happiness to ways of finding meaning through work.

So think carefully about your career. If you are unhappy, are there ways to address that unhappiness that do not involve leaving your work? If you work lacks meaning, are there ways of finding that meaning outside work? If your work makes you unhappy and lacks meaning, then it is probably time to look at making some changes.

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