Today at work I had the opportunity to hear Laura King, Ph.D. from the University of Missouri Dept. of Psychology. Dr. King has spent over 20 years exploring topics within "positive psychology" such as happiness and meaning in life, relationships, intuition, religion, death, and self-identity. Wow.
She was a dynamic speaker, funny and approachable, and very engaging from the start. And she posed some very interesting ideas about the correlation between happiness and a life full of meaning. She posed that we should learn through observation rather than through inventing something new; that we won't find the meaning in our lives through abstract/pure concepts (altruism, heroism, truth), but rather through specific, achievable goals. She spoke about intuitive knowledge ("just knowing, without knowing why" and facilitated by a positive emotional experience) vs. analytical knowledge ("knowing something, and knowing why it's that way" and facilitated by a negative emotional experience), and posed that intuitive knowledge is the path to happiness. Random events can be imbued with meaning—synchronicity gives meaning to random connections.
She said that through her work she has learned that meaning creates happiness, and happiness creates meaning. Said another way, being in a good mood makes people feel as if their life has meaning—and happy, intuitive people report more meaning in various experiences. The perception of meaning in life is most often a subconscious perception, rather than through an intentional search. Thinking turns off meaning.
If you feel better, you'll be happier; events will just seem to make sense and your life will have meaning. She listed several benefits of happiness: experiencing meaning in life; seeing the big picture; having efficient, creative, flexible cognitions; having the fortitude to face difficult news; faster recovery from stress; getting and staying married; and even a longer life!
Rather than looking for happiness or trying to be happy, we should enhance our happiness by setting achievable goals, which accentuate the positive—but without eliminating the negative. There is a time for disappointment and grief—they are normal and necessary.
She said happy people rate this statement highly on a scale of 0-10: "If I could live my life over, I'd change almost nothing." The wisdom, insight, and maturity of those that agree with this statement means that they have achieved true happiness: they can evaluate their lives, "warts and all", and still feel good about them. They'd say that life can be difficult, but it is rooted in a world that makes sense. And there are signs of meaning everywhere.
It was an insightful presentation, and one that hit close to home. I feel like I've been trying to hard to create meaning without letting it unfold—though I often recognize it when it does. This was the #1 reason I created this blog in the first place, to think through, in writing, my experiences and try to make some connections. I'm going to be thinking about Dr. King a lot and how I can use this information in my life.