Experiments in Philosophy

The impact of psychological research on life's big questions.

Can You Truly Be Happy Without a Meaningful Life?

An interactive video lets you go through the experimental studies for yourself.

Let's imagine a woman named Maria. She has no real friends, no long term projects; there is nothing she really cares about. She spends most of her time just trying to climb the social ladder and get as drunk as she possibly can.

As soon as you hear this story, you might be thinking that Maria's life sounds pretty hollow and meaningless, but let's focus for a moment on a simpler question. Forget about whether her life is a good one or a bad one, and just ask yourself: Could she possibly be happy?

According to many psychologists, the answer is obviously yes. These psychologists define happiness as simply being a certain kind of psychological state. So as long as Maria had the right kinds of psychological states (a lot of positive emotion, very little negative emotion, a belief that her life was going well), it would be right to say that she was happy.

But philosophers have traditionally seen the issue in a different light. From Aristotle onward, they have thought that happiness is not just a matter of having a certain kind of psychological state. On the contrary, they have said that a person can never truly be happy unless he or she actually has a meaningful life.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

So which of these two ideas actually best captures our ordinary notion of what it is to be happy?

Experimental philosophers have run a series of studies to find out, and some of the results may surprise you. Check out this interactive video to experience one of the main findings for yourself.

(Note: You will need to click at the end of each segment of the video to go on to the next one.)


Joshua Knobe is a professor in the philosophy department at UNC-Chapel Hill.


Subscribe to Experiments in Philosophy

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?