If a genie asked you, “What will you choose a life of happiness or a life of meaning? I’m not authorized to provide you both.” Which would you choose?
Of course, many people can and do achieve both – not as many who achieve neither – but happiness and meaningfulness are separable dimensions of life experience.
Or so says Professor Roy F. Baumeister of Florida State University. He and four colleagues published an article in 2013 that reported results from a survey of 397 adults. Their conclusion was that happiness and meaning are “indeed inter-related but have different roots and implications.”
So what are the differences between these two aspects of the ‘good life?’ These are four variables that differentiated happiness and meaning:
- Satisfaction of Life Needs and Wants Is Related to Happiness but Irrelevant to Life Meaning: For example, people who reported that their lives were easy had higher happiness scores. Conversely, those who found life difficult had lower happiness scores. The results were opposite but equivocal for meaning: those who considered life a struggle had higher scores on life meaning, although the results did not meet significance levels. Also, good health was positively correlated with happiness but irrelevant to a sense of life meaning. And further, good feelings were associated with reported happiness and bad feelings with unhappiness (perhaps obviously so), whereas the level of good and bad feelings was not correlated to perceived life meaning. Same with wealth and money: being financially well-off led to higher reported happiness but was irrelevant to achieving a sense of meaning.
- Happiness Focuses on the Present Moment While Meaning Integrates Thinking across Time: Being happy is based on what is going on at the current moment. It’s a fleeting perception of the now. A sense of meaning involves looking at the arc of one’s life and integrating events from the past and present, as well as hopes and plans for the future. Thus meaning is perceived as being more permanent and less fleeting.
- Happiness Relates to What We Get from Others Whereas Meaning Relates to What We Give to Others: Both happiness and meaning are related with a sense of belonging and connectedness but in different ways. To put it bluntly, takers are happier; givers have greater meaning. So, for example, parents are less happy but believe their lives are more meaningful by virtue of devoting so much of themselves to their children.
- Expressing oneself is Important for Meaning but Not for Happiness: Activities that a person believes reflects their true self increase that person’s sense of meaning but not of their happiness. The specific activities that correlated with greater meaning were different ways of giving to others and of thinking about one’s life across time, thus giving a person a sense of a cohesive altruistic self.
If you want to know which way I trend, I’ll share with you a life motto I’ve followed since my college days, “Life doesn’t have to be easy. But it can’t be boring.” I guess I’d give myself a grade of a ‘B’ in how well I’ve hewn to my mini-creed.
Thanks again and let’s be in touch again next week.
Until next time,
“A happy life and a meaningful life have some differences,” says Roy Baumeister, a Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. He bases that claim on a paper he published last year in the Journal of Positive Psychology, co-authored with researchers at the University of Minnesota and Stanford.
Baumeister and his colleagues surveyed 397 adults, looking for correlations between their levels of happiness, meaning, and various other aspects of their lives: their behavior, moods, relationships, health, stress levels, work lives, creative pursuits, and more.
They found that a meaningful life and a happy life often go hand-in-hand—but not always. And they were curious to learn more about the differences between the two. Their statistical analysis tried to separate out what brought meaning to one’s life but not happiness, and what brought happiness but not meaning.
Their findings suggest that meaning (separate from happiness) is not connected with whether one is healthy, has enough money, or feels comfortable in life, while happiness (separate from meaning) is. More specifically, the researchers identified five major differences between a happy life and a meaningful one.
- Happy people satisfy their wants and needs, but that seems largely irrelevant to a meaningful life. Therefore, health, wealth, and ease in life were all related to happiness, but not meaning.
- Happiness involves being focused on the present, whereas meaningfulness involves thinking more about the past, present, and future—and the relationship between them. In addition, happiness was seen as fleeting, while meaningfulness seemed to last longer.
- Meaningfulness is derived from giving to other people; happiness comes from what they give to you. Although social connections were linked to both happiness and meaning, happiness was connected more to the benefits one receives from social relationships, especially friendships, while meaningfulness was related to what one gives to others—for example, taking care of children. Along these lines, self-described “takers” were happier than self-described “givers,” and spending time with friends was linked to happiness more than meaning, whereas spending more time with loved ones was linked to meaning but not happiness.
- Meaningful lives involve stress and challenges. Higher levels of worry, stress, and anxiety were linked to higher meaningfulness but lower happiness, which suggests that engaging in challenging or difficult situations that are beyond oneself or one’s pleasures promotes meaningfulness but not happiness.
- Self-expression is important to meaning but not happiness. Doing things to express oneself and caring about personal and cultural identity were linked to a meaningful life but not a happy one. For example, considering oneself to be wise or creative was associated with meaning but not happiness.
One of the more surprising findings from the study was that giving to others was associated with meaning, rather than happiness, while taking from others was related to happiness and not meaning. Though many researchers have found a connection between giving and happiness, Baumeister argues that this connection is due to how one assigns meaning to the act of giving.
“If we just look at helping others, the simple effect is that people who help others are happier,” says Baumeister. But when you eliminate the effects of meaning on happiness and vice versa, he says, “then helping makes people less happy, so that all the effect of helping on happiness comes by way of increasing meaningfulness.”
Baumeister’s study raises some provocative questions about research in positive psychology that links kind, helpful—or “pro-social”—activity to happiness and well-being. Yet his research has also touched off a debate about what psychologists—and the rest of us—really mean when we talk about happiness.