Why Meaning and Purpose Are More Important Than Happiness

Opinion by EHN Employee

Written by an anonymous EHN Canada employee.

There’s no doubt in my mind that I was born an addict. Throughout my life, in my resting state, I felt very empty, lost, and often scared. From a very young age, I sought pleasure and excitement, in search for a “hit” of something to make me feel just a little bit more than I felt on my own. I never liked the way I felt naturally. Something always just felt off, not right, almost like something bad was going to happen and it was just around the corner.

I was hyper aware as a child. I watched out for everyone’s next moves, listened too intently to adult conversations, and took any type of criticism or suggestion way too personally. I was convinced that everyone else had received some sort of “instruction manual for life” and that mine had been lost in the mail.

People, places, and things have always fascinated me. I would study other people’s behavior and obsess about why they did the things they did. I would imagine what it would be like to be them: what it would be like to be in a relationship; what they talked about; how they would dress so well; what their families must be like. I would transport myself into fantasy worlds by imagining what it would be like to be in someone else’s head—mostly because I hated being in mine.

A chaotic, restless mind will always seek relief. And that’s exactly what I started doing—the hunt for relief was inevitable.

It started with toys: specifically, “Go Go” the walking Dog. My dad would buy me the best toys and I wanted this toy so badly. It was a robotic white Maltese on a pink leash. The television commercial showed Go-Go and its owner, happy as ever, strolling the streets. I knew for a fact that once I got Go-Go, I would be that happy.

And I was happy. For about an hour.

I remember ripping open the huge, beautifully wrapped box (my mother is a perfectionist) on Christmas morning—and there it was, GoGo the dog, with the happy little girl on the front of the box. I remember the feeling of excitement coursing through my body. I loved that feeling. It was visceral—no thinking, no fantasizing—it was literally a physical sensation I felt in my body. Life was so good. I was so happy.

It only took thirty minutes of walking Go-Go up and down my neighbourhood street for the feeling to leave my body; for the emptiness to return; for Go-Go to lose its magic. I was back to square one. My tank was empty again. And I continued to try to fill that tank for the next fifteen years.

I started with food. That sweet rush of euphoria after biting into a warm brownie. The comfort in knowing that when the feeling began to subside, I could just eat three more to get it back.

Food was my saving grace in pre-adolescence. It shut my mind off. When I felt insecure, I would eat. When I felt like I didn’t fit in at school, I would eat. When I was mad at myself for not doing something perfectly, I would punish myself by not eating—because that felt good too. Food was an ideal “tank filler.” It was always there for me and it never talked back.

Eventually, food lost its magic and I turned to alcohol to make me happy. I became funnier, cuter, flirtier, easier, and most of all, it allowed me to feel and not think. I would drink enough for my body to act without inhibition, smoke enough pot to feel tingles rather than think thoughts, and I would engage in risky behaviors—because, you know, running from the police is the best adrenaline rush out there, right?

Well, it didn’t take long for me to get bored of that. I got bored of school. I got bored of those teens who seemed to have it all figured out. I needed more happiness. I was running out again.

I’ll never forget the first time I tried cocaine. I remember everything about that night. I remember what I was wearing, who was sitting on the couch, how the apartment looked and smelled. And most of all, I remember feeling happy. Happier than I’d ever felt before. Happy that this new group of older teens had taken me in. Happy that I was about to embark on something new. Happy that they looked so cool and happy that they accepted me. And then, it happened. I did it. My first line. I was fourteen.

I still have trouble putting into words how cocaine made me feel. It was what I had been searching for my whole life. I was on top of the world. I had big plans. Ideas. I wanted to get into deep philosophical conversions. I was going to change the world. I had strong opinions and people listened. I had an unlimited amount of energy and could go on for days. I had big goals and dreams and, for once, I believed in myself.

My tank was finally full.

I chased that feeling of happiness for the next eight years. I chased it everywhere. I chased it in dirty bathrooms with dirty people. I chased it at raves with strangers who didn’t know my name. I chased it in dark basements with people I had never met before. I chased it in dark bars and clubs and parked cars at 8 a.m. in the morning.

I chased it until it burned through my soul. I chased it until my new “family” became a group of people of whom, today, I would be scared to death. I chased it until it burned through my self respect, thousands of dollars, and pushed every loving person I had in my life far, far away.

All to feel, you know, “happy.”

I finally woke up at twenty one: I was beaten, broken, and had nowhere left to go. The party was over. Some were dead, some were in jail, and some had stopped using and recovered. I knew it was time for change. I had to search for happiness somewhere else.

I’ve never used an illicit psychoactive substance since then. I wish I could also say that I stopped searching for happiness at that time as well, but, I continued searching for the next ten years. It turns out I’m really determined when I want something.

I hit the ground running in recovery. I acquired degrees, good jobs, a car, and a condo. I achieved excellent physical fitness and I even got a dog. By the time I turned 30, I looked great and I’d checked all the boxes. The list was complete: on paper, I had everything I thought was required to make a person happy. But I wasn’t.

I believe some people learn quickly from their mistakes, and others take a little more time, a little more pain. I’m one of the slower ones. It takes an immense amount of pain for me to alter course, to try a new approach to something, to learn a lesson. But one good thing that comes with being stubborn is that when I get it, it really clicks.

At age thirty, I stopped searching for happiness. It wasn’t what I needed. I needed purpose and meaning.

I started to really listen to others, to be of service to them and provide value. I decided to stop obsessing about what would make me happy every day and instead woke up each morning thinking about how I could help others. I listened more intently. I offered to pick things up for people. I sat through conversations that I really didn’t want to have, but that I felt were important for the other person. I drove people home even when they didn’t live close to me. I let people cut in front of me in traffic. I volunteered. I signed up for things that I knew would make positive differences in other people’s lives. I made my family a priority and made more time for them. I sat through movies and shows I didn’t like to make my partner happy. I participated in activities just to see the smiles on my friends’ faces.

And eventually I felt it. It came back. Just in a new way.

I realized that the happiness pill for which I had been searching was a natural side-effect of living a life full of selflessly providing service and value to others. I realized that I am nothing on my own—indeed, no one is! Like all humans, I need a tribe. I need to be there for others and have others there for me. I need to challenge myself, do new things, and learn from other people. I need to be vulnerable and, sometimes, scared.

These things give me an identity. A life of my own, with meaning and purpose. A life from which I don’t need to escape or daydream. A real, raw life. And when I’m living my real, raw life—I feel! I feel happy sometimes and sad some other times. I laugh, I cry, I get scared—but most importantly, I always have a full tank. I’m not always full of happiness, but I always feel alive and fulfilled. And I’m more satisfied with that then I ever was searching for happiness.