When Steph over at Make More Meaning asked me if I’d like to contribute a guest post to her Meaningful May project, I couldn’t wait to get on board. I’m a big fan of Steph’s blog and have been eagerly following along as she shares her minimalist journey, so I was thrilled by the opportunity to contribute to her next project. Steph has invited contributors to explore whatever aspect of ‘meaning’ we like, so my first step was to ask myself how exactly I find meaning in my life. As humans, how do we find meaning in life?
This is one of the questions that the field of Positive Psychology – or the ‘science of happiness’, as it is often called – focuses on. I first came across it last year and have since been exploring its principles with increasing curiosity. I recently finished reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement. Seligman contends that finding meaning is one of the essential components (if not the most essential component) of human happiness, which he believes is achieved through a multifaceted, three-fold approach:
- The Pleasant Life: living a life that pursues pleasure and positive emotion.
- The Good Life: using one’s signature strengths and virtues to obtain gratification.
- The Meaningful Life: using one’s signature strengths and virtues in the service of something larger than us.
This model struck me as particularly compatible with my minimalist approach to life, since minimalism encourages me to seek more meaning in everything I do. Minimalism reminds me that I’m not my ‘stuff’, that there’s a much deeper part of who I am that is not tied up with creating and maintaining an external image of myself. In other words, minimalism reminds me that it’s okay to want something more from life, and I think this is what Positive Psychology is really driving at with its three-fold approach to happiness. It recognises that, while pleasure and positive emotion are certainly important, alone they will not provide us with a sustainable sense of satisfaction. I can agree with this from personal experience, as in the past I too often used the cult of consumerism as a stand-in for happiness, only to feel short-changed as I found my purchases becoming less shiny and new by the minute.
I like the idea of instead finding meaning by serving a higher purpose through the active employment of our strengths and virtues. I see this as creating a (pardon the pun) virtuous cycle: by following our purpose, we feel happy, and by feeling happy, we have the energy and motivation to follow our purpose, enriching our life and the lives of those around us. In short, finding purpose and meaning in life – finding our ‘why’ – is a gift that keeps on giving.
Since becoming acquainted with this approach, I’ve spent some time thinking about my signature strengths and how I want to take them into the real world in service of something bigger than me. I know deep down that for me, that ‘something bigger’ is inspiring and empowering others. I realised last year that two of my signature strengths – my natural ability with language and my passion for education – were a powerful combination to serve this purpose, and I enrolled in a course to become an English teacher. At the end of this year I’ll therefore be handing in my resignation at my current job and plunging into the unknown! I may be confronted by some uncomfortable feelings when that time comes, but I know it will be well worth it because I can already sense the fulfilment of helping to guide my students along a path of lifelong learning.
My conclusion from this powerful change in my life direction – thanks to a little help from the principles of Positive Psychology – is that following our ‘why’ isn’t always easy, but it’s our birthright. While more often than not it takes incredibly hard work and a great deal of perseverance to take control of our life direction, I believe it’s worth it when we can step back and feel a deep sense of having a place in this world. To me, that’s true meaning.
If you’d like to learn more about Positive Psychology, I invite you to check out the links I’ve provided below, but in the meantime I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to Steph for facilitating this awesome online event. It has been a pleasure and a great privilege to share my perspective! The lovely Cristy over at Mexi Minnesotana is the next contributor in Steph’s series – check out her post on meaning in everyday life here. You can also check back on the Meaningful May main page to see all the posts in the series in the one place.
- This five-minute video summarises the three principles of Authentic Happiness and gives an overview of the book.
- Martin Seligman’s TED talk, The new era of positive psychology, is a great introduction to the field.
- The Authentic Happiness website created by the University of Pennsylvania (Seligman is a Professor of Psychology there) provides information on latest research projects, book recommendations, profiles of key contemporary influencers in the field and a number of questionnaires you can complete.
- The Pursuit of Happiness website, a non-profit organisation run by a team of psychologists and other professionals. I like the site’s ‘Science of Happiness’ section, which breaks down key concepts in the field and summarises important studies that have been carried out in each area.