Motivational psychology hinges on the idea that understanding what is most important to any individual person is the key to changing behavior. I’ve heard this idea referred to as mission, as purpose. It’s easy to think that following your mission and living your purpose would mean happiness, but what if it doesn’t?
Roy Baumeister, a social psychologist whose work focuses on agency and self-control, argues that living a good life and living a happy life may be two different things. In his research, although the two overlap, they are not the same. Being happy includes getting what you want and feeling good now. Being fulfilled and living a meaningful life do not necessarily require being comfortable and materially satisfied in the moment.
This makes sense when you think that many people find their purpose in life as a consequence of tragedy or hardship. Sometimes referred to as a quantum change, these moments of epiphany may occur when a loved one dies, a substance abuser hits rock bottom, or a job is lost. In a NY Times op-ed about finding meaning, David Brooks recounts the story of one man who found his life’s meaning in the wake of his wife’s death:
As shocking as that time was, almost as shocking was the sense of personal growth and awakened understanding that has come from the experience for me through reflection and inner work — to a point that I feel almost guilty about how significant my own growth has been as a result of my wife’s death.
All this means is that it may not be right to say, “I just want to be happy.” Most of us want something more. We want to be happy, and we want to live with purpose. Thinking of them both separately may change the activities we choose to put in our days.