Happy vs. Meaningful: Which Life Do You Want?



“Nobody can go back and start a new beginning, but anyone can start today and make a new ending.” — Maria Robinson

Do you want to lead a happy life or a meaningful life?  Why not both?

Sometimes, happiness and meaningfulness are at odds.

Nobody sets out to lead a miserable life, but sometimes it comes with the territory.

Is It a Miserable Life?

It’s a Wonderful Life, could have been called It’s a Miserable Life.  George kept sacrificing his dream to travel the world.  George finally reached a point where he was ready to take his own life.  That is, until his angel showed him how he made a difference in the lives of others.  Suddenly, not only was everything OK … it was wonderful.

That’s what making meaning can do, when we stitch together the past, the present, and the future.

Roy Baumeister (author of WillPower), Kathleen Vohs, Jennifer Aaker (author of The Dragonfly Effect), and Emily Garbinsky teamed up to bring us Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life.

Let’s dive in.

Happiness Defined

What is happiness?   To understand happiness, you have to look at both your emotional states in the moments, as well as your life satisfaction, which spans your life.

In Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, the authors write:

“Happiness is generally defined as subjective well-being, which is to say, an experiential state that contains a globally positive affective tone.

It may be narrowly or broadly focused: A person may claim to be happy to have found a lost shoe, happy that the war is over, or happy to be having a good life.

Researchers have conceptualized and measured happiness in at least two quite different ways. One is affect balance, indicating having more pleasant than unpleasant emotional states, and is thus essentially an aggregate of how one feels at different moments. The other, life satisfaction, goes beyond momentary feelings to invoke an integrative, evaluative assessment of one’s life as a whole.”

Meaningful Defined

What is meaningful?  In Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, the authors write:

“Meaning can be a purely symbolic or linguistic reality, as in the meaning of a word. The question of life’s meaning thus applies symbolic ideas to a biological reality.

Meaningfulness is presumably both a cognitive and an emotional assessment of whether one’s life has purpose and value.

People may feel that life is meaningful if they find it consistently rewarding in some way, even if they cannot articulate just what it all means. Our focus is on meaningfulness and the meaning of life.”

Happy vs. Meaningful (Related, But Different)

While there’s overlap between happiness and meaningfulness, there are some key differences.  In Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, the authors write:

“Our findings suggest that happiness is mainly about getting what one wants and needs, including from other people or even just by using money.

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. (Spending money to get things went with happiness, but managing money was linked to meaningfulness.)

Happiness went with being a taker more than a giver, while meaningfulness was associated with being a giver more than a taker. 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.”

Argue Your Way to Misery and Meaning

Arguing takes on new meaning when it reflects your values.   That helps explain why some people get so attached to their ideas and ideals, or take an argument personally, while others do not.  In Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, the authors write:

“The more that people regarded arguing as something that reflects them, the more meaningful but the less happy their lives were. Thus, perhaps surprisingly, the effects of arguing were similar to those of helping others.

We propose that meaningfulness comes in part from being involved in things one  regards as important (see next section), and sometimes one has to argue for these. But the unpleasantness of arguing may contribute to the lower happiness.

Happy people may prefer not to argue and may certainly think that arguing is something they do only reluctantly rather than as a frequent expression of their inner self and values.”

People with Meaningful Lives Worry More and Stress More

If you want to combine happiness with meaningfulness, don’t expect it to be happy-go-lucky.  In Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, the authors write:

“Stress can be simply a matter of external misfortune visited on the self, but it can also stem from being involved in meaningful yet difficult undertakings. .. Much stress is future oriented, and one clear fact about stress (dating back to the classic executive monkey studies by Brady, 1958) is that one can be under considerable stress even if nothing bad ever happens.

Stress has more to do with the anticipation of possible bad events (i.e., threats) than with actually enduring misfortune. Meaningfulness connects present to future, and the link between stress and meaningfulness is consistent with that conclusion. … Worrying showed the same pattern.

Consistent with intuitions, more worrying was linked to  lower happiness. However, perhaps surprisingly, greater frequency of worrying was associated with higher levels of meaningfulness. People with very meaningful lives worry more and have more stress than people with less meaningful lives.”

Wise, Creative, and Anxious

Wise, creative, and anxious are linked to meaningfulness, but not happiness.  In fact, they might work against you.  In Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, the authors write:

“Thus, the self is apparently more about meaning than happiness. The self integrates across time, insofar as one is the same person day after day, year after year.

Caring about personal identity, doing things that reflect and express the self, and seeing oneself as wise, creative, and anxious all were linked to a meaningful life, but they had negligible or negative relations to happiness.”

A Meaningful Life

If you’re a giver on a mission, and your actions and thoughts reflect you, you’re on path for a meaningful life. In Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, the authors write:

“High meaningfulness despite low happiness was associated with being a giver rather than a taker.

These people were likely to say that taking care of children reflected them, as did buying gifts for others.

Such people may self-regulate well, as indicated by their reflecting on past struggles and imagining the future, and also in their tendency to reward themselves.”

A Happy Life

If you’re a taker, and you live in the now, you’re on path for a happy life.  In Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, the authors write:

“One can also use our findings to depict the highly happy but relatively meaningless life.  People with such lives seem rather carefree, lacking in worries and anxieties. If they argue, they do not feel that arguing reflects them.

Interpersonally, they are takers rather than givers, and they give little thought to past and future.

These patterns suggest that happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desires are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided.”

People Will Pursuit Meaningfulness at the Expense of Happiness

Maybe money can’t buy you happiness, but meaningfulness can help you offset any losses.  In Some Key Differences between a Happy Life and a Meaningful Life, the authors write:

“These findings illuminate the so-called ‘parenthood paradox,’ which is that most people want to be happy and want to become parents, but those two goals are in conflict insofar as becoming a parent often reduces happiness (e.g., Twenge, Campbell, & Foster, 2003; cf. Nelson et al., in press) 

Baumeister (1991) proposed that the parenthood paradox can be resolved by proposing that people seek not just happiness but also meaning, and so they become parents because the gains in meaningfulness offset any losses in happiness.

The present findings are consistent with that conclusion, which has broader implications for positive  psychology, because they suggest that people will pursue meaningfulness even at the expense of happiness.”

The choice is yours. 

Know the trade-offs. 

Personally, I’m a fan of seeking both happiness and meaning.   I look for the AND, and  find the 3rd alternatives.   Where there’s conflict, I balance it out in a polarity framework sort of way.

You Might Also Like

Happiness is a Skill

The Three Paths of Happiness: The Good Life, The Pleasant Life, and The Meaningful Life

The Way of Happiness: 7 Principles for Happiness

Whiteboard Notes on Happiness


    • I’m with you.

      One thing I really liked about the article is they shined the spotlight on meaningful lives that might not have much happiness. Their point was that people that choose this path can make great contributions, and can provide a lot of value for the greater good.

  1. Reflecting on meaningfulness to offset any losses in happiness is pretty good insight, and a great reminder in any stressful situation. With regard to the “parenthood paradox”, I wonder how people can find meaning in dealing with screaming kids…

    • Stress puts us to the test. A pattern I’ve been using is to ask, “What’s the challenge, and what’s the change?” It quickly turns any situation into a personal development or leadership opportunity.

      As far as parents, my Mom made meaning by saying I was “testing her patience” 😉

  2. Hi 🙂
    I also think in terms of happiness and meaningfulness.
    It is a cultural trait to believe that one is at the expense of the other (meaningful sacrifice, etc).

    Sometimes it leads to unnecessary sacrifice by reverse logic (“if meaningfulness sometimes implies sacrifice, sacrifice always implies meaningfulness”) which is a very depressing criteria to lead your one life!

    However I think that the language and terms of happiness and meaningfulness don’t help us cleave the issue in a helpful way; and I’ve found the classification of eudonic or hedonic satisfaction to be a better way to slice behaviors that may make me happy in a deep sense (and have some meaningfulness) versus the others that may make me ‘happy’ in ephemerous ways.

    When presented with options, a test I use for eudonic satisfaction is “5 years from now, what will my future self be thankful I did?”

    Thanks for the ongoing great posts!

    • Beautiful precision — eudonic vs. hedonic.

      I think a related factor is where we are on Maslow’s stack, and how deep the dissatisfiers are that we’re up against (in a Kano sort of way.) It’s amazing how much an abundance vs. scarcity mindset changes everything.

      Your example of the “5 years from now” test is a great one, because it points out how to join happiness + meaningfulness. If we align our actions to our values, we’ll be happier along the way, and have meaning to go with it.

  3. This is a very interesting article. I believe that the two can be brought together. I have found that the best way to find inspiration in life is through the core values for inspired living: opportunity, prosperity, respect, attitude, and happiness.

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