From Happiness to Meaning

When you’re suffering with anxiety, you believe that symptom reduction is the most important thing in your life. Once the symptoms are removed, then you can finally be happy. That’s why you consult with doctors, because doctors are supposed to tell you how to eliminate your anxiety. From this perspective, happiness is what life is about, the reason why we exist on this planet, the greatest good we can achieve. From this perspective, your anxiety is preventing you from being happy, and for that reason, your anxiety needs to be eliminated. Seems like commonsense, right?

In fact, happiness is okay—I wouldn’t turn it down—but a fixation on happiness can become a great obstacle in your journey. Let’s think deeply about this for a moment. Happiness is a fickle emotion, dependent on what’s happening in your world at the moment. You wake up, the weather is good, a cool breeze is blowing, and you’re looking forward to hiking or boating, two of your favorite pastimes. So you’re happy. What if you woke up and it was cold and rainy? No hiking, no boating. As you can see, happiness is dependent on externalities. You may enjoy happiness when it happens, but you don’t control happiness. And since we can’t make it happen, we end up chasing things that supposedly set up happiness, according to our consumer culture, like making a lot of money, having a big house, owning particular brands and cultivating a particular public image. Is that the definition of a good life?

The real danger of happiness, though, is that happiness takes us out of our journey. That’s because happiness is perceived as an endpoint, a result. People leverage their anxiety and suffering to better understand the practical wisdom, meaning, and spiritual depth that the Universe has waiting, not their happiness. To be happy is to have no journey. That’s where you’d be if everything in your life went right all day, every day. You’d be marinating in your happiness, and mostly ignorant of the spiritual wisdom that gives life meaning.

The Meaningful Life

In fact, the most important thing in your life is the feeling that you have a life. To have a life means having a mission, because a mission combines values and goals. Goals are simply are what you want to accomplish. Values are the reasons behind goals, that is, why you do what you do. Goals exist in service to values. Once achieved, goals are done. Values, however, are never done, and when pursued forthrightly, the realization of values inspires us toward the creation of goals, because goals are the evidence of values enacted on world.

Most people have little or no self-conscious grasp of their values. Our consumer culture prevents it. Ask them about their life purpose and the values that guide it, and you’ll get a rambling, stumbling answer. That’s because most people are pursuing a life of happiness and amusement. A happy life revolves around various pleasures and amusements. In the West, where people generally have enough to eat and enough work to pay their bills, enough amusements are available to support a generally happy life. This might include going to the movies, going out to dinner, playing video games, going on a date, or any kind of recreation. Plenty of people live to be happy.

In contrast, a meaningful life is based on your values. Your values constitute your identity, values are who you are, about what you stand for as a human being. They are core self-definitions that we strive to enact and which we feel empty without. Examples are creativity, loyalty, courage, perseverance, family, love of learning, and career advancement. Your values are literally what makes life worth living for you. When consciously articulated, your values give you a sense of meaning and purpose in life, and this provides the motivation to go the extra mile.

When you focus exclusively on symptom reduction—medical model thinking—that’s not a meaningful life. But that’s exactly what happens with severe anxiety. In worrying about the symptoms we forget the bigger picture of our lives. How can we rediscover our meaning and purpose, the reason we are on this earth?

Identifying Goals: What’s Anxiety Blocking?

If anxiety is a reaction to too small of a life, then in what direction do you need to grow your life? Your frustrated goals provide a bridge to values. Reconnect with your values is by asking “What’s anxiety blocking? What’s it keeping me from? What would I be doing with my life if anxiety wasn’t in the way?” These questions ask for goals, but that’s okay. Goals capture values, and values inspire goals. Identifying your goals brings you one step closer to identifying your values. Maybe you want to have a career in finance, become a soccer coach for kids, go skiing or rock climbing, talk to a girl, start your own business, or go out to dinner with friends, and your anxiety seems to prevent all these things, and more.

To perform this exercise systematically, check Table 1, which lists a variety of important life domains. For each domain, answer the questions above by writing out your goals. Take as much time as you need. You don’t need goals for every life domain—that would be unusual—but you should list your most significant aspirations. These are goals that you’re especially passionate about, or could get passionate about were it not for anxiety.