Not happiness, meaning

A colleague of mine shared this recent article from The Atlantic titled “There’s More to Life than Being Happy” by Emily Esfahani Smith.  The article describes recent research on the difference between living a life in pursuit of happiness and living a life of meaning.

I’d have loosely assumed that the pursuit of meaning has as its outgrowth a high degree of happiness or, putting a finer point on it, of satisfaction.  Which would mean that happiness and meaning are pretty highly correlated.

The researchers came to a different conclusion.  They found that “a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different.  Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a ‘giver.’”

The counter-intuitive piece of the research, for me, is around what a happy life devoid of meaning looks like, and how a life of meaning can sometimes have low degrees of happiness:

Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided… In the meaningful life ‘you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.’  For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing.

Put another way, the pursuit of meaning isn’t always a bed of roses.  It can involve higher degrees of stress and anxiety, it’s characterized by more thinking about the past and the future, rather than the present.  It’s hard work.

And yet it is this work that makes us human.  Smith refers back to the wisdom of psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel’s 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning:

Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is… A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

The people I see making real and lasting change in the world distinguish themselves with their grit and resilience.  And while I believe that the foundation of grit and resilience is character and values, it makes sense that it is also a sense of meaning, of purpose, of “why” that gives people the strength to bear almost any “how.”

Emily Smith’s full article is definitely worth the read.

6 thoughts on “Not happiness, meaning

  1. It interests me to see how even today a lot of research still subscribes to a Newtonian framework of looking at our world and us. The question is either or, this or that, separation instead of relationship. If we start looking at relationships, happiness without meaning becomes pointless, and meaning without happiness dull and frustrating. When we are happy we have higher energy levels, which allows us to connect with the world and the humans around us in a more open way. We are drawn to make a difference. And when we have more energy, we naturally take on more responsibility. When we are happy we find that a sure way to maintain this happiness, and a naturally occurring outlet of feeling it, is to do something for others.
    If we do our work using our grit and resilience we can get far. And eventually we will break down. If we work for others, and with a happy heart, we can do almost anything. And at the end of the day we still smile at everyone who crosses our path, because we know that the even this little connection resplendishes our energy.
    I find some of the people making the biggest difference in our world today do and teach exactly that. To me, that is what it means to be human, to learn that, we are here.

  2. Another way of looking at this in the psychological literature is called ‘orientation to happiness’. it’s the idea that all people pursue happiness, but have different pathways to it: through pleasure, through engagement, and/or through meaning. I expect there would be a lot of variability between individuals, and indeed within an individual over their life course. Here’s a link to some recent research:

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