Baumeister characterizes happiness as subjective well-being containing a globally positive affective tone. Happiness is related to one's needs and desires being satisfied. Meaningfulness is considerably more complex, in part due to its extension over time. While happiness refers merely to the present, meaningfulness connects the present with the past and the future. Although the two notions are related, there is no positive correlation between them. On the contrary, satisfaction of desires is a reliable source of happiness, but has nothing to do with providing a sense of meaning. People are happy according to the extent to which they find their lives easy rather than difficult, whereas difficulties and coping with them contribute greatly to the meaningfulness of life.
Baumeister further argues that time spent imagining the future is linked especially strongly to greater meaningfulness and less happiness. Conversely, the more time people spend thinking about the here and now, the happier they are. Meaning involves assembling the past, present and future into some kind of coherent story; hence, it enables people to impose a measure of stability on their world. In contrast, happiness, as a subjective feeling state, exists essentially in the present moment.
Baumeister claims that lives that have greater meaningfulness encounter plenty of negative events, which of course reduce happiness. Indeed, stress and negative life events are two powerful blows to happiness, despite their significant positive association with a meaningful life. Happiness, he contends, is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money. In contrast, meaningfulness is linked to doing things that express and reflect the self; in particular it is linked to doing positive things for others.
Baumeister indicates that while spending time with friends contributes to higher happiness, it is irrelevant to meaning. Time with loved ones is not uniformly pleasant, but it is meaningful. Baumeister suggests that the difference lies in the depth of the relationship. Time with friends is often devoted to simple pleasures, without much at stake, so it may foster good feelings while doing little to increase meaning. If your friends are grumpy, you can just move on.
I may add that one theological explanation for the presence of evil and suffering in our world is that when we overcome evil and suffering, our life becomes more meaningful. This may explain why we consider our world to be the best of all possible worlds (as the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz assumed). The importance of suffering to meaning is also expressed in the claim of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's that "To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering." In the same vein, the neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl claimed that “If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be meaning in suffering.”
Superficiality and profundity
"The first recipe for happiness is: avoid too lengthy meditation on the past." Andre Maurois
Baumeister indicates the presence of narrow and broad senses of happiness. The narrow sense—for example, when one is happy to have found a lost shoe—expresses momentary feelings, whereas the broad sense—being happy to be enjoying a good life—expresses life satisfaction.
Similarly, I have suggested distinguishing between the acute emotion of joy and the sentiment of happiness (Ben-Ze'ev, 2000). As an acute emotion, happiness is a short-term state of pleasure or satisfaction occurring as a result of a specific (real or imaginary) positive change. Even someone who is generally depressed can laugh from time to time and be pleased at a specific event. Senile people and infants can be content or satisfied. They may also be described as experiencing a certain degree of happiness, but this is not the profound meaningful sentiment of happiness typical of and sought after by healthy adults. Profound happiness involves the optimal functioning of human beings over time, not the minimal functioning of mere contentment or relaxation, which can be found in the life of dumb animals.
In profound happiness, people are engaged in meaningful activities that develop their capacities (potential) and enable them to flourish. Such flourishing is not a temporary state of superficial pleasure; it refers to the fulfillment of our talents and capacities over the arc of life. Superficial hedonic activities, such as casual sex, gossiping, and watching television, may be enjoyable even though they do not contribute much to our long-term flourishing and can even be harmful in excess.
Joy and meaning in love
Turning to the romantic realm, we may distinguish between superficial joyful experiences, such as casual sex, and profound, meaningful experiences, such as long-term profound love. In this regard, a distinction between romantic intensity and romantic profundity is useful. Romantic intensity expresses a snapshot picture of a romantic experience at a given moment. In romantic profundity, the temporal dimension of love is added. Romantic profundity, which constitutes long-term deep love, involves joint activities, which fulfill essential needs that are constitutive of the couple's long-term flourishing. The profundity of a romantic experience is different from how intensely it is felt. A short sexual desire may be more intense than a longer experience of romantic love, but less profound. Meaningfulness is indeed the main characteristic of profound love. Although in profound love romantic intensity is not as intense as in momentary sexual desire, it still exists at a substantial level.
Baumeister argues that "If happiness is about getting what you want, it appears that meaningfulness is about doing things that express yourself." In the romantic realm, short-term joys are indeed about getting what you want, while profound meaningful love expresses your personality and fulfills your potential.
Profound meaningful activities are crucial for long-term love as the satisfaction that arises from performing them is not transient—it involves the optimal development and functioning of the individual. Profound love does not stem from subordinating one’s activities to those of the beloved, but from considering the activities for and with the beloved as compatible with one’s own meaningful activities. The choice of such activities cannot be arbitrary, as it must be of benefit to and compatible with the agent’s personality and flourishing. Sexual activity can be enjoyable in the superficial sense of providing fleeting pleasure to the participants. It becomes meaningful in the profound sense when it is part of the more profound attitude of love.
Choosing between one profound romantic relationship or many intense short ones
“I’m selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can’t handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don’t deserve me at my best.” Marilyn Monroe
Should a person choose a happy or a meaningful life? Most of us would find it difficult to endure a complete lack of either. No one would like to live a miserable, though meaningful life, or a superficially happy, but meaningless one like a contented animal. The manner and degree of combining the two depends on various factors. In choosing between Socrates dissatisfied and a happy pig, the decision is obvious as the pig lacks any intellectual and other high-level cognitive features that make our lives meaningful. However, what about choosing between dissatisfied Socrates and a happy human being who is somewhat less wise than he is? Here the choice is more complex.
A similar question arises regarding the choice between a short, high-quality life and a long, low-quality life. We might attempt to work out this problem in a mechanical way by multiplying the length of life with the quality of life, and then choose the greater sum. However, how can we possibly measure quality of life? Take, for example, the issue of chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Some people choose not to undergo this treatment, because although it may prolong their lives somewhat, it can considerably reduce the quality of their lives.
Returning to the romantic realm, the dilemma is whether to aspire to a long, profound love for all your life or to many short, intense romantic relationships. A seemingly plausible choice, which is compatible with the romantic ideology, is to opt for one profound love. Profound love involves fulfilling the partner's essential needs and enhancing both partners' personal flourishing, as well as enabling their partnership to flourish. Such love has various advantages, which are fuelled by long-term acquaintance and joint activities. Thus, in a comment on an article of mine, one man writes: "Been with my wife for more than 25 years. We had 2 children together. I love her today more than I ever have. The thought of growing old with her brings me comfort. Yes, love can survive and flourish!" (Ben-Ze'ev, 2014).
Consider, however, the attitude of Marianne, a young, good-looking divorcee, who is a top executive: "I am glad for people who remain in love with the same partner for a long time and are happy about it, since I think that to be happy in this life is the most meaningful experience. Would I want to be in love with the same man all my life? To be honest with myself, the answer is 'no.' However, while I am intensely in love with a man, I want this love to endure for a long time. I would be happy to feel in love forever with the man I am with now. But I know that it is impossible and although I am not so young, I am still attracted to excitement. Accordingly, I believe that what I really want, and what actually happens to me, is that I need more than one love in my whole life." Marianne may have based her negative attitude toward one extended profound love on an empirical belief that seems to be wrong. She wants to be in love with her current lover forever, but since she believes that this is in principle impossible she is happy with many consecutive lovers. Marianne does not think that she is unusual in needing more change and excitement than other people; she just thinks that she is more open about it.
Concerning the empirical issue, there are various studies indicating that profound love that endures for lifetime does exist and even to a greater degree than most of us believe (O'Leary, 2012). Moreover, people often change their views about long-term love. As we get older, calmness (or peacefulness), rather than excitement, may be the essential element in our marriage (Mogilner, et. al., 2011). It should be remembered that exciting ups are often followed by depressing downs.
A central difficulty in choosing one loving partner for the rest of your life is the probable reduction in having intense, novel, exciting experiences. It is possible to address this difficulty in several ways. First, the reduction in intensity is not inevitable and for many relationships, it has little impact. Second, the profundity of love may more than compensate for reduced intensity. Third, couples may arrive at certain flexible arrangements that enable each of them to have some novel excitements, provided that they do not endanger their profound love—although in many cases, such arrangements prove incompatible with profound love. Accordingly, it seems that most people would choose to have one profound love that makes their life both happier and more meaningful.
Can you, the reader, tell us what type of relationships you would prefer: A long and profound one or a series of short and intense ones?
Baumeister, R. F., Vohs, K. D., Aker, J. L. & Garbinsky, E. N. (2013). Some key differences between a happy life and a meaningful life. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8, 505-516.
Ben-Ze'ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. Cambridge, Ma.: MIT Press.
Mogilner, C., Kamvar, S., D., & Aaker, J. (2011). The shifting meaning of happiness. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 395-402.
O'Leary, K. D., Acevedo, B. P. Aron, A., Huddy, L. & Mashek, D. (2012). Is long-term love more than a rare phenomenon? If so, what are its correlates? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 241-249.