Happiness or Meaning: A Library Experience Can Deliver Both

We want happiness. We want meaning in our lives. They need not be mutually exclusive. What they have in common is a life of giving more and taking less. Being a library user is one way to pursue both.






Achieving happiness and meaning are two different things.

Different, but not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is possible to have an experience that results in happiness but also contributes to a life of meaning.

Finding and borrowing a book from the library could certainly qualify. For those who enjoy reading, finding a good book at the library could certainly deliver some happiness. Depending on the book, it could have a mind opening, life altering impact that contributes to an individual’s search for meaning.

It helps to have a better understanding of what we mean when talking about both happiness and meaning. What contributes to each? What have researchers learning about happiness? How would we know if a community member has a meaningful interaction with the library?

In this article I shared insights into what researchers have learned about happiness. While material objects and money can deliver some happiness, those things tend to have only a limited impact.

It’s really the small things that count. Helping others. Enjoying a walk. Memorable experiences count too. Do these experiences also deliver meaning, or is there more to it than just satisfying the search for happiness?

The answer is…it depends.

According to Emily Esfahani Smith, author of the new book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, finding meaning trumps experiencing happiness. On further inspection, the two have some commonality between them.

Esfahani identifies four pillars of meaning:

* sense of belonging – being in a relationship or a member of a community
* purpose – having a mission and pursuing it
* storytelling – your story; who you are; where you are from; where you are headed
* transcendence – resilence; having the ability to overcome adversity

You start to get the idea that the difference between the two is about direction and effort. Happiness is about something happening to us versus meaning being about making something happening for others. Esfahani states that “the big distinctions between a meaningful life and a happy life is that a meaningful life can be a hard life. When you’re giving back, you’re making sacrifices.”

In that sense, the library is a place that can serve to facilitate both happiness and meaning. If we are seeking some happiness, we can get it at the library. Finding a good book and enjoying reading are the type of small, everyday pleasures that bring happiness. I don’t think that Esfahani thinks there is anything inherently wrong with seeking happiness. She just wants us to transcend happiness as we pursue meaning.

And the library is a place where it can happen. It’s a place you can belong to and be a part of your community. It’s a place where you find and pursue a mission. It’s a place where you can discover your story. It’s a place where you transcend the ordinary and the meaningless.

Happiness or meaning? Why choose when you can find both at the library.

More On Meaning And Creative Showering

No, this isn’t a post about how you get meaning from your creative showering. I want to just follow up on two different posts with some new thoughts and links for you.

My most recent post shared some insights from the retreat I attended along with my colleagues in our public services units. In that post I talked about a conversation I had with my co-worker about meaning, and how an article I later came across shared research that indicated that people derive more meaning and happiness from experiences than they do from material objects. Then I came across this NYT article on virtually the same topic discussing similar research that documents that individuals derive more happiness from experiences than material objects:

Current research suggests that, unlike consumption of material goods, spending on leisure and services typically strengthens social bonds, which in turn helps amplify happiness. (Academics are already in broad agreement that there is a strong correlation between the quality of people’s relationships and their happiness; hence, anything that promotes stronger social bonds has a good chance of making us feel all warm and fuzzy.)

So with all the research pointing to the connection between meaning and happiness/satisfaction, that further reinforces that we can offer our user community members something of value whenever we deliver a great library experience.

Further back I wrote about the importance of capturing your good ideas – even when they come in the shower (and yes, there’s a special notebook for that). I mentioned that some research did show there is something to be said for showers as a creative place. For some reason, many individuals will indicate they came up with a good idea in the shower. Over at the Heart of Innovation blog, you’ll find a list of 20 reasons why people get their best ideas in the shower. Some make a lot of sense, and others are questionable – but intriguing – like showering with a partner and turning the shower into a brainstorming session. But I think it still comes down to reason number 20: Showering is easy. Not a lot of thinking is required to make it happen, which frees your mind to think about other things.

The Library Retreat Experience: Explaining What You Mean By Meaning

When you put the words “library” and “retreat” together that can be an off-putting combination for many library workers. It conjures images of boring presentations, a good day wasted, and lots of talk and no action. Fortunately, the public services retreat held recently at MPOW was none of those. It had its share of high and low moments, but overall it was a productive day that mixed interactive exercises with brief presentations from academic librarians via Skype. I was amazed at how quickly the hours passed. Not only was it a great opportunity for co-workers from different departments to work collaboratively, but we had a much anticipated (by me) conversation about user experience. The retreat planning team did an amazing job, and for the most part the designated retreat outcomes were accomplished.

The day began with a simple icebreaker. With everyone in a circle the first person threw a beach ball to any other staff member – but not someone in their own unit. That gave each person a chance to share a few insights about their job, and the help he or she provides to other staff and community members. Our first learning activity gave everyone an opportunity to share past experiences (the retail/service type), both good and bad, and that lead to a conversation about understanding how our user community might perceive the experience they get at our library. That was followed by viewing the bulk of Seth Godin’s “Why Things are Broken” video, followed by a discussion of what’s broken in our library. We finished up our morning focus on customer service and UX with the “seven questions” exercise. At each table participants found a single question they needed to answer (and add the answer to a running list left by other groups). Questions included the following: “Choose a value from our mission/values/vision statement – how can that value contribute to a positive user experience in the library?” and “What’s the one thing you would fix/change about the library’s user experience?”

The afternoon segment focused on new models for service delivery, and it offered some great activities as well. One fun and challenging exercise called “Bad Ideas” required us to take a bad idea – based on something that doesn’t work well in our library (e.g., a problematic procedure for computer printing) and then come up with outrageous ideas for how to make the bad idea even worse. It was a creative way to actually brainstorm potential solutions. Then we heard from librarians at four different institutions that had restructured their service delivery model (e.g., eliminating and merging service desks, creating a “genius bar”, etc.) Skype is a fine technology for inviting a remote speaker to attend a retreat for a quick interview. We ended the day with a fun, creative activity called the Library Future – Library Science Fair. Each table was tasked with coming up with a vision for a future public service environment, and then using a variety of arts and crafts materials, everything from pipe cleaners to legos, to build a prototype that illustrated their ideas. Some great ideas emerged from that activity that greatly help our organization as we plan for an anticipated new building.

At one point, during our seven questions activity, each group discussed ideas for how to improve the library experience for the user community. I shared some thoughts about meaning and users. How could we deliver meaning to them as part of the library experience? A colleague asked a good question. What did I mean by meaning? After all, conveying thoughts about meaning is a challenge of sorts. Just saying “we need to give people more meaning” is a somewhat nebulous proposition. What does it mean to give someone more meaning? At first I was a bit flustered, and then I started to explain different attributes of experience that can define meaning such as accomplishment. So how could we communicate or brand a library experience designed around helping students and faculty succeed with academic accomplishments? That is one way in which our library could deliver an experience with meaning.

Had I had it at my disposal at the time, I would have pointed to this article titled “Experiences Make us Happier Than Possessions” that I recently discovered. It discusses research about meaning and how individuals derive and experience it. A study involving 154 students averaging age 25 asked about a recent purchase made to make themselves feel better or happy. They were asked to compare a tangible material object such as a car or clothes with an experiential intangible purchase, such as a movie or vacation. While both types of purchases will create good feelings initially, it was the experiential purchase that had the longer lasting impact:

Psychological research suggests that, in the long run, experiences make people happier than possessions. That’s in part because the initial joy of acquiring a new object, such as a new car, fades over time as people become accustomed to seeing it every day, experts said. Experiences, on the other hand, continue to provide happiness through memories long after the event occurred.

You can read the entire article to find out more about the specifics of the study and other things discovered about the difference between acquiring objects and experiences. From my perspective, the big difference is that people derive meaning from their experiences in a way they cannot from tangible possessions. So the next time I’m asked to explain what I mean by delivering meaning to the user community, a reference to this research may be helpful. Experiences, good and bad, are memorable. When we create better library experiences for our users we are, in a sense, giving them some happiness they’ll keep with them long after their physical or virtual library interaction comes to an end.