5 Key Differences Between Meaning and Happiness
We all want to flourish. To have the happiest life possible.
But how do we get there? How do we create an exciting and engaging life?
We all know what being happy feels like. But living the best life possible may be more complicated than you first realize.
It starts with understanding that there are differences between meaning and happiness.
Are There Really Differences Between Meaning and Happiness?
Many of us would probably associate a meaningful life with a happy one. Yes, they are related concepts, but they’re not the same thing.
We usually don’t draw a line between them in normal, every day conversation. Which is why what you hear about happiness in the news might seem contradictory. Psychologists, on the other hand, often have to define the terms to conduct research and measure results on the topic.
So what are they?
First, it’s important to know about the 2 types of happiness.
The first type is known as hedonic happiness. Think of short-term positive emotions like joy and excitement. And then there’s eudaimonic happiness, which deals with longer term outcomes and life satisfaction.
One has to do with a state of feeling, while the other is more about how one is living. But what psychologists define as “meaning in life” falls under the second category of eudaimonic happiness.
Separating Meaning From Happiness
Many times psychologists try to combine the two types of happiness in their research. Because it incorporates both, they’ll call it something different like “subjective well-being” or “psychological well-being.”
Others, however, want to research the differences between meaning and happiness. A great example of this comes from a study in 2014.
The team included heavyweight researcher Roy Baumeister, who is well known for his studies on self-control and his book on the same topic, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
According to Baumeister:
A happy life and a meaningful life have some differences.
They asked close to 400 adults about their happiness, behaviors, health, stress, work, and several other aspects of their lives. Using these responses and a bit of statistical analysis they confirmed that meaning and happiness have a tight, interconnected relationship.
But having one didn’t always mean having the other. When they controlled for happiness and meaning separately, they found that certain behaviors or traits could predict different outcomes.
5 Key Differences Between Meaning and Happiness
So which aspects predict happiness? And what predicts more meaning in life?
The team found 5 main differences between meaning and happiness:
1. Satisfying Your Wants and Desires
People who sought health, money, and a comfortable living were found to be happier. But an easier life had very little to do with meaning.
The researchers concluded that pursuing these things – or satisfying your wants and desires – could bring you happiness, but probably wouldn’t make life meaningful.
2. Present vs. Future and Past
Thinking about the present or being in the moment was associated strongly with happiness.
Other research, especially that of mindfulness meditation, has also shown this to be true and backs up their claim.
Meaning, on the other hand was associated strongly with thinking about the past and future, as well as the relationship between them. They also saw that feelings of meaning lasted longer than happiness in this regard.
3. Taking vs. Giving
Relationships were important for both happiness and meaning. But how people interacted with their social circles made a difference in bringing about one or the other.
Happiness was correlated with getting something from others. These people were labeled as “takers”. For example when you get time or support from friends and colleagues.
Meaning was associated with giving to others, and these people were appropriately labeled as “givers”. Parents are a great example as they give a lot of time and energy to their kids, which gives them meaning in their life.
In short, happiness comes from what you get from others. Meaning comes from what you give others. Parents, in contrast, give a lot of time and energy to their kids, which was associated with meaning.
In a related side note, researchers saw that family relationships were tied to meaning, while friendships were tied more to happiness.
4.Stress and Challenges
We’ve all heard how chronic stress has a lot of negative side effects, especially on our mental and physical health.
The researchers did find that higher levels of stress, worry, and anxiety was associated with lower happiness. But it was also related to more meaning.
Stress can signal when something matters to you. What you care about and your goals. Challenging yourself might be stressful, but it can also helps you grow and be a potent source of meaning.
5. Personal Identity and Self
While happiness was associated with a person’s basic needs and wants, a meaningful life came from expressing and defining oneself.
Meaning was linked to discovering who you are and the values and ideals you adhere to. It’s answering the question “Who am I?” then going out in the world and behaving in a way that is consistent with those values.
Meaning and Happiness Are Highly Connected
So yes, there are differences between meaning and happiness. But some researchers argue that the two can never be completely separated.
Even Baumeister admits there’s overlap:
Having a meaningful life contributes to being happy and being happy may also contribute to finding life more meaningful.
I think that there’s evidence for both of those.
Many psychologists agree that you won’t find one by solely pursuing the other. Studies have shown that pursuing hedonic pleasure can actually reduce long term happiness. It’s an ironic twist, because sometimes trying to be happy can actually backfire and end up making you feel less happy. You also have the issue of the “hedonic treadmill”.
It seems the best way to understand the differences between happiness and meaning is to see it as a type of synergy. They complement and augment one another. And problems can occur if you try to substitute one for the other.
The overall message seems to be this:
To live a truly fulfilling life, we must balance our positive emotions with people and activities that give us deeper purpose and long-term meaning.