Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and “Is There Meaning to Life”, the recent dialogue at Convocation Hall (featuring philosopher William Lane Craig, psychology professor Dr. Jordan Peterson, and philosopher and author Dr. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein) made me look at joy and happiness a little differently.
Both the book and the talk helped me realize that eventually true positive emotion, that is joy and fulfillment come from things that you engage in that are the most meaningful to you. Let’s start with something really small — like a bar of chocolate. Joy doesn’t come from the bar of chocolate itself. Sure, it tastes great…but there’s more to it than that. Maybe it’s who gave you the chocolate. Or maybe it reminds you of something. Or maybe it’s what you did to deserve that chocolate. Joy is not a product or person or place, rather, it is what the product person or place signifies.
As you’re reading this think of the times you’ve been completely engrossed in something. In other words, think of when you are experiencing a state of flow. Flow is a mental state of operation in which a person engaged in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, complete involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. This could range from anything between an interesting conversation with a friend to sitting in class and being blown away by what you’re learning. So how do you make more of those moments?
The first step is to move away from cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a state where your actions and behavior are not in alignment with your values. Perhaps it’s a state you’re in when you’re hanging out with the wrong “friends” or scrolling mindlessly through your Facebook homepage. You experience a dissonance because deep down you know this is not important to who you are because it doesn’t conform to the values you identify yourself with. And so once you move away from these moments you’ll have the time, energy and mental freedom to move towards activities and people that mean something to you.
Then, the next thing is to think of the times you have experienced the state of flow I described above. And we experience this flow a lot more than we realize. Like I said, it doesn’t have to be huge event or project. More often than not it’s smaller activities you engage in that give you meaning and satisfaction. Once you’ve thought of those, find a way to incorporate more of those activities in your routine.
I think the most important thing to keep in mind is that even the activities and people you value most are not going to give you constant joy. If it were constant then there wouldn’t be anything special about it. That’s why it’s important to go after the things that are meaningful to you. Because then, even when things get hard and there are obstacles and challenges, you know it’s what you signed up for. And most importantly, you know there’s growth involved.
I hope you find comfort then in looking at joy as not an emotion in itself but a byproduct of meaning. So instead of trying to figure out where joy comes from try to figure out what activities and which people are the most meaningful to you. Maximize those moments. You’ll discover then that while joy is temporary, and comes in fleeting moments — when you experience it as a result of doing the right things, the feeling is incomparable.