‘Higher aspirations’ in common modern-day language most probably will be understood as climbing the ladder to higher levels of personal achievement, be it in sport, business, politics, education, professional life, or any other sphere of human endeavour. And achievement is qualified by the level of recognition and praise that it attracts.

The reality is however that the ego-boost we experience from others’ recognition for achievements or success is short-lived and it can, in the end, be very cosmetic. The clapping hands and glances of admiration at an awards function fade very quickly if one is to go back to a loveless home. No amount of praise satisfy our need to experience meaning. Are our aspirations formed by the expectation we have of others’ admiration and its promise of being thrilled and feeling happy, or by a deep sense of being called and uniquely placed to make meaningful contributions to others’ lives? Our life here on earth, as we know it, is after all temporary.

It is one of the fallacies of our time that happiness is supreme to everything else. How often do we hear the comments: ‘As long as you are happy’; ‘If only I could be happy again’; ‘Don’t let anything come between you and your happiness’; ‘Happiness, after all, is all we want’. The truth is that,  although we tend not to make it public, we deeply yearn for meaning and fulfilment, which is to go beyond happiness. According to Roy Baumeister and his colleagues’ research, happiness is different to meaningfulness in five significant areas: happiness’s focus on personal desires/wants, the present, social interaction for personal benefit, the easy way out, and lastly its indifference to self-expression.

The singular pursuit of happiness therefore imply selfish behaviour, reluctance to sacrifice for others or for bigger goals that will take time and effort, avoidance of stress and conflict, and shallow communication. Meaning, on the other hand, can at times be at the cost of satisfying wants. It furthermore is demanding of our ability to integrate the past, present and future into a coherent story, understanding what and why something is sustainable. For the sake of meaning, a person will invest in deeper relationships, therefore at times go into confrontation with others to establish deeper levels of understanding.  And the pursuit of meaning implies high levels of commitment to self-expression (self-reflect and the courage to stand up for convictions) as well as making positive differences in others’ lives.

If we are less vocal about our search for meaning, it can be because we don’t want to confront our unwillingness to sacrifice happiness for meaning, if and when it might be necessary. If what we do and what we dream of are primarily driven by thoughts of personal happiness, it is obvious that the world will very quickly become a place only of manipulation and abuse – no regard for sustainability and no regard for a bigger purpose that will serve all of the world and future generations.

Gerhard van Rensburg