Self Magazine included research conducted by Professor of Sociology Wes Perkins in an article about living a meaningful life. The article featured research on a number of topics pertaining to finding happiness in life and noted, “in a survey of 800 graduates at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, who ranged in age from their mid-20s to their mid-30s, alumni who ranked high income, job success and prestige as their top priorities were twice as likely as other classmates to describe themselves as fairly or very unhappy.” The article also noted the study found alumni “who said they valued close relationships were more apt than others to rate themselves as very happy.”
Perkins, co-director of the HWS Alcohol Education Project, has been called the father of social norms and has published extensively on the prevention of alcohol and drug abuse in young adults. He is the editor of a new book on social norms, called “The Social Norms Approach to Preventing School and College Age Substance Abuse.”
Perkins has delivered more than 250 guest lectures and keynote addresses both in the United States and internationally. He acts as a consultant in schools nationwide, and his research has been cited by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, and Time Magazine.
The full article follows.
How to live a more meaningful life
Nancy Hass • March 1, 2005
The latest research shows that marriage, kids, and money aren’t necessarily crucial to happiness. Here’s what is.
I hadn’t heard from my friend Judy, a sculptor, for weeks. She was at one of those artist colonies in the woods, a sort of full-scholarship sleep away camp for grown-ups where composers, poets, and visual artists work alone in their tiny cabins all day. Still, it was unusual for her not to respond to my various e-mail rants about deer tearing up the garden and unreliable contractors, and I was starting to worry. Judy happens to be single, childless and in her 40s. Suddenly, I pictured her locked in her lonely room conjuring fantasies in which the man of her dreams appears on one of the wooded paths (poof!) with two bright-faced kids in tow.
Then an e-mail from her flashed across my screen: “You can stop looking. I have found the meaning of life.”
Apparently, “poor Judy” had simply been too blissed-out to check in. No cooking, no cleaning, no distractions from the work she loves, plus a group of talented pals to drink and schmooze with after hours. A man? The pitter-patter of little feet? She wasn’t missing it.
As I stared at the screen, I had to wonder: What makes a life meaningful, anyway? For our mothers’ generation, it generally meant getting married (to a man with a “good” job), having kids and creating a “nice” home. In the ’70s, the formula for fulfillment got more complex: Self-actualization was what mattered. In the ’80s, the key was to have it all – domestic bliss and a power job. In the ’90s, rock-hard abs were added to the list.
It’s hard not to be affected by this ever-expanding menu of societal benchmarks, hard not to worry if we measure up. So maybe now is the time to ask, “Is the meaningful life really so formulaic?” If you haven’t scored the traditional trappings by 40, an age at which more than 18 percent of women are still single and childless, are you doomed to emotional emptiness? And what if you do hit all the supposed marks – the man, the kids, the corner office – yet still wind up feeling unfulfilled?
“I know people probably look at my life and wonder, what more could she want?” says Carroll Gray-Keating, 44, a slender blonde mother of three who lives in an elegant home in Westfield, New Jersey, with her kids and her lawyer husband. “I’m grateful for being able to shape my children’s lives, but the older I get, the more I’m bothered by the nagging feeling that there’s something else out there I should be doing, some passion I’ve yet to pursue.”
In a time of terrorism and natural disasters beyond comprehension, when life seems more precious and fragile than ever, this issue feels all the more urgent. Luckily for us, science is on the case. Researchers are flocking to the fast-growing field of happiness studies, bent on finding the answer to a single question: What is most likely to make us believe that life is worth living? Having a naturally optimistic nature? Marriage? Children? Deep religious beliefs? Satisfying work? Good friends? Helping others? The answer may not be what you think.
It turns out while each of these factors plays a role in how fulfilled you feel, ultimately, the answer is less about the choices you make (or don’t) and more about how you look at those choices. In other words, the power to feel that your life is meaningful lies within you, whoever you are, whatever you have or whatever you’re doing.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that contentment comes easily to all of us. Some people, it seems, are equipped with an innate sense that life is rich. Researchers at the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis tracked more than 4,000 pairs of identical and fraternal twins born between 1936 and 1955. People who were happy as children were apt to report similar levels of happiness throughout life, regardless of what befell them (identical twins remained more on par happiness-wise than fraternal twins). In contrast, people who lack that natural high may feel empty whether or not they rack up substantial successes.
“Some unhappy people tend to look askance at naturally smiley types and say, ‘No wonder she’s happy – she has a great life,'” says study author David Lykken, Ph.D., a behavioral geneticist at the University of Minnesota. “But certain studies indicate the opposite is true. Happy people, it seems, are happy because it’s their personality to be that way. They were like that before they got married and had kids or got the big job. They create fulfilling lives rather than the other way around.”
The marriage myth
Fortunately, the ability to discover meaning where there was none before is within everyone’s grasp, Lykken says. A first step, he advises, may be to stop measuring yourself by conventional standards of success. For instance, while married people are happier than never-marrieds (nearly 40 percent say they’re very happy versus 25 percent of singles), that may be because naturally positive people are more apt to wed in the first place. “When you look at individuals, the picture becomes more complex,” says Ed Diener, Ph.D., a leading happiness researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When Diener followed people over the course of 30 years, he found there was a slight uptick in happiness around the time of engagement or marriage that lasted for about two to three years after the wedding. For most, the buzz had worn off by the 10-year mark.
Of course, a happy marriage can contribute to a more meaningful, satisfying life, so if you’re married, it makes sense to nurture your union as best you can. Indeed, six out of 10 people who said their marriage was very happy also described their lives that way, according to a 2003 study at Hope College (could there be a more appropriate place for happiness research?) in Holland, Michigan. Among unhappily married couples, on the other hand, only one in 10 are content with their lot. Yet there’s not necessarily a direct cause-and-effect link between feeling joyful and being happily wed: “People who are very happy may have a proclivity toward happy marriages, but being in any supportive relationship is also conducive to contentment,” says David G. Myers, Ph.D., author of “The Pursuit of Happiness” and a professor at Hope. “It goes both ways.”
The same applies to having children. “I have seen absolutely no data to support that people with children are more fulfilled than people without them,” Myers says. This is true even for those who say they very much wanted children beforehand. “As wonderful as they are, kids truly require sacrifice of one’s soul, one’s patience, one’s privacy. One’s life,” says Linda Zelenko, 45, who runs a design studio in New Milford, Connecticut, and has 8- and 11-year-old daughters.
Indeed, 40 percent of married adults with children said they were very happy compared with 42 percent of married, childless adults, according to survey data from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center (NORC) collected from 1972 to 2002. “It isn’t that people don’t get positive things out of having children,” Myers says. “It’s that the stresses and pressures of raising them pretty much balance things out when it comes to subjective well-being.”
Says Dina (not her real name), a mother of two in her 30s, “Even if your husband is great with kids, like mine is, it’s still easy to feel frustrated if you think he’s not doing his fair share, whether or not that’s the reality. And it goes without saying that when you have a young child to care for, romance falls to the bottom of the list. I miss the one-on-one time.”
Doing good, feeling good
We’ve all heard that money can’t buy happiness, and research appears to bear that out. “Some people who are dissatisfied in their job think it’s because they don’t earn enough, but lots of people who earn very little are perfectly content. In the United States, at least, salary isn’t a good indicator of how much joy we get from our jobs,” Lykken says. In fact, back in 1985, Diener and his colleagues surveyed Forbes’s 100 wealthiest Americans and discovered they were only slightly happier than the average Jane. Of the 49 people who responded, most agreed that “money can increase or decrease happiness.” It’s merely another piece of the pie, like everything else.
So is prestige: In one study, Lykken interviewed people after they’d gotten a promotion they’d desperately wanted. Despite an initial boost in their joy, everyone’s mood more or less returned to normal within a few months to a year. And in a survey of 800 graduates at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, who ranged in age from their mid-20s to their mid-30s, alumni who ranked high income, job success and prestige as their top priorities were twice as likely as other classmates to describe themselves as fairly or very unhappy.
On the other hand, gratifying employment does seem to matter. What’s critical: feeling valued and believing that what you do is important. “That can happen whether you’re a secretary or a trial lawyer,” Lykken says. Amanda Goldman, 43, a marketing executive in New York City, agrees: “For me, having real relationships with my colleagues makes the whole thing worth it. I’ve left jobs where I haven’t felt that, even though the money was excellent. And no matter how much you’re paid, it’s not enough if you’re not having an impact.”
If what you do helps others, even better. Researchers have found that working at something philanthropic has a deeper and more lasting effect on well-being than the pursuit of either pleasure or profit. “I feel energized every day because I know what my work means and whose lives it changes,” says Beth Osthimer, 48, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund California in Los Angeles, an advocacy group concerned with poverty and education. Trained as a lawyer, Osthimer could have made more money if she’d gone to a big, corporate law firm, but, she says, “I can’t imagine not being able to see the difference I’m making in children’s lives.”
Martin Seligman, Ph.D., father of the positive-psychology movement and a professor at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, has also found a strong correlation between doing good and feeling good. In a class assignment where he had students do something fun such as see a movie with friends, then volunteer to help others, the students invariably found putting others’ needs before their own more profoundly satisfying than fun seeking. “Eventually, you need to find a way to use your strengths for something beyond yourself or you wind up doing what I call ‘fidgeting unto death,'” he says.
Another thing that seems to matter is love – or, at least, close personal connections. That can mean marriage, good friends or children, but not necessarily. In a 2002 study, Diener and Seligman followed more than 200 college students for several months to see what the most satisfied 10 percent had in common. It turns out they all enjoyed what they felt were high-quality friendships and were very comfortable being close with others. Likewise, in the Hobart and William Smith study, alumni who said they valued close relationships were more apt than others to rate themselves as very happy.
The number of relationships one has counts, too. It’s certainly possible to achieve a deeper sense of meaning with a single close bond in your life, but in general, having a greater number of solid connections amounts to more life happiness. The NORC survey found that 38 percent of people with five or more close relationships dubbed themselves very happy compared with 26 percent of those with less than five. “People who say, ‘I have no friends but I’m really happy,’ pretty much don’t exist,” Myers says.
Change your attitude, change your life
Clearly, gratifying work, intimate connections and doing good are significant, but I couldn’t help wondering if there wasn’t something else, something integral to making life fulfilling. As I dug into the research, it occurred to me that what unites most of these factors is the sense of having some control over the choices you make and the things you do. The more you believe you are driving your life, rather than the other way around, the greater the chance that you’ll see your life as meaningful. Psychology researchers often refer to this sense of personal control as self-efficacy – “the opposite of what I call learned helplessness,” Seligman explains. “It’s having confidence that your actions will directly affect an outcome and that you can shape that outcome positively,” he explains. These types of people tend to hone their natural strengths and be good at getting themselves into situations where they can use those strengths to make a difference. They realize early on that happiness is about channeling their power toward a cause larger than themselves.
Why giving gives back
That may sound like a tall order, but if you can’t say good-bye to a draining or unsatisfying job, clocking in some volunteer hours at an organization that truly needs you can make a big difference, happiness gurus say. “One thing you can do when you’re haunted by the ‘what’s it all about?’ feeling is to stop dwelling on it, get outside yourself and dedicate some time to others for a while,” Lykken says. That’s how Gina Ryan got back on her feet after she left her journalism job to care for her kids full-time. “Work was my identity. I was a huge workaholic, and I derived an incredible amount of satisfaction from that,” says the 42-year-old New Yorker. “Just being a mom was devastating. I felt totally isolated.” Then she began tutoring elementary school students in a troubled neighborhood, and, she says, her life fell back into place. “I felt connected to New York in a way I hadn’t before,” explains Ryan, who moved to the city because her husband was relocated. “I’m not bringing home a big paycheck, but my life feels full again.”
Another way to create that sense of control so integral to fulfillment is to make a list of burdens that sap your sense of power, suggests psychologist Dale Atkins, Ph.D., of New York City, author of “I’m OK, You’re My Parents” (Henry Holt). Then choose one and take back the control. “Your choice can be major, such as quitting a job you hate, or minor, like letting the answering machine pick up your mom’s third call of the day. You’ll get an emotional payoff merely by pushing yourself to be effective.”
Catherine Nation, 48, a retail executive, found that to be true. “Everything changed when I was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago,” she says. “I took a hard look at my hectic New York City lifestyle and the stress it put me under. It’s not that I thought my cancer was caused by stress, but I knew I needed to make a change, and it took getting that diagnosis to set me into action.” So Nation, her husband and daughter moved to Ojai, California, where she is “focusing on doing yoga and taking my practice to a much deeper level,” she says. “I find living here very healing. Moving was a lifestyle choice. I needed to slow down, breathe and really take care of my health.”
Her experience has been borne out by research: Studies suggest that people who consider themselves spiritual are more likely to say they are satisfied with their lives than people who don’t think of themselves that way, according to a 1984 Gallup poll.
Whatever your beliefs, merely moving from a mind-set of helplessness to one of action can give your life a jolt of meaning. For Fenia Clizer, 37, the mother of a teenager and a 5-year-old in Islamorada, Florida, that small assertion came when she replaced the heavy-rock CDs her older son kept in her car with her own favorites – “the music I loved when I had a life and an opinion,” she says, only half-joking. “I realized that in the process of being a wife and mother, I had lost a side of myself – my identity.” Small steps like these helped Clizer, who hadn’t worked outside the home in years, find the courage to pursue a career as a real estate agent. Now she says she feels stronger and less confined. “It’s the smartest thing I’ve ever done.”
Own up to your choices
Taking responsibility for all your decisions, both good and bad, can also help you feel as if your life is more in balance. “Instead of blaming others or yourself, you can reevaluate your situation, gain perspective and acknowledge that you have more power than you think,” Atkins says.
Ultimately, that’s what made a difference for Linn, a performer in her 40s who didn’t want to use her real name. “For years I cried ‘poor me’ because I wasn’t married. I blamed that on lousy men, on my weight, my touring schedule, on fate. Then I realized that the real reason I wasn’t married was that deep down, I didn’t want to be married,” she says. “There have been men who’ve wanted to marry me, but I always found reasons why they weren’t good enough. The truth is I love not having to answer to anyone. I finally admitted to myself that if having kids was so important to me, I’d have found a way. My life didn’t just happen. I made a choice.”
That epiphany, she says, woke her up to the richness that had been there all along. “Sure, there’s part of me that regrets not having a husband and kids, but there’s also a part of me saying, ‘God, what a wonderful life I’ve made for myself, traveling all over the world, making friends and pursuing my art, which lifts so many people to a higher plane.’ That’s what I wanted most, and I’ve achieved it. What could be more meaningful than that?”
For a happier future, let go of the past
The fastest way to feel more content with your lot now: Stop thinking about what might have been – it only fuels discontent. “Look at what you have rather than what you don’t, and your life will begin to take on more depth,” says Dale Atkins, Ph.D., a psychologist in New York City. The tips below can also help you make peace with your mistakes. Grab a pen and follow these steps:
1. Pick a decision that makes you cringe. Did you stay too long in a dead-end job? Marry the wrong guy? Whatever it was, jot it down.
2. Give yourself credit. Instead of denying that the situation ever happened, embrace the fact that you’ve gotten through it and survived. Atkins suggests. You might say to yourself, “I can live without my ex! I’m better without him!” Reminding yourself that you’re strong will help you move forward.
3. Cultivate compassion for the old you. Don’t berate yourself for a “bad” choice (“How could I have put up with that abusive boss?”). Ask what might have been going on with you at the time. It’s possible that five years ago, you didn’t realize you could nab a position at a better company. Remind yourself what it was about the option that made it seem attractive back then (“I needed a job to pay the bills”). Once you have a better understanding of the person you were, you’ll have an easier time suspending judgment. You don’t have to love your choice to realize why you made it.
4. Reinterpret your past. Look at an experience you now see as unwise as a single event in a series of events that add up to your life. Then ask yourself what you’ve learned from the decision and enumerate the ways your relationships have changed as a result (“I met my best friend at that terrible job”). Smart or not, your choices have undoubtedly led to new people, passions and insights you wouldn’t have gained otherwise. In short, have no regrets!
-Holly C. Corbett