“The Power of Meaning: The true route to happiness” is a personal book, but it has a lot of lessons you can apply to business. I think it is the perfect driver for change management, innovation, leadership and creating a healthy workplace.
In the late eighties and early nineties, several hundred studies about happiness were published each year; by 2014, there were over 10,000 per year. And yet, there is a major problem with the happiness frenzy: it has failed to deliver on its promise. Indeed, social scientists have uncovered a sad irony—chasing happiness actually makes people unhappy. There is more to life than feeling happy. As Sartre wrote, “Life has no meaning a priori. It’s up to you to give it a meaning, and value is nothing but the meaning that you choose.”
The new purpose economy
We are in the middle of a major cultural transformation. The fourth great awakening. We are moving from a focus on “materialist” values emphasising economic and physical security to “post-materialist” values emphasising self-expression and “a sense of meaning and purpose.” There is even talk of “the new purpose economy.
Happiness versus meaning
People are beginning to turn away from the gospel of happiness and focus on meaning. It is not about happiness. It is about meaning. Psychologists have picked up on Aristotle’s distinction. If hedonia is defined as “feeling good,” they argue, then eudaimonia is defined as “being and doing good”—and as “seeking to use and develop the best in oneself” in a way that fits with “one’s deeper principles.” Meaning arises from transcending the self. Having meaning in life, for example, has been associated with longevity, better immune functioning, and more grey matter in the brain. It is also good for business. Purpose-driven firms that create cultures of meaning among their employees, customers, and society at large are on the rise and are financially outperforming their peers.
The questions to ask
What kind of person am I and what kind of person do I want to be? And identity isn’t static. At every stage of life, you must actively revisit these questions. You can ask the same about your business. You cannot separate the business you work for from your personal life. They should go hand in hand. It reminds me of “Legacy”. What are you leaving behind?
Living a full life
Those who choose to pursue meaning ultimately live fuller—and happier—lives. Three qualities define a worthwhile life: revolt, passion, and freedom. It also requires hard work and sacrifice. Only by facing challenges head-on can we truly find meaning in our lives.
Leading a meaningful life corresponded with being a “giver,” Its defining feature was connecting and contributing to something beyond the self. Yet research has shown that meaningful endeavours can also give rise to a deeper form of well-being down the road. Meaning arises from our relationships to others, having a mission tied to contributing to society, making sense of our experiences and who we are through narrative, and connecting to something bigger than the self.
Meaning and purpose, and mission were beyond exact words: meaning was the feeling, the song, the moment of overwhelming spiritual fulfilment. Purpose is a goal toward which we are constantly working. It is the forward-pointing arrow that motivates our behaviour and serves as the organising principle of our lives. Purpose sounds big—ending world hunger big or eliminating nuclear weapons big. But it doesn’t have to be. You can also find purpose in being a good parent to your children, creating a more cheerful environment at your office, or making a giraffe’s life more pleasant.
Living purposefully requires self-reflection and self-knowledge. Researchers at Texas A&M University have examined the tight relationship between identity and purpose, and they’ve found that knowing oneself is one of the most important predictors of meaning in life. Indeed, many great thinkers have argued that for individuals to live meaningful lives, they must cultivate the strengths, talents, and capacities that lie within them and use them for the benefit of others.
Those who consistently rank their jobs as meaningful have something in common: they see their jobs as a way to help others. Even the most tedious tasks can be made purposeful when they benefit the people you love. Yet no matter what occupies our days, when we reframe our tasks as opportunities to help others, our lives and our work feel more significant. Each of us has a circle of people—in our families, in our communities, and at work—whose lives we can improve. That’s a legacy everyone can leave behind.
By taking the disparate pieces of our lives and placing them together into a narrative, we create a unified whole that allows us to understand our lives as coherent— and coherence, psychologists say, is a key source of meaning. Stories are particularly essential when it comes to defining our identity—understanding who we are and how we got that way. Read “Putting Stories to Work“.
Narrative identity is an internalised story you create about yourself—a personal myth, as one writer puts it, “about who we are deep down—where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means.” Our stories tend to focus on the most extraordinary events of our lives, good and bad, because those are the experiences that we need to make sense of. Those are the experiences that shape us. People who believe their lives are meaningful tend to tell stories defined by growth, communion, and agency. What stories are told in your business?
The abject humility we experience when we realise that we are nothing but tiny flecks in a vast and incomprehensible universe paradoxically fills us with a deep and powerful sense of meaning. That is the power of transcendence. The word “transcend” means “to go beyond” or “to climb. Transcendent moments are passive. Though we can do certain activities to increase the likelihood that we will have a mystical experience—like meditating, fasting, or taking mind-altering drugs—the mystical feeling seems to descend as some sort of external force. They are transient. The mystical experience rarely lasts more than a few hours and is often much shorter than that. They are ineffable, and they are noetic—that is, they impart knowledge and wisdom.
During transcendent states, remarkable things happen
Our sense of self washes away along with all of its petty concerns and desires. We then feel deeply connected to other people and everything else that exists in the world. We feel awe when we perceive something so grand and vast that we cannot comprehend it, like a magnificent vista, an exquisite piece of music, an act of extraordinary generosity, or the divine. At the peak mystical moment, they sense the boundaries of their selves dissolve and, as a result, feel no more separation between themselves and the world. The self-loss felt during a transcendent experience is sometimes called “ego death,” It prepares us for the final loss of self we will all experience death itself. We already talk about flow score in companies. Maybe we should measure transcendence as well. Creating company pillars of belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.
There is something stoic about meaning too. Meaning makes things a lot more bearable. The question resilience researchers ask is why some people handle adversity better than others. One was purpose, which the researchers defined as “having a worthy goal or mission in life.” Another related to purpose was having a moral compass tied to altruism—or selflessly serving others. Beyond purpose, another critical predictor of resilience is social support. Meaning makes business sense.
I loved this idea from the book. I have changed it slightly. Every business should have a dream director, a person who sits down with staff and encourages them to think big about the contribution they want to make to society. Making everyone in the company part of something bigger. Making purpose the backbone of every business operation.
The book links to so many other books.
- Restoring the soul of business
- Winning on purpose
- Everybody matters
- Firms of endearment
- Leader as healer
Meaning as a change agent
As companies are starting to embrace ESG, studying meaning might be worthwhile. There is no better change management driver than meaning. Drop me a line if you need help. Creating meaning in business is my part of leaving a legacy.