Not so fast.
The science of happiness is a bit more complex than you might expect, and as it turns out, the best way to find happiness in life might be to look for something entirely different.
For decades, psychologists have studied happiness and tried to bring the whole “meaning of life” thing down to a more manageable question. They’re making progress, too; several recent studies show how searching for meaning can lead to a more rewarding life.
If that sounds complex, think of it this way: satisfaction might feel more fulfilling than moments of pure happiness.
One study asked its subjects to listen to a piece of music.
That piece of music was “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky, a fairly upsetting and chaotic piece. To put that into perspective, the first performance of “The Rite of Spring” in 1913 caused a near riot.
Half the participants were asked to focus on feeling happy while the song was playing—in other words, their goal was to seek out happiness in the notes of the song.
But when the song finished playing, that group of listeners reported feeling unhappy or lonely. The group that simply listened to the song without being prompted to feel one way or another felt better, on average, than the group that was searching for happiness.
This study also addresses the idea that “happiness is a choice.” Clearly, it isn’t, or at least it isn’t a conscious choice. In fact, trying to force happiness could have an opposite effect.
The Grant and Glueck happiness studies provide additional insight.
The 75-year studies by scientists Grant and Glueck suggested that good relationships are the key to happiness—and for many people, the key to building healthy relationships is to share goals and work towards something, whether it’s a family, travel, or mutual career growth.
The studies also showed that people felt happier when doing good for others. Survey respondents also feel happier when they’re working on things that they’re good at. Aptitude seems to be a significant factor in the satisfaction that we derive from tasks.
In 2016, Grant and Glueck returned to the same survey group and discovered that happiness correlated strongly with how people felt about their occupations. Income and wealth weren’t such strong factors, although how people feel about money is; in other words, if you’re comfortable with your income level, it doesn’t really matter what that income level is.
Your job doesn’t need to make you happy, either.
A survey from MyPlan.com showed that some careers with high satisfaction rates were fundamentally difficult jobs that didn’t necessarily promote happiness. Fire fighters, pediatricians, and high school teachers, for instance, have difficult work days, but reported high rates of satisfaction.
So, why are these positions so satisfying? They provide a sense of meaning, or importance, which can make them much more rewarding than high-paying positions.
This isn’t to say that we can’t have both happiness and satisfaction, of course, but happiness seems to take a backseat. After all, we couldn’t find “ice cream tester” anywhere on the list of satisfying jobs.
Career satisfaction seems like an important point of consideration. In 2010, only 42.6 percent of Americans said that they liked their jobs. That’s down from 61.1 percent in 1987, according to the Conference Board, a research group based in New York.
Job satisfaction isn’t the only way to get a sense of meaning. Parenthood, strong social networks, and charity can also establish this sense of meaning, and this article isn’t trying to get you to pursue one course over another. The point is simply that satisfaction is a process with many different components, and to build a satisfying life, look for meaning—according to the science, happiness is passé.