By Joe Casey
The pursuit of happiness.
It’s one of the three “unalienable rights” highlighted in the Declaration of Independence. Happiness has also become an industry. Odds are that you’ve read a least one, and probably more, of the countless books or articles published on happiness in recent years.
And it seems that it may be harder to achieve these days – at least around these parts. Among countries, Canada ranks 9th and the U.S. slipped from third to 19th in the 2017 World Happiness Report.
But if you’re “chronologically advanced”, as I heard the comedian Sarah Jones describe it last week, there’s good news.
Unlike a number of things, happiness tends to increase in later life. Several studies (including Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2008)) suggest that happiness follows a U-shaped curve, dipping in mid-life and then tending to climb in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.
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We can all agree that happiness is a good thing. And it’s great to know that it tends to increase in later years. But perhaps there’s a higher level of living to aspire to. A new study by the Stanford Graduate School of Education and Encore.org (Purpose in the Encore Years: Shaping Lives of Meaning and Contribution) found that (only) about 3 in 10 of surveyed adults, 50 and older, expressed that they have “purpose beyond the self”. Purpose was defined as engaging in activities that had meaning to them personally and contributed to the well-being of others.
Often, this is of great interest to many people. But it’s natural to wonder what it really entails and what you’d need to give up. Does purpose involve a high level of sacrifice and total commitment? A key finding of this study is that pursuing purpose is”not a zero-sum game”. People who reported a purpose beyond themselves were found to have a higher level of engagement in other self-oriented activities, indicating that purposeful activities are a matter of “and” rather than “either/or.” Perhaps the most notable finding is that those with “purpose beyond the self” reported higher levels of joy, satisfaction, and optimism. (I’ve never heard anyone complain about having too much of those).
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How do I find my purpose and strive for greater meaning? Our guest on this week’s episode of The Retirement Conversation podcast, Emily Esfahani Smith, makes a compelling case for cultivating meaning over pursuing happiness. The author of The Power of Meaning, she notes that happiness can be fleeting, while meaning can lead to longer lasting fulfillment. Emily dispels the perception of pursuing purpose and meaning as lofty and offers practical advice and examples of how it can be nurtured in small ways in daily life. Emily provides insights from positive psychology research, the wisdom of ancient philosophers and her own experiences that will be useful to anyone who is interested in developing more purpose and meaning in their lives.
You can listen to our conversation with Emily Esfahani Smith here.
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