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Happiness vs. Meaning

I recently read an article about happiness and meaning and how they are connected but also how they are different. The pursuit of happiness and meaning are two of our most central motivations in life and are essential elements of well-being. Happiness and meaning are absolutely connected because typically the more meaning we find in life, the more happy we typically feel, and the more happy we feel, the more we often feel encouraged to pursue even greater meaning and purpose; however, that is not always the case.

There can be substantial trade-offs between seeking happiness and seeking meaning in life. The article gives the example of the parenthood paradox: parents often report that they are very happy they had children, but parents who are living with children usually score very low on measures of happiness. It seems that raising children can decrease happiness but increase meaning. Factors such as feeling connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone or bored contributed to both happiness and meaning, however, studies have also found some important differences:

  • Finding one’s life easy or difficult was related to happiness, but not meaning.

  • Feeling healthy was related to happiness, but not meaning.

  • Feeling good was related to happiness, not meaning.

  • Scarcity of money reduced happiness more than meaning.

  • People with more meaningful lives agreed that ‘relationships are more important than achievements’.

  • Helping people in need was linked to meaning but not happiness.

  • Expecting to do a lot of deep thinking was positively related to meaningfulness, but negatively with happiness.

  • Happiness was related more to being a taker rather than a giver, whereas meaning was related more to being a giver than a taker.

  • The more people felt their activities were consistent with core themes and values of their self, the greater meaning they reported in their activities.

  • Seeing oneself as wise, creative, and even anxious were all linked to meaning but had no relationship (and in some cases, even showed a negative relationship) to happiness.

It seems that happiness has more to do with having your needs satisfied, getting what you want, and feeling good but meaning is more related to uniquely human activities such as developing a personal identity, expressing the self, and consciously integrating one’s past, present, and future experiences.

While this particular article focused on the differences between happiness and meaning, optimal well-being often consists of both. The article states: “Years of research on the psychology of well-being have demonstrated that often human beings are happiest when they are engaged in meaningful pursuits and virtuous activities.” When we are deeply engaged in an activity that is in accordance with our best self, we often report the highest levels of life satisfaction. In closing, it's helpful to know the differences and tradeoffs of each, but I think we'd all agree the optimal goals is to find a healthy balance of both. Have a great week!

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