We all want to be happy, to feel good, to have enjoyment. And, most of us spend much effort in achieving those things.  But how successful are these efforts? Do you really feel better when you finish watching that show? After the diversion, are your problems still causing a nagging stress? Our comforts, and time devoted to entertainments and pleasure are at an historic high, yet depression, anxiety, and suicide are also at historic highs. Maybe there is something more that will make the temporary good feeling more lasting.

New research indicates that those people reporting high level of happiness do not pursue happiness directly, but experience it as a by-product of things they do that have a focus outside of themselves. These are things like doing well at work, teaching a child to read, or participating in a civic organization or charity. This idea is not new. It was in the fifth century BCE when the term Eudaimonia was used to describe a happy purposeful philosophy of life (Flanagan, 2009).

The philosophy of hedonia also originated in fifth second century Greece by Aristippus who emphasized that the purpose in life is to experience personal pleasure. Epicurus broadened this philosophy to justify self-centered lifestyle. Aristotle, on the other hand, proposed eudaimonia as the philosophy that there is more to life than pursing personal pleasure and immediate gratification. The purpose in life is to use one’s talents effectively and focus on something outside of oneself. The famous philosopher Owen Flanagan (2009) described this as flourishing: living the good life.

Two things have brought flourishing to the feature page. One is the realization that despite the advances in comfort, health, and technology; depression, anxiety, and suicide seem to be increasing, while happiness is not likewise increasing. Second is a reorientation of psychology research started by Martin Seligman in 1998. This was a shift from emphasis on causes and treatment of mental problems to causes and avenues for good mental health—that is, development of resilience, fortitude, energy, and happiness.

Emily Smith in her book The Power of Meaning (2017) summarizes this trend in psychology research and points out that the efforts have focused on studies of happiness. She also lays a foundation for increased emphasis on a neglected factor in these happiness studies. This is sense of meaning in one’s activities and life that can be broadened to include a sense of long-range purpose.

This, too, is not a new idea. Just after World War II the famous Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl (1997), popularized the concept of purpose-in-life. He showed that a major cause of depression and anxiety was a person’s feeling of a lack of purpose in activities and life. Since such feeling drains happiness from one’s life, developing a sense of purpose should provide meaning and happiness to his psychiatric patients and he instigated a remedy called logotherapy.   This has been broadened as a mental health topic useful not only for patients, but also for average people to alleviate anomie, sadness, lethargy, and burnout. Psychologist Robert Emmons (1999) adds a particular goal of searching for the whys and wherefores of existence (what he calls ultimate concerns) as being related to health, well-being, and performance. The book, Climbing Higher (Wheeler, 2019) summarizes research indicating that for one’s sense of purpose to produce sufficient meaning to influence lasting happiness, it needs to  have goals of increasing understanding of the cause and nature of existence (whys and wherefores) and improving human civilization. These goals are so long range that they are never completely met and provide meaning and sense of purpose on a continuing basis. The purpose here is something beyond meeting immediate needs or pursuing short range goals. These goals and ways of pursuing them may not be clear but searching for them may be a beneficial goal in itself.

There is more research, but what it all means is that for real happiness and contentment you should be searching for something outside of yourself that gives meaning to your everyday activities. Much of the current problems of today would be alleviated if our media, politicians, and educators would emphasize the role of this sense of purpose and stimulate investigation of its nature rather than emphasizing more immediately available personal pleasures, entertainment, gratification, and power.

What is life all about?

A universal characteristic of normally thinking people is to wonder about why they are here, where they came from, and where they are going—the source and meaning of existence.  This concern accompanies the process of thinking abstractly about one’s self and one’s relationship with the environment.  History indicates that ever since people have had the capacity to be conscious of self, these concerns have been major motivators and foundations for religions and many branches of science. Psychology describes this as “ultimate concerns” (Emmons, 1999), Sociology uses “philosophy of life,” and theology likes “perennial philosophy” (Huxley, 1944).  Whether it was created within us or evolved through natural adaption is not as important as recognizing that it is there.

Because the answers to these concerns are nebulous and difficult to think about, people tend to align themselves with established assumptions and beliefs of other people, institutions, or organizations. Such belief systems have formed culture and dominated societies.  They range all the way from determinism established by a theistic force to materialism that excludes anything beyond material nature.  Psychology research indicates this wonderment creates an innate need similar to personality traits and could be called “ontological imperative” (Wheeler, 2019). Ontos is an ancient Greek word representing being as the fundamental aspect of existence. Ontology is the branch of philosophy that studies the ultimate being and ultimate reality that is the object of the ontological imperative.

Even though this need seems to be a universal characteristic, it is manifest many ways. For many people it is not as pressing as those of daily life such as job, food, and entertainment. The less pressing question of why gets pushed into recesses of the subconscious mind where it either creates an unsettled feeling or surfaces unexpectedly. For many people it is met by subscribing to answers provided by a belief system already established, one learned in childhood or through subsequent experience. This provides many benefits such as belongingness, social support, moral guidance, salvation, and answers to ultimate concerns. For many other people, though, these established systems conflict with their own experience and knowledge, and they search for answers with varying degrees of activity and concern.

Wouldn’t it be a better world if the media, politicians, educators, and leaders emphasized the ontological imperative search rather than the current emphasis on power, violence, and consumerism?