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A Happy Life or a Meaningful One? They Are Not the Same

The good that comes from worry, stress, and struggles

Americans and the American social scientists who study them are obsessed with happiness. What gets less attention is the perhaps deeper experience of meaningfulness. The two experiences are correlated—people who feel happy often feel that their lives are meaningful. Yet, a happy life is not the same as a meaningful one.

In research designed to distinguish between a happy life and a meaningful one, a group of authors administered a 3-part online survey to a national sample of nearly 400 adults. Happiness was measured with items such as "Taking all things together, I feel I am happy." A comparable example of an item measuring meaningfulness was "Taking all things together, I feel that my life is meaningful."

Participants answered a wide range of questions. They included assessments of good and bad feelings and of time spent thinking about the past, present, and future. There were lots of items measuring social and personal involvement. Also included was a long list of activities, such as working, praying, watching TV, sleeping, reading, and worrying. For each activity, participants rated not the time they spend on each, but the extent to which each "reflects me".

Because the authors wanted to know how experiences of happiness differed from experiences of meaningfulness, they controlled statistically for happiness in their predictions of meaningfulness and vice versa.

I'll present their findings in 4 different categories: (1) Markers [correlates] of a happy life but not a meaningful one; (2) markers of a meaningful life but not a happy one; (3) ways that a happy life and a meaningful one are the same; and (4) some experiences unrelated to happiness or meaningfulness.

Markers of a Happy Life, But Not a Meaningful One

  • Feeling good a lot of the time, and not feeling bad
  • Feeling that life is easy, and not a struggle
  • Being healthy
  • Being able to buy the things you need and want
  • Being focused on the short term

Markers of a Meaningful Life, but Not a Happy One

  • Spending time thinking about the past and imagining the future
  • Being focused on the long term
  • Expecting to spend time thinking deeply
  • Reading for pleasure
  • Thinking that relationships are more important than achievements, but also feeling that working reflects who you are
  • Spending time with people you love
  • Planning and organizing and balancing finances
  • Cooking, cleaning, and watching TV
  • Meditating and praying
  • Sex
  • Rewarding yourself
  • Experiencing more negative events, more stress, spending more time worrying, and reflecting on your struggles and challenges; considering yourself an anxious person
  • Giving gifts to others and being a giver in general
  • Helping the needy
  • Considering yourself to be wise and creative

Ways that a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life Are the Same

  • Experiencing more positive events
  • Not feeling bored very often
  • Predicting that you won't spend many hours alone in the future [Bella's note: may not apply to the single-at-heart!]
  • Feeling connected to others
  • Thinking that others feel connected to you

Some experiences unrelated to Happiness or Meaningfulness [i.e., they are not connected to more happiness or meaningfulness or less happiness or meaningfulness]

  • Partying with alcohol
  • Eating
  • Exercising
  • Relaxing alone
  • Sleeping
  • Procrastinating
  • Buying gifts for yourself
  • Texting
  • Being online

What Should We Make of These Findings?

The experiences that are associated with a happy life, though not a meaningful one, seem quite straightforward. Some of the markers of a meaningful life seem intuitive, too—but others do not, at least at first. Who would have thought that cleaning or watching TV (or more precisely, feeling that the cleaning or TV-watching that you do reflects who you are) would be associated with meaningfulness but not happiness?

I also thought it was interesting that expecting to spend a lot of time alone was linked to less happiness and less meaningfulness, yet actually spending time with loved ones was only linked to meaningfulness and did not have any positive link to happiness at all. The authors speculated that the reason for that was "because loved ones can be difficult at times."

There were quite a few negative experiences that were markers of a meaningful life, including more worry, more stress, and having more negative events in your life. Here's what the authors had to say about that and about all of their findings taken together:

"…happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs…In contrast, meaningfulness was linked to doing things that express and reflect the self and in particular to doing positive things for others. Meaningful involvements increase one's stress, worries, arguments, and anxiety, which reduce happiness…Whereas happiness was focused on feeling good in the present, meaningfulness integrated past, present, and future, and it sometimes meant feeling bad. Past misfortunes reduce present happiness, but they are linked to higher meaningfulness—perhaps because people cope with them by finding meaning."

"Although humans use money and other cultural artifacts to achieve satisfaction, the essence of happiness still consists of having needs and wants satisfied. The happy person thus resembles an animal with perhaps some added complexity. In contrast, meaningfulness pointed to more distinctively human activities, such as expressing oneself and thinking integratively about past and future. Put another way, humans may resemble many other creatures in their striving for happiness, but the quest for meaning is a key part of what makes us human and uniquely so."

[Note: Want to know the relationship between getting married and getting happy? Unless you are a regular reader of this blog, it is not what you think. Check out Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong. Want to know the same thing about meaningfulness? So do I, but I don't know of any relevant research.]

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