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How many times have you heard someone say their life’s goal is just to be happy? Or a parent say all they really want is for their kids to be happy? Americans are obsessed with happiness…and have been since day one. The U.S. Declaration of Independence enshrined “the pursuit of happiness” as one of our most fundamental rights. But what if the pursuit of happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?

Psychology research suggests that the more we think about wanting to be happy, the less happy we are. The more we invest in nice clothes, tech gadgets, and fancy houses we think will make us happy, the less able we are to be happy with less. It’s a never-ending treadmill that keeps us constantly chasing something better – and feeling inadequate, because no matter how much we indulge those kinds of desires, there is always something more to envy. The happy mood we score with a new toy is nice, but it’s just a mood – a temporary emotional state. Within a few days, we find ourselves feeling just as empty and unhappy as we did before.

Findings like these are what prompt psych researchers to look elsewhere for the source of true, enduring human satisfaction. My team and I have concluded, analyzing the research, that the secret to lasting contentment is cultivating both happiness and meaning… a subjective sense that what we’re doing matters.

As humans, we do need a little basic happiness to keep us chugging along, but meaning is the magical fairy dust that sustains a deeper, more enduring contentment.

What do we mean by meaning? The conviction that something we’re doing is furthering a cause that’s greater than ourselves. This is what inspires us to do things that are uncomfortable, and what makes us feel that doing those things was worthwhile…despite the discomfort and sacrifice involved in doing those things. The satisfaction of doing something meaningful far outweighs – and outlasts – the momentary blip of excitement we feel at getting that fabulous new whatever.

So, the obvious next question is: how do you cultivate both happiness and meaning? That’s what my team and I are committed to studying. We call our approach Connection Theory, because connecting with your own deeply held values and needs – the things that are meaningful to YOU – is the essential first step to cultivating a life rich in meaning, purpose, and satisfaction.

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