Our modern lives can somehow manage to be both hectic and monotonous. We’re so busy being productive and crossing task after task off our to-do lists, but we seldom actually engage in various experiences. Each day tends to blend into the next with little sense of progress.
This drives many people to seek out different things. We love to travel, for instance. Some people chase thrills and go on outdoor adventures. Others satisfy their cravings by discovering hidden local restaurants, reading a new book, or striving to learn a hobby or skill.
These experiences can undoubtedly make you happier than straightforward material consumption. Research has shown that spending money on doing things leads to more enduring happiness than merely buying things to have them. But is satisfaction really the end goal?
Unsatisfied with happiness
Who doesn’t want to be happy? As the philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said, all men seek happiness, without exception. Biologically, our brains are wired to not only recognize pleasure but pursue it in a positive feedback loop. We experience a stimulus, find that we like it, and want more of the same.
This mechanism underlies some of our best and worst behaviors. It drives us to establish and maintain good relationships, but it also provides fuel for addiction. And it empowers other behaviors that arguably lie in between, such as the modern-day penchant for scrolling through social media and other app feeds.
But happiness isn’t everything. In her book The Power of Meaning, journalist Emily Esfahani Smith details how several studies correlate high levels of affluence with suicide rates. Some of the world’s wealthiest populations also seem to be the ones that struggle most with feelings of depression or apathy.
Pillars of meaning
The point is not to fall back on the trite saying, “Money can’t buy you happiness.” The majority of the world’s population has a standard of living well below that of developed countries, and would undoubtedly beg to disagree. Rather, people can have the ability to afford many things, not only material goods but even experiential purchases, and still feel as though their lives are devoid of meaning.
Meaning is found in our lives through what Smith outlines as four ‘pillars’. The first one is belonging. We need to feel a sense of genuine connection with others. The second is purpose, doing something for others. Third is storytelling, by which we take ownership of weaving the narrative of our lives into something positive. And finally, there is transcendence: the sense of becoming a part of something far greater than yourself.
Going on an adventure for meaning
Many people understand these things on a gut level but fail to consistently and deliberately apply them in their search for new experiences. But if you know the specifics of what you’re after, you can start to pursue your sense of adventure to find meaning.
For instance, in the age of the pandemic, a lot of people are trying to learn new skills. They do this to find continued intellectual stimulation and career growth. But how about going through EMT testing to become a first responder and serve your community?
Such an undertaking isn’t for the faint of heart, but real adventures aren’t like amusement park rides. There is a genuine sense of uncertainty about the outcome, but so is the sense of possibility and higher rewards.
Experiences like travel are also rewarding for the serendipitous and stimulating interactions you might have with people you meet. Waiting to board a flight can lead to striking up a conversation with someone you’d never otherwise talk to. The same thing can happen when you queue up for a tourist attraction or go bargain hunting at a foreign market.
Social media can’t replace these informal and unexpected interactions. It purports to enrich our lives and keep us connected. But in practice, we usually end up following and talking to like-minded people in an echo chamber. Rather than improving our lives with meaning, it encourages groupthink and makes us feel stifled as individuals.
Finally, you can channel your adventures into meaningful experiences by keying into their potential to build a narrative and connect you with something bigger than yourself. This is something people do when they climb mountains or camp in the wilderness.
Face adversity, and test your resilience, courage, and resourcefulness. Contemplate the vast universe under a sky free of light pollution. Feel free to wax poetic, because it’s your story and you are in charge. You might not be the only person to seek out experiential joy, but by engaging with these adventures on a different level, you can find both happiness and meaning.