Is a Happy Life Different from a Meaningful One?
(by Jill Suttie and Jason Marsh, Greater Good Science Center at
spiritual leaders—they’ve all debated what makes life worth living. Is it a life filled with happiness or a life
filled with purpose and meaning? Is there even a difference between the two? Think of the human rights activist who fights
oppression but ends up in prison—is she happy? Or the social animal who spends his nights (and some days) jumping from
party to party—is that the good life? These aren’t just academic questions. They can help us determine where we
should invest our energy to lead the life we want. Recently some researchers have explored these questions in depth, trying
to tease apart the differences between a meaningful life and a happy one. Their research suggests there’s more to life
than happiness—and even calls into question some previous findings from the field of positive psychology, earning it
both a fair amount of press coverage and criticism. The controversy surrounding it raises big questions about what happiness
actually means: While there may be more to life than happiness, there may also be more to “happiness” than pleasure
Five differences between a happy life and a meaningful one:
“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.
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.